Finishing what they started is important to former South Carolina football student-athletes Marcus Lattimore, Fred Bennett, and Darian Stewart. It’s important to many other Gamecocks as well as those student-athletes who chose to leave school early for personal reasons or to pursue professional sports careers are coming back to campus thanks to the Carolina Degree Completion Program, which is part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise.
“I knew I wanted to finish my degree because that would set me up for success,” Lattimore said. “It was important to me and to my mom. You have a better chance of being successful if you have a degree in your hand, and I knew that.”
“I don’t want to just get my degree; I want to use it,” said Bennett. “I might want to go into the restaurant business or maybe get into the hotel business. It’s up in the air right now. I have other aspirations too, but I definitely want to do something in the hospitality industry.”
Each has his own reason for leaving and for coming back. Bennett played defensive back for the Gamecocks from 2003-06 before being selected by the Houston Texans in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in 2007 and has since found a home with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. He finished his last class this spring and will do an internship over the summer to complete degree requirements from the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management.
Stewart recently signed to play with the Denver Broncos this season. He played in the defensive backfield for the Gamecocks from 2006-09 before signing with St. Louis Rams in 2010. He came back and earned his degree in retail management in 2012.
“It’s a great achievement,” Stewart said. “It’s a weight off your shoulders and prepares you for the long run. The NFL sometimes stands for `Not For Long.’ You definitely want to have something to fall back on when football is over.”
Lattimore was one of the nation’s top running backs, playing for South Carolina from 2010-12. After the second of two major knee injuries cut short his junior season, he was drafted in 2013 by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round. Following nearly two years or rehabilitation, he retired from the NFL last November and came back to campus to finish his course work and has two semesters to go.
“When I decided to leave and enter the NFL draft, my academic advisor, Maria Hickman, Coach (Steve) Spurrier, and (Athletics Director) Ray Tanner were all supportive of my decision,” Lattimore said. “They said that when I was done playing football, they were going to take care of me so I could come back and finish. I knew that coming in, so when I did decide to retire, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was to go back to my home state, my university, and get my degree. I knew I would be welcomed. Everything has been first class.”
The program allows those former student-athletes who left the university in good academic standing to apply to be readmitted to come back to campus and finish their degree. Nearly 20 former student-athletes have already earned their degree since the program was implemented five years ago. Each student is eligible for room, board, books, and tuition and has access to all of the resources offered to undergraduate students such as tutoring, laptops, and use of the Dodie Academic Enrichment Center.
“You are treated just like you were when you were a student-athlete,” Lattimore said. “You’ve got all the help you need. It’s just setting you up for success if you finish your degree. I definitely encourage others to do it. You have access to the Dodie, the cafeteria, the academic advisors and of course your past coaches love to see you. You can spread some knowledge to the guys playing in the sport you played, and it’s a great opportunity to network.”
“Some classes were a challenge, but it was in my heart that this was what I wanted to do so this made it easier for me,” Bennett said. “It’s been fun meeting some of the new kids around here and talking about what it was like back in the day when I was here playing.”
I know my purpose, and that is to inspire these kids because I am a South Carolina kid. They grew up just like me, so that’s my job in life. I can’t let them down.
A common thread among the student-athletes is that they are glad to put in the work in order to obtain their degree.
“I was able to meet with a couple of tutors,” Stewart said. “They helped me out a lot. It can definitely be an adjustment to come back to school. I knew what I wanted to accomplish though, and just stuck with it. I was willing to give up that time to do it, and it was worth it.”
While coming back to school can be an adjustment, not having daily practices, workouts and team meetings as they did when they played for the garnet and black took some getting used to as well.
“I feel like I’m more engaged now,” Lattimore said. “I’m more anxious to learn. I had good grades before, but now I’m more engaged and have better grades. It’s a full load when you’re a student-athlete. I do miss having that schedule though. That’s the luxury of being a student-athlete – you have this whole path laid out for you. You know you have work out, you have to eat right, you have to play the game, and you have to do your studies. That stopped drastically, so you have to find a way to put yourself back on a good schedule.”
A program-record 12 former student-athletes were enrolled for the 2015 spring semester. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the program is that it has enjoyed a 100 percent graduation rate for all of those who have come back to school.
“Nothing bad can come from coming back to get your degree,” Bennett said. “I want to encourage players to come back and get their degree so they’ll have something to fall back on in case football doesn’t work out the way you planned.”
They all agree that finishing school enhances them as role models for their families as well as youngsters around the country.
“When you get out of college, you want to have something else to go in to,” Stewart said. “I want to teach other kids what I know. I want to give back to younger people, especially on the high school level.”
“It’s only about one percent that make it as a professional in the sport that you play,” Lattimore said. “Kids in South Carolina look up to me. I think I did things the right way, and I don’t take that lightly. I take that with full responsibility. I know my purpose, and that is to inspire these kids because I am a South Carolina kid. They grew up just like me, so that’s my job in life. I can’t let them down.”
As for walking across the stage with a diploma, that’s as good as anything they’ve done on the field.
“It will be amazing,” Lattimore said. “It will be just like getting drafted, signing to play at Carolina, beating Georgia, or beating Alabama. It will be that same feeling because it’s something I’ve worked for. I work hard in everything that I do, and when you put that hard work in and see it pay off, it’s just an amazing feeling.”