Finishing unfinished business for Notre Dame football players is becoming the new reality

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Troy Niklas has a bounce in his step, a Notre Dame baseball cap on his head and a dream caroming around in his mind about how his last four months will eventually play out, as he settles into a chair at the Duncan Student Center.

In five mostly star-crossed NFL seasons, the former Irish tight end and second-round NFL Draft pick has amassed 11 more career catches than he has surgeries (8). The latest of those operations partially explains why on a Friday afternoon in early May, Niklas just finished the last of five college final exams instead of gearing up for OTAs in some pro team’s facility.

The modest statistical dent Niklas has logged since making the decision to go three-and-out at ND in January of 2014 also renders why he was able to attend to his unfinished business this spring semester in South Bend in such relative anonymity.

“Not one person asked to take a selfie with me since I’ve been back, but that would have been pretty funny if they did,” said the 26-year-old, who picked up in January where he left off five years ago with five classes and 13 ½ credit hours toward his business degree in consulting.

“It’s been more like, ‘Who’s this big guy in my class and how come I’ve never seen him before?’ That kind of effect. It’s been pretty normal.”

Except that coming back in itself is not normal. Not yet anyway, but that appears to be changing — rather suddenly and emphatically at Notre Dame.

In 1989, the NFL first opened its doors to players three years removed from high school to legally wade into the draft pool as early entries. Consensus All-America cornerback Julian Love in January became No. 17 from Notre Dame to go three-and-out since the rule came into being.

All-America receiver/return man Rocket Ismail in 1991 was the first Irish football player to test the rule, and the first to come back and get his degree. Only three others — cornerback Tom Carter, running back Darius Walker and quarterback Jimmy Clausen — have followed, in finishing what they started.

On Sunday, a fifth player joins them — former All-America linebacker and current Dallas Cowboy Jaylon Smith, who will pick up his degree in film and television at Purcell Pavilion. He took a stunning 21 credit hours this semester— seven three-hour courses — to make it happen.

“Education matters, and the right education matters even more,” Smith said in a phone interview earlier this week. “The University of Notre Dame, it instills so many quality things in me.

“It’s about relationships. Being able to work with and be in sync with the right people. That’s what coming back will do for me.”

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith here celebrates a big stop against Michigan in 2014. Sunday, he hoped to celebrate getting his ND degree in the same facility, Notre Dame Stadium. Bad weather coaxed the ceremony inside, to Purcell Pavilion.

Niklas, still open to an NFL return, and former Irish running back Josh Adams made the decision to return this semester, but already have started to soak in the benefits. Niklas came back with wife Chloe (Saganowich), a former star shortstop for the ND softball team, and now 13-month-old daughter Romy in tow.

Niklas still has nearly 20 credit hours remaining after this semester, and Adams, an undrafted rookie with the Eagles in 2018, has more work ahead, too.

“They gave me the option to walk this spring,” Niklas said of Sunday’s ceremony that includes 2,025 undergraduates getting diplomas. “I just kind of want to walk when I’m fully done with all my classes and I’m ready to move on. I want to save that so it can be a special moment.”

Not that restarting isn’t special in itself. Former All-America defensive end and current Pittsburgh Steeler Stephon Tuitt is set to become returnee No. 8 this summer, a deferred promise kept that first floored, then thrilled his mother when she stumbled onto the news.

“The only reason I agreed to let him come out early was that he said he’d come back within a year, which he did not,” said Tamara Bartlett-Tuitt, a deputy in the Gwinnett (Ga.) County sheriff’s department. “I’m glad he sees the importance of it now. Football is not for life.”

And the recently drafted fourth-round pick Love told the Tribune that his plan is to return next spring semester after his rookie year with the New York Giants is complete, making him returnee No. 9.

“Before I even thought about declaring and was focusing on football stuff, I met with my business advisers and academic advisers to see if it was possible and how easy that transition back would be,” he said. “That was of utmost importance to me.

