Never Too Late

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to

When diminutive Oklahoma running back Quentin Griffin was selected in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft, he left as the school's fourth-leading rusher with 3,938 career yards. Griffin only trailed two Heisman Trophy winners in Billy Sims (4,118) at No. 1 and Steve Owens (4,041) at No. 3, plus silver-shoed great Joe Washington (4,071) at No. 2.

A chance to play in the NFL put Griffin's academic progress on hold. In his second season with the Denver Broncos, the 5-foot-7, 190-pound Griffin set a franchise record for most rushing yards in a season opener with a career-high 156 on 23 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs. A budding NFL career abruptly was cut short when Griffin tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee in Week 7. He would never play another regular-season game again for the Broncos.

In 2005, Griffin had dropped to No. 4 on Denver's depth chart and was released. He was brought back a few weeks later, then released again. In 2006, Griffin was signed by the Chiefs and later cut. In 2007, the Hamburg Sea Devils made Griffin the second overall pick in the NFL Europa Free Agent Draft. In 2008, he signed the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL and was cut after the team's final preseason game. In July 2013, Griffin signed with the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes in Germany (GFL1).

When Griffin's football odyssey finally came to an end, a daunting task awaited if he was going to finish what he started academically at OU.

When he left the Sooners, Griffin was 33 credit hours short of earning his undergraduate degree. "My mother, she planted the seed (to graduate) and kept watering it," Griffin said with a smile. "It was in the back of my mind, but once I got it to the front of my mind, that's the push I needed."

Griffin said he cared about academics while attending OU, but found the best balance to successfully handle schoolwork and football was to take around 12 credit hours each semester.

Griffin is now finishing his quest for an undergraduate degree in the same manner as many former Sooners, and that's with the relentless prodding of Teresa Turner, who serves as OU's Director for the Student-Athlete Experience. "Miss Teresa is indispensable," Griffin said. "She facilitated my class schedule to help bring all this about. I can't say enough about her."

Living in his native Houston, Griffin took 30 hours at Houston Baptist University and had the credits transferred. Three of his final credits to earn his bachelor's degree in multidisciplinary studies came from a capstone course at OU. Griffin, who is finishing one final class at Houston Baptist this summer, accomplished all this in a span of one year.

"It's unbelievable what Q did," said OU Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione, who paid close attention to Griffin's progress.

When Griffin arrived wearing his cap and gown at OU's student-athlete graduation banquet in the Chesapeake Energy Stadium Club last Friday afternoon, Castiglione greeted him with a firm hug. While discussing Griffin's academic achievement, Castiglione harkened back to the Jan. 8, 2001, issue of Sports Illustrated. The cover photo was Griffin scoring the only touchdown in the 2000 championship game, a 13-2 Sooners victory over defending champ Florida State in the Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium.

SI's cover caption read, "Case Closed." Castiglione coincidentally points out that same caption aptly describes Griffin obtaining his degree. "I can't tell you how proud I am of Q," Castiglione said.

Griffin wasn't the only former OU football letterman who is earning his delayed degree with the Class of 2017. Wide receiver Jarrail Jackson (1996-99), defensive tackle Tommie Harris (2001-03) and wide receiver Malcolm Kelly (2005-07) also were among the school's 124 student-athletes who received their degrees last weekend. Offensive guard Tony Feo (2013-14) earned his master's degree in intercollegiate-athletics administration while two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Davin Joseph (2002-05) is in the process of getting his completed undergraduate courses transferred.

Harris, a two-time All-American and a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2004 NFL Draft, continued his academic progress as an active player in the NFL. He earned undergraduate credits at Lake Forest (Illinois) College north of Chicago while playing for the Bears. Even more impressive, Harris completed his work for a master's degree in business at the University of Miami before he had earned the required number of undergraduate credits at OU.

"I couldn't get my master's (diploma) until I finished my undergrad work. You also had to test in to do your master's work," Harris explained. "It was just something I said to myself that I always wanted to do. I knew when I was playing (at OU), I couldn't really be a student like I wanted to because my body was tired most of the time. But to have an opportunity to go back and complete it, that was always the goal."

Harris' accomplishment came as no surprise to Turner. "Tommie's a hard worker and Tommie's very bright," Turner said. "A lot of times it doesn't necessarily surprise me that these student-athletes are finishing. I'm just glad they made the commitment to finish and make the time to do it, because I know they can do it."

Jackson's degree in multidisciplinary studies came 18 years after competing as a senior in 1999 during coach Bob Stoops' first season at OU.

Jackson initially played six seasons in the Arena Football League and was a member of the Buffalo Bills' practice squad for three years (2000-2002). Jackson then got into coaching as an assistant at Chickasha High School in 2004 and served as a volunteer assistant at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond in 2005. He became wide receivers coach at Dartmouth (2006-11), did administrative work for former OU offensive coordinator Mike Leach at Washington State (2012-14), spent one season as quarterback coach at Davidson (2015) and was a recruiting analyst last season at Mississippi State. Aching to work with players on the field, Jackson has returned to UCO to become wide receivers coach.

Jackson gradually earned credit hours toward his degree at his various stops. "I thought I had all my hours," Jackson sheepishly admitted with a laugh. "When Teresa told me I was one class short, I jumped on it and got it done. She got everything going and stayed on me. It's a big deal to get a degree, but I didn't want to draw any attention to it (by attending Friday's ceremony). I tried to keep it low-key. The only people who really knew about it were me and Teresa. I am happy I finished and it is a big accomplishment, but I didn't do it for any accolades. I'm looking at taking some master's classes and maybe do that."

