It's a matter of degree College: An outreach program at Maryland is bringing athletes back to College Park to get their diplomas.

December 25, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Deborah Ricker Skelly played basketball for the University of Maryland Terrapins from 1972 to 1976. Last Sunday, she graduated.

"I always wanted to complete my degree," she said. "This program made it possible."

Skelly was referring to the Academic Support for Returning Athletes Program, the university's version of a national outreach effort intended to counter the failure of many college players to finish their educations.

Since 1989, half of Maryland's 34 participants have graduated. Among them: basketball players Larry Gibson, Cedric Lewis and Derrick Lewis, football players Rick Badanjek, Alvin Blount and Warren Powers, baseball player David Mysel and soccer player Russell Payne.

Skelly of Glendale is the first woman to participate at Maryland.

"I tried to go back for my degree about 10 years ago, right before this program came into existence, and I didn't get a lot of support," said Skelly, mother of four boys and a girl who range in age from 11 to 22.

"They asked, 'Do you really want to do this?' They weren't encouraging and my children were still young, so I decided, well, OK, maybe I don't -- right now."

Then, two years ago, her husband, Dennis, read about the program. He told her he could do the carpools, the housecleaning and cooking. And Skelly went back, driving to school every day with her oldest son, Dennis Jr., who graduated from College Park in June.

Sunday, the entire family was in Cole Field House to watch her get her diploma.

"It was a great day," said her husband. "It meant a lot of extra work, but I made a promise to her father when we got married that she would get her degree. I've got dishpan hands and I'm hoping they'll come back one day. But it was worth it."

"School for a young athlete can be difficult," Skelly said. "You certainly have to learn time management. But that's not what stopped me. I had dated my husband since I was 16. We were eager to get married. You know, young and in love. And now I have a wonderful family. I wouldn't want to do it differently, but I'm very glad I went back and got my degree."

Skelly earned her degree in kinesiology. Other former players working toward theirs are former basketball player Ernie Graham, majoring in Spanish; former football players Andreal "A. J." Johnson, family studies; Larry Washington, criminal justice; and Clarence Jones, government and politics.

Jones plays offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints. He and his wife, Sherri, take up residence in an area hotel for three weeks in January while he attends classes during winter session.

"That's like an 8-to-5 workday, reading and studying," said Debora Pollock, coordinator of the program. "It takes a lot."

For all the participants, their biggest commitment is time. Besides studying, they must do community service in return for the university's waiving tuition.

They speak to children in middle schools about the value of academics and sports and about positive behavior. They go to town fairs. They talk to youth about the perils that could lie ahead, including drug abuse.

Pollock said most of the returning students are in their senior years with 30 or fewer hours needed for graduation. Some need only one or two classes, but there are also players like Graham, who face two solid years of study.

Most former athletes return after five or six years. But Skelly waited 22 years to graduate, Graham 15 years before signing up.

"Coming back, these students don't have the pressure of practicing and playing ball," Pollock said. "Now, they're juggling child care and job schedules. But this time they have a better sense of purpose. They're serious students."

The Maryland program is based on the one created in 1985 by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports and is designed to help athletes from revenue-producing sports obtain their degrees, no matter how long it has been since they attended the university.

The 179 participating colleges range from universities such as Maryland and Nebraska to "the tiniest schools," said Bill Curry, a former Baltimore Colt who is the chief operating officer of the NCAS based in Florida. "We run the gamut."

Curry, who was football coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky before joining the consortium in July, said that more than 13,000 athletes have returned to study for their degrees and more than 6,000 have graduated in the past 13 years.

In the process, schools have paid $94 million in tuition bills. He also said more than 5 million children have been served by returning students, who must perform a minimum of 10 hours a week of community service.

Maryland's average graduation rate for athletes who remained at the school throughout their athletic and academic eligibility was 88 percent over a nine-year period between 1983-84 and 1991-92.

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