Back To School

By Joanne Norell

It nearly always starts with a promise.

Sometimes it’s a personal one, a pact made within themselves.

Other times, it’s a vow made to Mom, or Dad, or an uncle. A commitment to their communities back home, or a bargain with a coach.

However it starts, though, it nearly always gets finished.

A football scholarship at the University of Notre Dame comes with two promises: the opportunity to compete for a national championship and a world-class college education. Those who accept the challenge tend to be a unique breed, not afraid of the pursuit of excellence both on the field and in the classroom. 

It’s all part and parcel of the “4 for 40” philosophy: “Give four years to this team, and we’ll be there for you for the next 40 years of your career.”

Most make use of their four-year investment consecutively, but for those with the talent, a career in the NFL — the goal of many a collegiate player — may interrupt the timeline.

That was the case for Troy Niklas, Jaylon Smith and Josh Adams, former Irish players who departed for the professional ranks following their junior seasons.

That doesn’t mean that second goal — a college diploma — is abandoned forever. The trio of Niklas, Smith and Adams are proof of that, having each returned to Notre Dame to continue working toward their degrees this spring.

According to the NFL Players Association, about 50 percent of NFL players have their college degrees. Last season, Notre Dame boasted 35 former players on NFL rosters, 27 of whom (or 77 percent) had their degrees in hand. With Niklas, Smith and Adams back on campus this spring, 87.5 percent of former Irish who played in the NFL in 2018-19 either have or are working toward their degrees.

Jaylon Smith

The Decision

An NFL prospect knows that when the league comes calling, it may not call again. 

So when the opportunity presents itself in the form of a draft projection following his junior season, it’s worth serious consideration.

Smith knew after a standout freshman season in 2013 that he stood a chance of becoming a first-round pick if he continued to perform at a high level through his junior year. That he did, earning Second Team All-America recognition by the Associated Press as a sophomore, followed by a consensus All-America season as a junior when he won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker. And though his stock took a hit after a knee injury in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, Smith entered the 2016 NFL Draft and was taken with the second pick of the second round (34th overall) by the Dallas Cowboys.

Two years before, Niklas — a linebacker-turned-tight-end who made the Mackey Award Watch List as a junior with the Irish — took a similar path, going 54th overall to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2014 draft. 

After a Heisman-caliber 2017 season, Adams also decided to forgo his remaining eligibility, eventually signing as a free agent with his hometown Philadelphia Eagles. In 2018, he led the Eagles, who advanced to the NFC Divisional Round, in rushing with 511 yards.

“I had to think about not only what was best for me, but best for my family,” Adams said. “ I just had to take a step back from football and think about what I really wanted. I felt like I gave the University everything I had, like I had worked my heart out and everyone around me supported me. Everybody at the University supported my decision, regardless of what it would be to leave or return, and that meant a lot.”

The decision to enter the NFL is as much a financial decision as an emotional one. Kyler Murray, the top pick of the 2019 draft, can expect to make $34.9 million over the course of a four-year rookie contract. The final pick of the draft is projected to sign a contract worth $2.6 million. Even as one’s earning potential drops the later in the draft they are chosen, there’s no denying that kind of money can be life-changing.

The Return

As life-altering as an NFL career can be, that two-fold promise doesn’t disappear once an Irish player leaves early. From the earliest days of the recruiting process, it’s made clear that their Notre Dame degree will always be waiting for them, no matter the path they choose.

“We certainly talk about why would you come to Notre Dame, and getting a degree and playing for a national championship should be at the forefront of that decision-making process,” said Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly. “Getting the chance to play for a national championship should have the same amount of importance as finishing your degree.”

Adam Sargent, Associate Director of Academic Services for Student-Athletes and academic counselor for football, is a key agent when it comes to emphasizing that message.

“They understand what the demands are at Notre Dame; they understand the academic rigor and that is part of why they chose to come here,” said Sargent. “Because of that, it’s not surprising that when you see students that leave early, they’re aggressive in trying to come back and complete that part of their responsibility.”

Perhaps that made the decision to leave a little easier, knowing they could always come back. Still, at least in the case of Niklas, Smith and Adams, it was a never a question that they would. 

They had promises to keep.

“When I decided to leave after my junior year, I made a pact with myself and with my mother that I was going to come back and finish my degree,” Smith said. “When (the Cowboys) lost in the playoffs this year, I told myself, ‘You know what, the time is now. I need to go back and I need to finish my degree at the University.’ I hadn’t been here in three years, and the longer you wait, the harder it is.”

“It’s just about finishing what you started, and the Notre Dame degree is incredibly important to me,” Niklas echoed. “It was a promise I made to my mom before I left that I would come back and finish. (My family’s) definitely held me accountable; my uncle has given me (a hard time) about it like, ‘You don’t want to be 35 going back and getting your degree,’ so those are some external factors that have helped. Plus, the friends that I made on campus, like the guys in my dorm, were always giving me (a hard time) for not being a graduate, so that’s always a little extra motivation.”