2017 OU Football Alumni Graduates
Name OU Letters Degree
Quentin Griffin 2000-02 Multidisciplinary Studies
Tommie Harris 2001-03 Administrative Leadership
Jarrail Jackson 1996-99 Multidisciplinary Studies
Malcolm Kelly 2005-07 Multidisciplinary Studies

Turner is the younger sister of OU basketball great Clifford Ray (1969-71). As Teresa Ray, she was a three-year letterwinner in basketball at OU (1978, 1980-81), who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1981 and later added a master's degree in guidance and counseling.

Turner has worked for OU for 25-plus years. When Castiglione arrived in 1998, he quickly took note of her unique qualities and reshuffled the academic staff. Turner was so effective as assistant director of academic advising, Castiglione created her current role especially for her.

"That's kind of our charge, to connect with those students we know have not finished and encourage them to come," Turner explained. "Those without funds to reach completion can apply for funding to help them with coming back to school at OU. We have funding made available through athletics. We expect students who get funding also to give back to the community. They have to put in so many hours. That's something they're responsible for as well."

A key element in this effort is Sooners Helping Sooners, Inc., which was founded by former OU football player J.D. "Jakie" Sandefer III. Sandefer, who passed away in 2015, extended his longtime passion toward OU by finding student-athletes gainful employment after their playing days while helping them achieve their personal aspirations and career goals.

Jerry Pettibone, who played for legendary Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson in the early 1960s and later became an OU assistant coach for 12 years, is president of Sooners Helping Sooners. For more than a decade, Pettibone has run a football evaluation business that helps high school football players find colleges where they can compete.

Jay O'Neal, who played in the mid-1950s on OU teams that went a combined 31-0 and won back-to-back national championships, serves as vice president, while longtime OU administrative assistant Pam Kelleher is the executive assistant.

"There are a lot of great stories out there and Sooners Helping Sooners has been instrumental in all the parts coming together," Castiglione said. "They (Sandefer, Pettibone and O'Neal) have reached out to try to connect people."

After building relationships with student-athletes during their time at OU, Turner keeps her own connection with those who fell short of their academic requirements. At times, accomplishing the mission requires some tough love.

"That's what Teresa is good at," Castiglione said. "She can get on 'em. They're like, 'OK, I understand. I know what I have to do.' She has a real gift, but a lot of that goes back to her relationship with the student-athletes and building all that trust with them. One thing about Teresa, she has a knack for how to talk to people. Sometimes it can be very direct. She's basically telling them what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. You can't accomplish that unless you have the trust of others, and that's why we put her in that position."

Like all students, athletes progress toward their degree at different speeds. "Some of our student-athletes face a variety of different circumstances or challenges, and some may not," Castiglione said. "The normal period of life doesn't stop with the time they're on campus. She understands that and has been able to be a good mentor."

"We want our student-athletes to know we're committed to them forever... life happens, particularly for those students who are going on to play at the next level. They're busy and sometimes it's just hard to come back and finish. Sometimes when they start having children and a family, and sometimes that's a motivation, too."
– Teresa Turner

Turner stressed, "We're always available for our student-athletes in whatever way we can help them. We want our student-athletes to know we're committed to them forever. We're committed regardless. Initially, I don't think it's their intention not to get finished, but life happens, particularly for those students who are going on to play at the next level. They're busy and sometimes it's just hard to come back and finish. Sometimes when they start having children and a family, and sometimes that's a motivation, too."

Real life certainly intervened with Harris, who lost his wife, Ashley, to an unexplained brain aneurysm two days before Valentine's Day in 2012 following a routine outpatient surgical procedure. She was 29. The couple had been together four years, had two sons in Tinsley and Tyson and had gotten married just six weeks earlier on New Year's Day.

Harris has since enjoyed success as a Texas entrepreneur. His ventures include a boxing and fitness gym close to his home in Georgetown, plus a health food store and a wig shop. Harris owned a franchise in the Fall Experimental Football League alongside former OU teammate Eric Bassey and hoped to someday relocate the NFL feeder-league team to Oklahoma City, but the FXFL folded after two seasons (2014-15). Harris also vows, "One day I want to either GM a football team or have my own team."

Harris said his most difficult time in the classroom was at OU. "I've always loved education, but not like college education," Harris said. "I've always loved learning, but on my time. Not under the pressure of (being an athlete in) college. Undergrad wasn't that cool. I'm not going to lie to you. You want me to tell something sweet to the younger guys there now, but you know how I am. I don't sugarcoat it. I'm glad I got it done."

Like Jackson, Griffin's degree is in multidisciplinary studies. And like Jackson, Griffin also wants to become a college football coach. "I'm trying to help him as much as possible," Jackson said of jump-starting Griffin's coaching career.

Griffin brought his 4-year-old son, Princeton, to Friday's graduation banquet. Named by his mother, Princeton carries lofty academic standards in his own name.

"I'm excited he got a chance to come up here and see me graduate," Griffin said of Princeton. "He was excited to see my school. I also wanted him to see education at a young age and see people graduating. Hopefully, he takes it with him."

Though he has had to earn 33 credit hours in one year to fulfill his undergraduate requirements, Griffin had to overcome another obstacle to make it to Friday's graduation banquet on time. While driving from Houston to Norman, Griffin got a flat tire.

"We had to go to Walmart for the spare, but they didn't have the (same sized) tire so they had to go find a tire and put it on," Griffin said, shaking his head. "Then I had to check into the hotel and the room wasn't ready to get dressed for this. But you know what, all's well that ends well."

Indeed, all is well with the Class of 2017, no matter how long the journey.