The University of Texas athletics department celebrated its student-athletes' achievements off the playing field at the 11th Annual Men's Athletics Academic Awards Presentation on Monday night at the Frank Erwin Center.
One of those honored, safety Michael Griffin had just been drafted two days earlier as the 19th overall selection in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. Just the day before, Griffin made his first trip to Nashville to meet personnel and the local media, but he made sure his return flight to Austin arrived in time for him to attend the event.
"It was important to me to be here and show I'm not just an athlete, but a student-athlete," Griffin said. "It was also important for me to be here and walk across the stage at the same time as my brother and receive the same award as my brother."
His brother, safety Marcus Griffin, was also one of the 66 football players honored at the banquet with the Athletics Director's Award for a 3.0 or better GPA. The group included seven winners of the Provost Award, recognizing a 4.0 GPA. Through the 11 years, the number of honorees has continued to rise and the event has turned into an inspiration for all UT student-athletes.
"We've seen the number grow and grow over the years," said Assistant Athletics Director for Academic Services Brian Davis. "The fact that we have so many guys doing this and receiving this award has inspired other guys. It's become a cool thing. They want this award. We see guys coming back over and over as repeat award winners and we want to continue that trend."
Another trend on the academic side of the team is something four of the honorees in attendance at the banquet share -- graduating within three-and-a-half years. Seniors WR Nate Jones, S Drew Kelson, DT Derek Lokey and DT Frank Okam are all on pace to reach that goal, one that is important to them on a number of levels.
"When you come in, it all starts with whether you redshirt or not," Kelson said. "Once I didn't in my freshman year, I immediately had to change my focus to making sure I was on track to graduate in three-and-a-half years. The academic staff really helped me get on track to do that, and I appreciate all of their hard work and all of the time we put in making sure I would be finished with my degree by the time I finished my fourth season."
To Jones, another player that did not redshirt, the importance was based on a promise to his mother, one that he would have his degree by the time he finished football.
"With the situation I was in, not redshirting, I knew there was going to be a time when I was going to end up taking 15 hours," Jones explained. "I did that, and it's working well right now. This summer, I'm probably going take 12 hours, so it's a really good accomplishment to take 15 hours and go to all my classes, get good grades and get this honor at the academic awards banquet. You just need to push yourself. It's going to take a lot of time and will be stressful, but at the same time, it's going to be a great achievement when you get your degree."
The players have all been advised that if it is something they want to strive for, they need to average 15 hours per semester in the spring and fall, while maximizing their opportunities in the summer, something that used to be difficult to do in college football. With recent NCAA restrictions on preseason practice hours over the past few years, players have been able to take more classes without an overlap.
"The first week, you can only go once a day, so we're getting more guys to take second session summer school courses, which used to conflict with preseason practice," Davis said. "It gets them in the position to graduate as quickly as possible."
The other advantage to early graduation applies more specifically to those hoping to build a career in professional football. The spring semester following the final season for a football player is a critical time to begin training for evaluation by NFL personnel. Early graduation allows a player to have a degree in hand when that training begins.
"It was really important to me to finish my degree when my eligibility ended, so if I wanted to have the opportunity to train for the next level, I could focus on that and give that my full effort," Okam said. "If not, I want to have the opportunity to go into law school, which is another one of my dreams, as well."
All of the players acknowledge how large of a commitment it is to balance academics and athletics at such a high level, but they are thankful for the support system around them, including the academic staff, the coaches and their teammates. It just so happens three of the four players -- Kelson, Lokey and Okam -- are roommates.
"I think having them there, knowing someone is going through what you're going through and taking the same number of hours and doing all the things you're doing, it just puts it all in perspective of what college is all about," Okam said. "I think when you come here and you have dreams of doing great things on the football field, you might lose sight of what you have to do in the classroom, but you hang around guys like that, and it puts you back on track. It helps you keep focused on what you're trying to do."
The three roommates are just a microcosm of the rest of the team, all offering support to their teammates and receiving it from the staff, which is what the Academic Awards Banquet celebrates.
"Clearly, you see the importance of this evening, and it's growing from when I first came two years ago," Okam said. "To see that Michael (Griffin) came back after he got drafted says a lot about his character. It says a lot about how his parents raised him and the values they gave him. To see so many guys on our team reach a 3.0 or better, some with a 4.0, it shows the kind of values Coach Brown and his staff have put into us and it shows how important academics are at The University of Texas."