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It's a matter of degree College: An outreach program at Maryland is bringing athletes back to College Park to get their diplomas.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Deborah Ricker Skelly played basketball for the University of Maryland Terrapins from 1972 to 1976. Last Sunday, she graduated.

"I always wanted to complete my degree," she said. "This program made it possible."

Skelly was referring to the Academic Support for Returning Athletes Program, the university's version of a national outreach effort intended to counter the failure of many college players to finish their educations.

Since 1989, half of Maryland's 34 participants have graduated. Among them: basketball players Larry Gibson, Cedric Lewis and Derrick Lewis, football players Rick Badanjek, Alvin Blount and Warren Powers, baseball player David Mysel and soccer player Russell Payne.

Skelly of Glendale is the first woman to participate at Maryland.

"I tried to go back for my degree about 10 years ago, right before this program came into existence, and I didn't get a lot of support," said Skelly, mother of four boys and a girl who range in age from 11 to 22.

"They asked, 'Do you really want to do this?' They weren't encouraging and my children were still young, so I decided, well, OK, maybe I don't -- right now."

Then, two years ago, her husband, Dennis, read about the program. He told her he could do the carpools, the housecleaning and cooking. And Skelly went back, driving to school every day with her oldest son, Dennis Jr., who graduated from College Park in June.

Sunday, the entire family was in Cole Field House to watch her get her diploma.

"It was a great day," said her husband. "It meant a lot of extra work, but I made a promise to her father when we got married that she would get her degree. I've got dishpan hands and I'm hoping they'll come back one day. But it was worth it."

"School for a young athlete can be difficult," Skelly said. "You certainly have to learn time management. But that's not what stopped me. I had dated my husband since I was 16. We were eager to get married. You know, young and in love. And now I have a wonderful family. I wouldn't want to do it differently, but I'm very glad I went back and got my degree."

Skelly earned her degree in kinesiology. Other former players working toward theirs are former basketball player Ernie Graham, majoring in Spanish; former football players Andreal "A. J." Johnson, family studies; Larry Washington, criminal justice; and Clarence Jones, government and politics.

Jones plays offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints. He and his wife, Sherri, take up residence in an area hotel for three weeks in January while he attends classes during winter session.

"That's like an 8-to-5 workday, reading and studying," said Debora Pollock, coordinator of the program. "It takes a lot."

For all the participants, their biggest commitment is time. Besides studying, they must do community service in return for the university's waiving tuition.

They speak to children in middle schools about the value of academics and sports and about positive behavior. They go to town fairs. They talk to youth about the perils that could lie ahead, including drug abuse.

Pollock said most of the returning students are in their senior years with 30 or fewer hours needed for graduation. Some need only one or two classes, but there are also players like Graham, who face two solid years of study.

Most former athletes return after five or six years. But Skelly waited 22 years to graduate, Graham 15 years before signing up.

"Coming back, these students don't have the pressure of practicing and playing ball," Pollock said. "Now, they're juggling child care and job schedules. But this time they have a better sense of purpose. They're serious students."

The Maryland program is based on the one created in 1985 by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports and is designed to help athletes from revenue-producing sports obtain their degrees, no matter how long it has been since they attended the university.

The 179 participating colleges range from universities such as Maryland and Nebraska to "the tiniest schools," said Bill Curry, a former Baltimore Colt who is the chief operating officer of the NCAS based in Florida. "We run the gamut."

Curry, who was football coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky before joining the consortium in July, said that more than 13,000 athletes have returned to study for their degrees and more than 6,000 have graduated in the past 13 years.

In the process, schools have paid $94 million in tuition bills. He also said more than 5 million children have been served by returning students, who must perform a minimum of 10 hours a week of community service.

Maryland's average graduation rate for athletes who remained at the school throughout their athletic and academic eligibility was 88 percent over a nine-year period between 1983-84 and 1991-92.

Dave Haglund, Maryland's sports information director, said there more than one way to figure graduation rates, however. He noted that the NCAA's most recent figures show Maryland's graduation rate at 51 percent. But that includes all students who entered as freshmen on a scholarship, whether or not they withdrew or transferred to other schools.

Either way, there are a lot of former athletes who could be in need of the program.

There are no specific figures available on the breakdown of male and female athletes participating around the country, but the consortium, like Maryland, has found many more male than female athletes have enrolled. Curry said there are several reasons.

"The revenue-producing sports are where the athletes are most exploited, and it's only recently that women are getting similar opportunities," Curry said. "Most women already have graduated. I think maybe women are just better people, more dedicated, than men. My wife, a Ph.D., disagrees with me. But we'll see. Women are beginning to create revenue, and it will be interesting to see if these changes increase the number of women who become eligible for this program."

Curry voiced his sadness over the need for the returning athlete program, and said he was skeptical about just how much real community service these former athletes perform in return for tuition.

"I actually went with my players to see what they were doing," Curry said. "I went into the school, into the street, into the shanties where they were serving food to the homeless.

"I mean, these were hardened guys who I had to chase to class when they were in school the first time. But then they were cut by a pro team and got sudden humility. These guys love working with the children."

He might have included Graham, the former Maryland basketball player, in their number.

Graham came to Maryland in 1977, and when he left as a third-round draft choice of the Philadelphia 76ers, he said he thought he had it made, even though two years short of graduation.

He still holds Maryland's single-game scoring record, 44 points against N.C. State, Dec. 20, 1978.

Last week, he could be found in the Walbrook High School auditorium, speaking to 600 ninth-graders about the horrors that can result from drug use.

"I started smoking marijuana when I was 13, and I was just like you, trying to be with the in crowd, trying to be what's happening," Graham warned the students. "When I got to Maryland, I would wake up every morning, have a joint, skip all my classes, go to basketball practice and play games."

After 13 1/2 years of playing basketball in foreign countries, some Spanish speaking, he found himself back in Baltimore with a drug habit that had escalated to crack cocaine. Drug free for the past three years, Graham runs his own nonprofit foundation, Get the Message, which reaches out to young people, and he is taking classes.

"I've been in school one year, and I've got a year to go," said Graham, 38. "It's hard work, but I must get my degree. I want to quit a lot of days, but Debora [Pollock, the program coordinator] keeps me focused. You need people to support you."

Graham sees earning his diploma as one more step toward righting his life.

"It's freedom to be somebody, to accomplish something," Graham said. "For me, it's coming from the gutter to the stage."

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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