At this point of the coronavirus pandemic, you’re well aware that these are uncertain times. But for would-be graduates, these are also uniquely disappointing times. COVID-19 has forced the Class of 2020 to miss out on a major milestone: graduation day.
The inability to host in-person commencement ceremonies (due to social distancing guidelines) is a plight that resonated with NBA superstar LeBron James. On Saturday, King James is helping to broadcast a prime-time TV special, “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” to celebrate the students whose graduations were canceled. The show will feature a slew of celebrities, ranging from Megan Rapinoe to the Jonas Brothers.
James said his decision to get involved in the event was a no-brainer, explaining: “The end of high school and graduation was one of the best memories of my life. It’s not fair. Every graduating senior needs to know how much we feel for them, and hopefully this can help, even a little. This class is going to be special because they know in a real way how to persevere.”
With all the talk of graduation, we couldn’t help but think of the athletes who went to extreme lengths to earn their degrees at the college ranks.
As the mercurial Kanye West once rapped: “I know I act a fool but I promise you I’m goin’ back to school … I appreciate what you allowed for me. I just want you to be proud of me.”
To the best of my knowledge, none of these athletes acted a fool, but the sentiment remains.
Despite their incredible athletic feats that allowed them to turn professional at early ages, all of these superstars made good on their promises — to themselves and to loved ones — to go back to campus to get their degrees:
If you thought Aaron Donald peaked when he earned a 99 rating in Madden, think again. The Los Angeles Rams superstar, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and six-time Pro Bowler added to his résumé in April when he officially became a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Donald, who finished his career at Pitt in 2013 and was a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft, committed to finishing school and earning a degree in communication.
Celebrated NFL safety Troy Polamalu began studying at the University of Southern California in 1999. He was just shy of finishing his degree in history when he was he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003. At age 30, Polamalu used the NFL lockout as an opportunity to complete a long-term goal. After graduating in 2011, the eight-time Pro Bowler wrote on his website, “I decided to finish what I started and walked that stage today not only because it was very important to me personally, but because I want to emphasize the importance of education, and that nothing should supersede it.”
In May 2016, Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman missed out on an infamous bench-clearing brawl between his team and the Texas Rangers because he had a more pressing matter to attend to, namely graduating from Duke University. Stroman finished the work required for his sociology degree while rehabbing from an ACL tear. “I never thought I’d say I was thankful for tearing my ACL, but I am, because I grew so much as an individual. I was able to get my degree and I got stronger mentally, physically, through it all. I’m in a great position now, and that has a large part to do with the summer I had at Duke University,” he said.
— Marcus Stroman (@STR0) May 15, 2016
Nothing says Class of 2020 like a surprise virtual graduation ceremony. When Detroit Pistons guard Jordan Bone went on SportsCenter for the “Feel Good Friday” segment, it was under the guise that he was getting some recognition for his Mother’s Day surprise: The former Vols star finished his college degree in secret over the past year and surprised his mom, Karen, with the news on Mother’s Day. Instead, he ended up graduating from the University of Tennessee on-air.
Cam Newton made a promise to his mom, Jackie, that he would graduate from college, even before he arrived to lead the Auburn Tigers back in 2010. The Heisman Trophy winner stayed true to his word. Newton graduated in 2015, though he didn’t walk across the stage, citing a desire to keep the focus on the other graduates. Respect. The former Carolina Panthers quarterback elaborated on why his sociology degree meant so much to him: “I want to own my own daycare center. I think sociology has done so much great for me in understanding people and different attitudes, the study of people, and hopefully that will pay dividends in the long run.”
Venus Williams, tennis star and overachiever. In 2007, Williams earned an associate degree from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. In 2015, she also earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Indiana University East. Williams completed her coursework online and was able make a pit stop at the campus to pick up her diploma as she traveled to play at the Western Southern Open.
Shaquille O’Neal left college early to pursue his NBA career. Eight years later, the Big Aristotle graduated with his bachelor’s degree from LSU. Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers agreed for O’Neal to miss a game so he could receive his diploma. University chancellor Mark A. Emmert said at the time, ″I’d like to thank Mr. O’Neal for dramatically increasing the starting salary of this graduating class.″ Chancellor’s got jokes. In 2012, Shaq earned a doctorate in education from Barry University, and Dr. O’Neal was added to his long list of nicknames.
The GOAT never slept on the importance of education. Michael Jordan studied in Chapel Hill before he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. Despite his legendary success in the NBA, Jordan went back to UNC to finish his bachelor’s degree in geography. “My father used to say that it’s never too late to do anything you wanted to do,” he told The New York Times. “And he said, ‘You never know what you can accomplish until you try.'”
That’s Michelle Kwan, master of international relations to you. The two-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion took her first college classes at UCLA in fall 1999, before leaving to focus on her figure skating career. In 2009, Kwan graduated from the University of Denver with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. The beloved icon continued her education by earning a master’s degree in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2011.
May 20, 2001, was an equally joyous and disastrous day for Vince Carter. It started off with Carter fulfilling a promise to his mom and accepting his college diploma at the University of North Carolina. It ended with him missing a potential game winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Philadelphia. When the 76ers eliminated his Toronto Raptors, fans were quick to question (read: criticize relentlessly) Vinsanity’s decision.