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Some NFL players defy stereotypes by going back to school

By Mike Kerwick The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT) • Updated Jan 25, 2014 at 12:38 AM

He cannot camouflage his frame. In any classroom of any size, Kareem McKenzie will not be able to blend into the background.

McKenzie is 6 feet 6. At the tail end of his playing career, he weighed 327 pounds. On a football field, this proved useful. He opened holes for Curtis Martin and Tiki Barber. He provided space and time for Eli Manning.

Now that size makes him stick out like a sore thumb.

Oh, sure, McKenzie will say that nobody recognizes him. That he is just another student at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. That he is dogged by the same challenges as his peers.

This past autumn, McKenzie spent three days a week in college classrooms, chasing a master’s degree in professional counseling. Five months into a three-year program, he finds it more rewarding than his old line of work.

Is it harder for a football player – someone who for years had his joints ravaged, his body pummeled, his head smashed – to hop back inside a classroom?

“I wouldn’t necessarily say harder,” McKenzie said during a recent phone interview. “Why would you assume harder?

“It’s just like anything else. People mistake that football is just a game that can be played by anybody. It takes a great deal of discipline and studying and a good deal of knowledge to know the different integral pieces (and) how you fit into that puzzle and how it plays out in the theater of the game.”

Gargantuan frames are fabulous masks for intellect. Hundreds of former Jets and Giants have gone back inside university settings and performed at high levels. Some took classes during their playing careers. Others went back after retirement. A few, like McKenzie, have pursued advanced degrees.

Some still find it hard to shake the dumb-jock stereotype.

“I get that all the time,” said former Giants captain George Martin. “I did a lecture last night in Connecticut. The people are somewhat amazed. ‘I didn’t know you could speak so well.’ What did you expect? … You have to be, to some degree, very intelligent to be able to navigate the media capital of the world.”

Martin led a parade of Giants through Farleigh Dickinson’s degree-completion program. As a student at the University of Oregon, Martin was an art education major. But the lab work he needed to get done often conflicted with football practice.

The day he was drafted, Martin was almost a year shy of the credits he needed to earn his degree.

A few years later, around the same time Martin was helping the Giants become a championship contender, Ken Vehrkens was putting together a back-to-school program for athletes. Vehrkens, the current dean of Farleigh Dickinson’s Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies, stumbled upon a Sports Illustrated article that said 84 percent of NFL players did not have a bachelor’s degree.

He began brainstorming. He reached out to the Giants and was surprised when former general manager George Young took his call. Together they carved the foundation for a program that still exists today.

“Bill Parcells let us use a team meeting room in the old stadium to do registration,” Vehrkens said.

Sixteen players enrolled that first year, including Martin, Harry Carson and Leonard Marshall. Brad Daluiso took classes there. Brandon Jacobs, Danny Woodhead and Chase Blackburn have taken advantage of the program.

Former third-round pick Roman Oben not only got his master’s at Farleigh Dickinson, but he now teaches a course in sports administration at the school.

“There’s a stereotype about college football players that they are not capable as students,” Vehrkens said. “The reality is that many are extremely bright. … We found many of them to be excellent students.”

McKenzie is 34. He had earned his undergraduate degree from Penn State. After retiring, he went searching for something more, a way to fill those idle hours and add meaning to his life.

“You can go to the gym as much as you want,” McKenzie said. “But I’ve already been working out for the past 25 years. … It’s really nothing that you’ve changed in terms of what you’re doing.”

He started classes in September, not sure exactly what to expect. But he found the classroom a “welcome and warm environment,” a place where educators believed in what he wanted to accomplish.

“I think he has a good sense of people,” said Paula Danzinger, director of William Paterson’s professional counseling program. “He’s very personable. … He certainly has the maturity that some other students might not.”

McKenzie acknowledged that he is “trying to play catch-up with those graduate students who actually have an undergraduate degree in psychology … or counseling.” But he is not cowed by the task.

At the end of two years, he hopes to be out in the field. His end goal is to help improve the lives of retired athletes and military veterans.

So is it more rewarding than all those years he spent on a football field?

“It’s more rewarding, I would say,” McKenzie said, “because this facet of my life is different than it was when I was playing. I find a different sense of purpose, a different sense of calling and something that allows me to use my past experiences to help others.”

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