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Gamecocks Going Back to School with Degree Completion Program

by Brad Muller

Playing sports in college creates a lot of opportunities for student-athletes, and whenever the cheering stops, the importance of getting an education will always be there. For former South Carolina student-athletes who went on to play professionally but didn’t finish their degree, the Athletics Department’s Degree Complete Program gives them a huge opportunity for a professional life off the field or the court.

“This is something that will strengthen me for the rest of my life,” said John Abraham, a former All-SEC linebacker for the Gamecocks who was selected in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft by the New York Jets and enjoyed a 15-year pro career, which included five Pro Bowl selections. He currently lives in Atlanta and is taking general studies classes online. “When I was in college, I was just in school just to be in school. I was an athlete and didn’t think of myself as a student. Now at 45, I think about how I could have gotten two degrees just by going back during the summer. Guys need to know that they shouldn’t feel ashamed for not finishing their degree. Just go back and do it! I used to feel that, but trust me, nobody is going to look down on you if you go back!”

“I wanted to get my degree finished as quickly as I could,” said former Gamecock pitcher Cade Austin (2021-2023), who was selected by the New York Yankees in the 19th round of last year’s Major League Baseball draft. He is working toward a degree in criminal justice and is taking online classes through the program. “I knew if I waited longer, it would be harder for me to get it done.”

“I thought it was important even when I was in school,” said former basketball standout Tre’ Kelley, who earned First Team All-SEC honors as a senior in 2007 and went on to play professional basketball overseas for 14 years. Now 39, Kelley lives in Washington, D.C., where he is an entrepreneur and also coaches high school basketball while raising his six-year-old son while taking online classes to earn a degree in sports management. “I had knee surgery after my last season there and missed some classes with that. I was a little behind and left before the school year ended. I played pro ball and at the beginning there wasn’t the opportunity to take online classes. Now is the perfect time to finish, and I only have four or five classes left.”

The Carolina Degree Completion Program, which is part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise, is for student-athletes who left the university in good academic standing to pursue a professional career or did not complete their degree due to personal circumstances. The program allows them to apply to be readmitted to come back to campus or take online courses to finish their degree while eligible to receive funding for room, board, books, and tuition. They also have access to all of the resources offered to current student-athletes, such as tutors, laptops, and use of the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center. Some may not need all of the assistance as it’s not uncommon to have a return to school written into professional contracts. For some of the former Gamecocks, they still have something to prove.

“Getting a college degree is important, and with all the assistance they provide, this was a no-brainer for me.”
Tre’ Kelley  . 

“It would mean so much to get my degree,” said Kelley. “Just finishing that journey is pretty big because it would allow me to go into college coaching. Getting a college degree is important, and with all the assistance they provide, this was a no-brainer for me.”

“My daughter recently graduated from Allegheny and is up at Clemson now,” said Abraham. “She is going to be a nurse. She told me, ‘Daddy, I’m the first one in the family to graduate from college. I went, whoa! So, I said, you know what? I have all this time. There are things I haven’t completed in life that I wanted to complete, and this is one of them. I got in touch with South Carolina and got back into school.”

For some, going back to school after years have passed is a challenge, and for others it’s easier because they only have to focus on academics. Either way, a common theme is the student-athletes’ desire to finish what they started.

“I chose to come back right away so I could keep the ball rolling in going to school,” Austin said. “It was easier for me that way. Waiting longer would have been tougher for me. Baseball isn’t going to last for the rest of my life, so having that degree in my hand is going to help me be in the best position possible.”

“I would tell anyone and everyone that if you need to finish, go back and do it,” Abraham said. “I can tell you first-hand, the tutors that I had were helpful in trying to get back into the student mindset and having that sense of purpose to do something. Writing papers is a lot different now. My tutor really helped me a lot!”

“I told some of my past teammates, if you want to go back, go back! When I left school, my grade point average wasn’t all that great, so the big thing now is getting that back up. I just finished my first eight-week class, and I got an A in it! I’m in it to win it!”