“They made it clear. They gave me the guideline, so I’m running with it. That relationship between me and academics is really close. I still text my advisers, because that is critical. I’m not going to waste three years of going to class at Notre Dame to not get a degree.

“That’s something I have to finish. So within the year, I’ll have that.”

Tackling a new reality

There is a cascade of statistics and anecdotal cautionary tales that counteract the notion that the financial windfalls heaped upon 20-year-olds by a first NFL contract are airtight happily-ever-after scenarios.

Beyond the NFL Players Association’s figure of a 3.3-year-long average length for an NFL career, the National Bureau of Economic Research compounds that with these numbers: 78 percent of NFL players will go broke within three years of the end of that career span, and 15.7 percent will file for bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the league.

Meanwhile, Newsday reported that the NFLPA in 2017 conducted a survey of 763 former NFL players, the upshot of which was that 61 percent said “they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their career, while 85 percent said they did not believe the NFL adequately prepared them for the transition.”

None of that has slowed the perpetual spike of underclassmen nationwide entering the draft. This past cycle the number of early entries was a record 144, a number that included 41 players who had either completed their course work or received their degrees.

Forty-nine of the 144 were not among the 254 players selected in the three-day, seven round-draft, April 25-27.

Rocket Ismail was the first Notre Dame player to take advantage of the NFL's three-and-out rule and the first to come back and get his ND degree.

Three of Notre Dame’s 17 three-and-outs over the years, incidentally, have gone undrafted, the latest of which was Adams in the spring of 2018. That’s the same number of first-round picks (3) from the Irish group (Carter, Jerome Bettis and Will Fuller).

Bettis is one of few Lou Holtz-Era players the iconic Irish head coach from 1986-96 actually nudged toward the door after three seasons in South Bend. As far as most of the others in a similar position?

“I kept reminding them from their freshman year on, ‘Remember when I was in your home recruiting you, and the one question you had was, ‘Are you going to be there my four years?’ ” Holtz related. “And I said, ‘Yeah, are you going to be there my four years?’ ”

Current ND coach Brian Kelly loved and embraced the Holtz philosophy but was confronted by a much different reality.

Just four Notre Dame players left after their junior seasons during the first 18 years of underclassman draft eligibility. Clausen and star wide receiver Golden Tate, both eventual second-rounders, announced their early departures in a joint press conference less than a week before Kelly was named Charlie Weis’ successor as head coach in December of 2009.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph left the next offseason. Then after two years of no declarations, nine early departures came in the past six draft cycles, starting with Niklas, Tuitt and running back George Atkinson III in 2014. A fourth early entry that year, nose guard Louis Nix III, had his degree and turned down a fifth-year option.

Kelly anticipated Tuitt and Nix leaving. Both were projected first-rounders at the time they declared, who eventually slipped to rounds 2 and 3, respectively. Niklas, though, blind-sided Kelly, and the coach did not take it well.

“I knew it was a possibility from the time I was being recruited,” Niklas said of leaving early. “And we talked about it at that time, but I probably could have handled it better, been more up front about how seriously I was considering leaving early when it came time to make that decision.”

Kelly’s fury gave way to an evolution in his thinking and eventually became a new blueprint that made it more attractive for the three-and-outs to take care of unfinished business.

“I just couldn’t wrap my head around guys leaving early without their degrees, and the number of them who were doing it, beginning with Troy and that class,” Kelly said. “So we went and did something about it.”

A philosophical shift on the part of ND coach Brian Kelly (left) has made it more attractive for Irish players like Jaylon Smith (9) to come back and complete their work toward a degree.

Building the bridge

The NFLPA counts roughly 50 percent of current NFL players as having degrees, and a portion of that are the product of the many programs the players union offers to get current and former players back in the classroom.

It’s working. What had been an average of 125 players a year taking advantage of the program over the past decade surged to 181 this past year, according to the NFL's Player Engagement Department.

And it’s not just for undergraduates. ND’s Tom Carter, who works for the NFLPA these days, got his master’s degree in business administration from Indiana in 2017.

