The NFL season is a grueling five month endeavor that begins in a fiery August and ends in a frozen January (or February). Along the way, players get understandably tired, and use the first few weeks of the offseason to decompress and relax.
Some go home to reacquaint with family and friends, while others fly to remote locations to get away.
And then there is rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who flew back to West Lafayette, Ind. to finish up his undergraduate degree at Purdue. Classes began on Monday, Jan. 9, a mere eight days after the final pro game of his rookie season.
“I’m taking five classes this semester and then I’ll have a little bit more to go after that,” he told me last week. “I switched majors late in my career, so that kind of set me back a bit, but I’ll be able to graduate with a few more classes after this semester.”
It’s been 13 months since Kerrigan sat in a Purdue classroom, but a lot has changed for him in that span. He put his final semester of college on hold to train for the NFL Draft process, improving his stock to a mid-first round prospect. He played in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., competed in the NFL Combine in nearby Indianapolis, Ind., exhibited at the Purdue Pro Day, and flew to New York for the NFL Draft.
When he finally got to Washington in August, his learning process was just beginning, as he transitioned from a down lineman to the outside linebacker position. The classroom setting may have changed, but his practical education has been working overtime.
“It’s good to keep the brain going, I guess,” he said casually. “I just got out of class and took like three or four pages of notes. At first I thought, ‘Man, I haven’t done this in a while,’ but then I remembered, ‘Oh, yes I have.’ It’s just different from a curriculum standpoint, but it’s similar in importance.”
Finishing his education was never really an option for Kerrigan, it was just a matter of when. After switching out of math education, he intends to use his sociology degree for health education, something that has become a passion for him.
Now he just has to adjust to hearing about homework instead of snap counts and zone coverage.
“You gotta take a lot of notes–it’s just different in that you’re taking notes on a subject that isn’t you,” he explained. “It’s definitely a big switch of gears, but education is something that’s always been important to me and my family, so I want to finish.
“Basically, I went to school for three-and-a-half years, and I was taking classes both during the year and the summer,” he continued. “I feel like if I want to go back and get my degree, I have every incentive to finish.”
If anything has changed in the year that Kerrigan has been away from college, it’s him. Gone, is the flowing mane, along with any apprehension about what the future holds. He’s a sure-fire NFL starter now, even if not many classmates recognize him.
“This is Colts and Bears territory up here, so there are lots of those fans and not many Redskins fans,” he said with a chuckle. “Plus, there’s 40,000 students here, so I blend right in with them.”
Somehow I doubt Kerrigan blends in, no matter how large the crowd.
In the classroom, Kerrigan has to adjust to the bland teaching style of academia, after spending five months under the tutelage of linebackers coach Lou Spanos. Spanos, who has since departed to be the defensive coordinator for UCLA, was able to connect with Kerrigan on a humorous level.
“Coach Lou kept things pretty light in the meeting room, whereas this is just straight forward,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t actually had any of these professors before, so this is definitely an adjustment going from Coach Lou to these guys.”
Kerrigan is also out to prove that his standards of excellence extend beyond the gridiron. No “C’s get degrees” approach for this jock.
“You wanna do your best, that’s for sure–you want to get all A’s,” he said. “But I’m gonna work hard at it, and whatever grade I do get, I’ll know that that’s what I deserved because I worked my hardest at it.”
And after watching him work hard for the last year, I wouldn’t expect any less.