The past few weeks colleges across the country have held their graduation ceremonies. Among those participating were several Raiders players who, well into their NFL careers, finished their college educations. In particular Amari Cooper, Bruce Irvin, Gabe Jackson, and Jylan Ware all completed their degrees.
Naturally the Raiders organization is very proud of their players accomplishments; “We’ve been celebrating that internally for the last couple of weeks,” said head coach Jon Gruden.
There is an overarching message here, that speaks to the character, work ethic, and drive of these players. Gruden sees it as a mindset that translates onto the field as well.
“We talk about finishing,” said Gruden. “That’s a big word here in football with the Raiders. Finish the game. Finish the drive. Finish the play. And finish your education is more important than all of that.”
Many NFL players were able to finish their degrees before they entered the NFL. Some left just a few classes shy. Or in the case of Jackson, just one statistics class — ironic for an offensive lineman being that they don’t have much in the way of statistics.
Jackson, who signed a blockbuster extension last offseason, said he completed his degree and walked in the ceremony for his mom.
Cooper had a few more classes to left to receive his degree in Criminal Justice because he left school for the NFL after his junior year.
“I just wanted to finish what I started,” said Cooper. “It was important for me to go back and get that degree.”
For Bruce Irvin, it was probably the most important. So important, in fact, he put it up there with the ultimate NFL accomplishment.
“It was big,” Irvin said of getting his degree. “Being the situation I came from, since I dropped out and got my GED, the odds were stacked up against me to get my Bachelor’s degree. It was a surreal moment. I kind of put it up there with the Super Bowl, neck and neck.”
Getting a degree wasn’t always a priority for Irvin. The 7-year NFL veteran had just 12 hours left to complete his Sociology degree. It wasn’t that it took him a long time to do it, it’s that it took him a while to realize how much it meant to him to do it.
“When I came out, my first check was $2.5 million. I wasn’t thinking about going back to West Virginia after that,” Irvin said. “As I’ve grown, had a son, it became more and more important to me each year. I said, that’s one thing they can’t take from me. They can take this football stuff from me, they can take everything else, but that degree is forever. I’ll always be a college graduate of West Virginia University.”
Having his son — who is almost five years old now — was a major factor in Irvin’s need to complete his degree. He wanted to let his son know his dad is more than a football player, “He put education up there right along with his job. It was bigger than me. It was for my son and his kids and generations after me.”
An interesting wrinkle to Irvin’s efforts to get his degree is he credits it for his now widely recognized community service work. The University allowed him to put together a portfolio which included community work in order to complete the final few hours. And it opened a whole new passion for Irvin.
“That’s how I actually started getting into the community, because I had to go out and do it for my degree and I actually liked it,” said Irvin. “I thought, ‘Dang, I actually like doing this,’ so that’s when I really got into it, going into the community and feeding the homeless and stuff like that.”
Finishing begets finishing. Whether it be your education, you community efforts, or in the context of a game, a drive, or a play. Either it matters to you or it doesn’t. Winners finish. Losers make excuses.