Terms like “student-athlete” are easy to make fun of in a billions-of-dollars business like college football, and the quips are often understandable. Given how much time college athletes spend on their sport between practice, workouts, games and travel, the easiest of jokes says that, at the least, the order of the words ought to be reversed.
It took several years to make it happen, but Dan Mullen is doing his part at Mississippi State to end some of those jokes. Like any football team in the country, Mullen’s has academic standards which must be met in order to maintain eligibility and continue playing. At times, players have not met those and have thus not been allowed to play. However, in other circumstances, MSU’s players have not only fulfilled the requirements, they’ve far exceeded them.
Every time Mullen’s Bulldogs take the field this season, four of them will do so as college graduates – SEC football players who have already earned their degrees. To boot, all four of them are starters, one on defense and three on offense, all of whom are continuing their education as they continue their careers.
“We’re not just trying to keep guys eligible, or push them through or do the bare minimum,” Mullen said. “We love for guys to graduate in three and a half years. If the plan works out and you’re a guy who happens to redshirt, you have the opportunity to go earn a master’s degree. That’s really a plan we’ve had in place. It takes a couple years to get it rolling and implemented. Now that it is, we expect all our guys to get their degree.”
The plan is pretty straightforward. Enroll in June before your freshman year, take class in the June and July terms, take a standard full-time load in the fall and spring semesters, return to summer school the next June and July terms, then continue the cycle until you find yourself walking across the graduation stage and shaking hands with the President, diploma in hand.
If you manage to get to campus early like senior quarterback Dak Prescott did, the plan moves even faster and gets even easier. Prescott graduated high school early, enrolling at MSU in January of what would have otherwise have been his last semester of high school. By the time Prescott was in Miami for the Orange Bowl this past December, he was a junior in his first year as the full-time starter and he already had a diploma to hang on his wall – or locker, if he prefers.
For him, the benefit has been more than just finishing his education and having an opportunity to get his master’s. After the last couple years of record-breaking performances, Prescott has become a combination of hero and celebrity around Starkville and MSU’s campus, making things like attending class, shopping for groceries and going out to eat a much more difficult ordeal. With his undergraduate education complete, he’s been able to take all of his classes online, offering him an unperturbed academic experience, while also allowing himself more time to study film, work on his game and, of course, do interviews and sign autographs.
“It means a lot [to have graduated],” Prescott said. “I’m taking grad school classes now and they can be a little time-consuming and busy, but I can also focus a lot of my time right here with the coaching staff getting in the gameplan and working on plays and stuff like that.”
The NFL is the next step in the plan for Prescott, one of the team’s four captains, but as far back as his sophomore season, he’d tell anyone who listened that he knows the game of football owes him nothing. Professional football may work out. But if not, he’s prepared for the career of coaching he plans to have either way.
While his accelerated track to graduation protected him off the field, the people who protect Prescott on the field have had the same success. Two of MSU’s offensive linemen are playing the 2015 season with degrees in hand as guard Justin Malone and tackle Justin Senior join Prescott as MSU graduates.
Senior’s story is particularly impressive, as he’s only a junior. Enrolling a semester early after moving to Starkville from Canada, Senior followed the direction his mother and Mullen had both given him.
When asked why he cared so much to finish his degree so soon, Senior scoffed a bit at the premise of the question, considering it a natural thing for anyone to be devoted to academics.
“I wouldn’t say I necessarily stressed graduating early,” Senior said. “It’s more like something that should be done. My mom put that in me from a young age. You’ve got to get your grades. School is school. You’ve got to get good grades and you’ve got to finish.”
Rather than work on a master’s, Senior is actually getting a second undergraduate degree, pairing sociology with the political science he’s already finished and enjoyed. Looking back, his favorite teachers helped guide him, Whit Waide and Dr. Brian Shoup in the political science department. Looking ahead, Senior isn’t sure what he wants to do after football, whenever it ends, but he did say he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to sit at a desk all day.
“A job like journalism, there’s variety in your day,” Senior remarked to the reporter interviewing him, before continuing to joke, “it doesn’t look that hard. Just talk to people all day.”
Senior lines up on Saturdays at right tackle, while three spots over, Malone is the starter at left guard. Senior knows the team as a whole has been getting better grades lately – including an all-time high team GPA during the 2014 fall semester – but he’s not at all surprised to find that exactly half of the team’s current graduates reside on the line.
“The offensive linemen, we always get good grades, anyway,” Senior joked.
Malone, a senior communication major who has been named to the All-SEC Academic Honor Roll, is a Madison, Mississippi native who signed in the same class as Prescott. While he didn’t enroll early, he still managed to graduate well before his eligibility was out.
He’s proud of his accomplishments on the field, which are many, but that degree means more than any of it to Malone, the first in his family to graduate. His mom, he began ticking off on his fingers, his dad, his sister – none graduated college. Although, he’s quick to brag on his older brother who is on track to get his degree soon, joining his little brother in the world of college graduates.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate,” Malone said. “So, why not, if they’re going to keep paying for my education, get another degree?”
Which is exactly what he’s doing. At 22 years old, Malone is still trying to figure out what to do with his life when football ends. With a passion for writing, he hopes to pen a novel one day. He’d like to run his own business, too. And especially, he wants to travel.
“I’ve been a lot of places in the United States,” he said. “I want to go to South America, Europe, Asia. Just travel the world.”
Finally comes the man up for just about every academic award the school, conference and all of college football have to offer – senior cornerback and team captain Taveze Calhoun. A fifth-year senior who redshirted as a freshman, Calhoun is the perfect example of the type of players Mullen is trying to mold. When MSU’s head coach talks about taking high school kids and developing them into men who are ready for the real world, whatever it may hold, Calhoun is his poster boy.
A three-year starter who has been on academic honor roll every year he’s been on campus, Calhoun was barely recruited out of high school. In fact, he only made it to MSU when a spot in the signing class opened up at the last minute. Mullen still remembers the day he went to Morton, Mississippi to see one of the most highly-recruited players in the southeast, a teammate of Calhoun’s, when the principal of the high school pulled Mullen aside.
“This is the guy you want,” the principal informed Mullen after telling him about the lesser-known Calhoun.
Four years and a few months later, Calhoun walked across the stage at Mississippi State, accepted his diploma and shook the President’s hand. This fall, classes and practices both continue for the team captain.
“Every time you get an opportunity,” Calhoun said, “you should make the best of it. Football is not forever … I don’t want to be the guy to come back and say, ‘I wish I would have done this.’ I want to give 100 percent in everything I do in my time at Mississippi State, because it is limited. I don’t want to have any regrets. I gave it all in the classroom and on the football field. No regrets.”
Calhoun’s playing career may last another 10 years. It might end with this, his senior season. As he himself said, football isn’t forever, either way, and all it takes is one play to bring it all crashing down. But Calhoun is prepared for the day he has to take the pads off for the last time, whenever it may come.
Everything football gave to him, Calhoun plans to give right back when his time arrives.
“I want to be a coach or a mentor,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of coaches throughout my high school and college career who were important in my life and made a difference in my life. They encouraged me to do good in school and in football. I want to give the same thing to some kids. A lot of people I know, they lack that and kind of go down their own path. If I could reach one or two people like somebody reached me – I think the greatest thing you can do for somebody is impact their life in a positive way. That’s something I want to do after football.”