Freshman RB Josh Adams.

The Balancing Act

The stage of life Niklas and Smith find themselves in offers them the perspective that only time can. Niklas, five years removed from his first college stint, is now married with a one-year-old daughter. Smith has spent three years away, but has built a side career as an investor and entrepreneur and has launched the Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneurship Institute, which aims to connect investors with quality minority-owned investment opportunities.

While the transition back into the classroom is more challenging having been away, the significance of that education and its application to their lives is clearer than ever.

“Having left and come back, you can really see how the material transfers into your life,” Niklas said. “Being away and realizing how important it is to do well in the classroom and how that can affect you once you graduate has definitely helped me a lot. … There are a lot of things that go into being a professional athlete and just because you graduate college or get drafted doesn’t mean you’re a pro. How do you take those frameworks and use them in school? It’s worked well for me to take the things I’ve learned and apply them to the classroom.”

The college curriculum is fresher for Adams, who has spent just a year away from campus. But Adams is the rarity. His quick return speaks to the importance he placed on having his NFL career and getting his Notre Dame diploma, too.

“The hardest step is getting back and getting into the flow of things because I’ll be the first male in my family to finish college, so that’s also very close to my heart and one of the reasons why I need to get this done, not just for myself, but for my family,” Adams said. “It was a blessing in itself to go to college. Football has opened a lot of doors for me and allowed me to go different places and meet new people. I had an amazing time here. At the same time, I know I can’t play football forever; no matter how much I love it, I’ll only be able to play for so long. … That fact of me being the first male in my family to graduate from college will last forever and I can take that as long as I live.”

Getting back into an academic groove is certainly one challenge Smith, Niklas and Adams have had to contend with, but also balancing their academic responsibilities with their very real NFL obligations. 

Senior academic advisor Kenny Thomas remembers taking phone calls from Smith and Adams as they were coming off the practice field this past season as they worked through the logistics of their return. 

Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

That kind of multitasking only intensified as plans came into focus and the time came for classes to begin. The realities of managing — in Smith’s case — a 21-credit-hour workload with entrepreneurial pursuits and an NFL training regimen, requires discipline. So, too, do the demands of family life, in the case of Niklas. 

That can be part of the fun.

“I always operate the best when I have a lot of things coming at me, so going to school and having a family and training and all that, it doesn’t take away from anything. It enhances everything. Inspiration from one fuels the next,” Niklas said. “This is probably the most fun I’ve had in the offseason and the most work I’ve put in in all three realms (family, school, football) because I feel like everything’s really fueling the fire.”

Making it a bit easier is the work academic services does with student-athletes — even beginning in their freshman year — preparing for the possibility of an early exit for the NFL. The approach is calculated to structure their courseloads so that their eventual return is as undaunting as possible. 

Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

The message is clear: we want you to come back, and we’ll give you every resource to help you be successful.

“We’re very proactive in making sure, before they leave to pursue their professional careers, that they understand they have access and that we want them to return to finish their degree,” Thomas said. “We’re very transparent about that, letting them know that they do have those options regardless of their decision. … At the end of the day, you only get one chance (as a professional athlete), so if that’s something you want to do, of course, take it. But know there’s value to this education and there’s always the opportunity to come back. They hear about it from day one until the time they make those decisions.”

The responsibilities of family and career add a new wrinkle to the academic experience, but even as Smith flew back and forth from Dallas, Adams took advantage of the Irish training facilities or Niklas balanced studying with seeing his daughter take her first steps, they’ve found ways to make it work. Most of the time, that’s simply developing a relationship of open communication with their professors and advisors so that when conflict arises, it’s easily addressed.

Indeed, Adams and Smith had to plan for the possibility they might miss the first three weeks of the semester as both the Eagles and Cowboys competed in the playoffs.

“I told my professors that this thing might go on a little while, but even if it does, I still want to try to come back,” Adams said. “It might have been that one day after the Super Bowl I’d have to come here, but the professors understood and a lot of them were understanding that there would be make-up work on my end to get the material and play catch-up a little bit. It was worth it because of all the motivation I had to come back.”

The Payoff

Adams and Niklas still have work to do, and they’ll be back in future semesters to finally complete that work. Smith, however, completed his final seven classes in May and walked across the graduation stage on May 19 with the Class of 2019.

This is just the beginning. With plans to pursue a master’s degree at some point down the line, Smith is always looking to expand his opportunities.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in life,” Smith said. “To go back and finish school, there’s value in the right education.”

For Niklas, the completion of his business degree will mean more options, be they in football, business, medicine, or some combination thereof. Adams has an eye toward coaching once his playing days are over. 

If they’ve learned one thing, it’s that it’s never too late to finish what they started.

“I want people to know that it’s OK to go and chase your dreams and try to accomplish everything in the world you have your mind set out to do; you can always go back to whatever you left if that’s what you want,” Adams said. “This is me getting that thing that I want.”

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