Included in the many NFLPA initiatives is a tuition reimbursement program in which players can earn up to $60,000 (lifetime) based on their time in the league.

Adam Sargent is the face of players transitioning back to Notre Dame’s campus. The 1999 ND grad is the school’s associate director of academic services for student-athletes as well as the academic counselor for football.

He pulls the logistical threads together once players arrive back on campus. And he and others in his office also intermittently remind those who left without a degree about things like readmission deadlines.

“But it’s a real dance,” Sargent said, “because for many of this group, the ability or opportunity to come back — certainly to commit for a whole semester — oftentimes, is a result of an injury or some other adversity related to his athletics.”

Finances are not an issue, though. Whatever the NFLPA doesn’t cover in terms of cost of attendance, Notre Dame does.

“Ultimately, if they were full scholarship students when they were here as undergrads, they’re going to experience the same benefit when they return,” he said. “And then they’re not going to pay out of pocket.”

The NFLPA has all kinds of degree programs that make it more convenient for players to finish — online classes, classes at campuses close to the players’ homes or training facilities.

The extra layer in getting a Notre Dame degree is that most of the finishing work must take place on ND’s campus, especially classes in the player’s major, with rare exception. Smith did come back to South Bend, but he was deliberate in having all his major courses done before he went into the draft.

That set him up for some mild flexibility that he never exercised.

“You can take some general electives at another institution to transfer back as long as there’s pre-approval from the dean,” Sargent said.

Online opportunities are even more scarce, though Niklas is going to be able to knock out six credit hours that way this summer from his home in Phoenix. That’ll leave him 13 ½ in one final sojourn in South Bend.

“They’re different from a lot of online experiences,” Sargent said of the ND digital experience. “Those classes require presence. It’s not necessarily a self-paced experience.

“They’re taught in a way where the students need to be in front of their computer at certain times during the week in order to be participating in a digital learning environment. It’s really like a classroom.”

How Kelly super-charged a very workable framework for a happy academic ending was to build a culture and an environment that made a return stay in South Bend more appealing.

For instance, he started daily 2 p.m. lifts with director of football performance Matt Balis and his staff. That was not only for players who had unfinished academic business but for those who wanted to get back to the NFL.

“You could see why these ND teams have had success,” Niklas said of his experience with Balis. “They’re difficult programs, where you push yourself every day and they definitely get you in shape.”

Troy Niklas (right) celebrates a 23-13 win over BYU in 2013 in what turned out to be his final game in Notre Dame Stadium.

Players have full access to facilities and personnel to rehab injuries with trainer Rob Hunt and his staff, and Niklas took full advantage of that too.

“Working with the NFLPA, Beth Rex, my assistant, has been the lead on this in terms of creating a very comfortable place for them to be where providing them the resources necessary for them to feel like, ‘This is something we can accomplish,' Kelly said.

“But there was a lot we had to do from the inside out.”

Working with Sargent to get players on a track where they were in a position to have their course work done in 3 ½ years was one step. Developing leadership groups in the younger classes came later after the hard lessons of a 4-8 season in 2016, but it’s still a product of a positive response to early departures.

“If we’re going to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk,” Kelly said. “And now these guys are walking it too.

“Each one of them is motivated in different ways. But I think at the end of the day, it’s finishing what they started and then recognizing the value of the Notre Dame degree and the power of it. Those two things have been pretty much what has driven most of these guys.”

Not that they’re perfect, though Niklas said he thinks there’s a chance he may have gotten all A’s in his five classes.

“What I wasn’t good was changing diapers,” he said with a laugh. “Thankfully, my wife took over that. And thankfully, she bought into this, because it wasn’t easy for her.

“You can go back in your mind and replay whether coming out early was the best thing for me, and I still don’t have an answer to that. What’s important is that I came back. I believe it will open doors and a lot of possibilities.”

Former Notre Dame football standouts Troy Niklas (left), Jaylon Smith (center) and Josh Adams were back in school this semester, with Smith picking up his ND diploma on Sunday.