Rod Jones was once student, now teacher

Ask Rod Jones the most vivid memory of his time at the University of Washington and it's not being part of the 1984 football team that finished 11-1 and No. 2 in the country.

It's not setting what was then the record for the most catches by a tight end in UW history in 1986.

And it's not being drafted into the NFL in the spring of 1987.

Instead, it's sitting in a classroom in the fall of 1999, a 35-year-old former professional athlete having finally come to grips with his post-football life and starting on the road to finishing up his college degree.

"It was scary," said Jones, who lettered at UW from 1984-86. "But I have to say now it was the most fun, most exciting moment of my life to get back to class and get back into the academic life that I neglected when I was in school."

Jones is just one of many former Huskies who have recently taken advantage of a post-eligibility program the school has for former athletes to return to school and finish their degrees (others include football players Steve Emtman, Mark Brunell and David Richie and basketball player Paul Fortier).

In the post-eligibility program, which is a common feature at Division I schools, former players are awarded the same scholarship perks — tuition, etc. — as when they were active players. They can even get allowances to stay in on-campus residences, as Brunell did a few years ago when he lived in student housing.

"We don't care whether it counts (as part of the NCAA's graduation rates, which don't count players who graduate more than six years after starting college); we just want guys to finish," said Bruce Hilliard, the UW's football academic coach.

Jones received his degree in Ethnic Studies in 2000 and was later hired by the athletic department as an academic coordinator, working primarily with the football team.

As part of his job, Jones counsels former UW players who want to return to get their degrees. He's currently trying to get former teammate Demouy Williams, a cornerback from 1985-87, to finish.

But he also often relates the story of his career to current UW players, hoping the lesson — NFL riches aren't guaranteed and you'd better have a backup plan — sinks in.

It's a lesson, however, that Jones said many players don't really want to hear.

"The reality is that these guys want to go to the next level," Jones said.

Jones estimates "80 percent, maybe higher" of all the players he talks to think they are headed to the NFL. What he tries to tell them, however, is that only a small percentage of them will actually make it big.

It's something Jones learned the hard way.

A native of Richmond, Calif., who played just two years of high school football, Jones said he suddenly found himself at UW dreaming of an NFL career, before he really had time to put it all in perspective.

"You have all this freedom, nobody watching over you, you are promised success," Jones said. "The coaches tell you are a great player. There are articles and interviews. Everything is pointed toward a huge contract. You are talking thousands, millions of dollars on the line. And that can be rough for a guy who is 18, 19 years old not to focus on that and people telling you how great you are."

Jones said he fell into the trap of thinking a long NFL career was a certainty and mostly did enough classroom work just to get by, leaving school four quarters shy of a degree.

But the big payday never came. He bounced around the NFL for four years, including a season with the Seahawks, then suddenly found himself without football, wondering what to do next.

"When you miss out on the million-dollar contract and the endorsements and there is no more football, you kind of go into a funk," Jones said. "I was almost in a depression for like five or six years of, what do I do now?"

He eventually returned to Seattle and worked for about five years in the warehouse department at Bon Marche. One day, Warren Moon came by and told him about a retirement party for longtime UW academic coordinator Gertrude Peoples. At the party, Peoples — who is still with the program in a part-time role — told Jones about the post-eligibility program, and he made plans to enroll the following week.

Jones said he was amazed at the support given him, something he thinks a lot of players don't understand will be available to them in the program.

"It's overwhelming the help you get now," Jones said of the UW's services to help athletes. "We didn't have this back then."

Hilliard said one recent player helped by the program was former Husky Larry Tripplett — now in his third year with the Indianapolis Colts — who finished his degree in geography with much of the final work done by correspondence. Hilliard also said some members of the Seahawks have used the program to finish up work for degrees at their former schools.

Hilliard and Jones also said they are working on plans for Reggie Williams and Roc Alexander — each now in the NFL after playing for the Huskies last season — to finish their degrees in the offseason.

Jones, though, also wants the players of today to look at the players from his day and see that not everyone emerges from football with a huge bank account and a secure future.

He said he rounds up some of his former teammates for a meeting with all of the incoming players each fall for what he calls "a reality check."

"I respect their dreams of wanting to get to the NFL," Jones said. "I know you couldn't tell me back then that (the NFL is a long shot). But I give them the story of my life and that of friends of mine who went through hard times, and even guys who were a success, because I think it helps them to get adjusted and prepared to come back when it is their time to do it.

"That's my role now, to try to change that attitude and try to influence the kids to finish your degree now and not wait until you are 40 years old."