In the term ‘student athlete,’ the emphasis tends to land on the former for most college players who end up making it to the NFL. A lot of the big state schools who churn out large numbers of draft picks are renowned for their athletics departments more than their academics, and spend a great deal of effort and money cultivating their athletics programs. The football coaching salaries alone give an indication of this, with a prime example being Alabama’s Nick Saban, who clears over $5 million a year, likely more than any professor at Alabama or elsewhere could ever dream of making. While athletes aren't allowed to flunk out in college, many just skate by getting the minimum required GPA that still allows them to play – and their athletic prowess often leads them to focus primarily on improving themselves on the field rather than in the classroom.
While a player’s GPA and academic background really has no reflection on their draft order, there’s still something to be said for how the NFL factors in a player’s intelligence. Their use of the Wonderlic test proves this – and it’s no mistake that the top of this list is a player who is notorious for his near perfect score on the Wonderlic. Fun fact – Pat McInally, former Cincinnati Bengals punter and wide receiver, is the only player in NFL history to have received a perfect 50 out of 50 on the Wonderlic. Overall, coaches seem to want a certain balance – both scoring too high and too low can affect when a player is picked in the draft.
Wonderlic aside, college athletics are big in the United States and though they may not match the output of big ten state schools, even the Ivies send players to the NFL every now and then. They don’t attract a lot of players because of their policy to not offer athletic scholarships, and Ivy League NFLers are certainly a minority, but elite educational institutions have nonetheless successfully moved a couple players in their ranks into the NFL. All players who make it to the NFL have proven their skill on the field – including during the stressful and grueling final exam of the Scouting Combine. However, the following players have also proven their skill in the classroom. I will acknowledge that merely attending a school doesn't necessarily mean that a player is a great intellectual and there’s a lot of controversy about student athletes being held to different standards. At any rate, the following players managed to survive at notoriously rigorous institutions, so let’s just go ahead and call them the NFL’s top 10 recent brainiacs.
10 Nate Lawrie
Tight end Nate Lawrie sharpened his mind at Yale University, where he graduated with a political science degree. He has the distinction of making the most receptions in a season by a Yale tight end, which he achieved in his senior year on the team.
His NFL career has been fairly rocky – he’s been a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, and San Francisco 49ers, to name a few. He also hasn't always gotten a lot of field time, and on many of these teams, he’s been an offseason or practice squad member. However, Lawrie seems determined to succeed off the field as well. His LinkedIn resume alternates between managerial positions in various businesses and tight end positions on various teams. Sure, he might not be able to say he was a starting tight end for years, but he’s used his NFL status to help him in other parts of his life. In 2008, four years after graduating from Yale, he completed the NFL Business Management & Entrepreneurial Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s infamous Wharton School. He’s put the skills he gained at Wharton into action as director of business development and marketing at Connecticut Greenstar, as well as founder and president of Lawrie Leasing LLC.
9 Matt Birk
Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl selection and one-time Super Bowl champ, got his start at Harvard University. He graduated with a degree in Economics and got drafted in the 1998 NFL Draft. He attained numerous college honors including All-Ivy League (something most players on this list are familiar with). Birk, drafted in the 6th round, had the distinction of being the first Harvard lineman selected since the 1985 selection of Roger Caron, ending an over decade long drought. First drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, he started games frequently and earned Minnesota Vikings Man of the Year for six years running. He then moved to the Baltimore Ravens, winning his first Super Bowl championship in Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers. Sporting News named Birk the sixth-smartest athlete in 2010. Birk’s intelligence and focus on education has also played a big role in his life off the field. He has worked extensively to promote literacy and education, an effort which earned him the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2011.
8 Myron Rolle
Myron Rolle, former Tennessee Titans safety, was drafted in the 2010 Draft. At Florida State University, he earned his BS in only two and a half years (as opposed to the average four). Though he played at Florida State and not in the Ivy League Conference, he was a recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Rolle made the decision to go abroad to study at Oxford University and postpone his NFL dreams for a year in order to earn a M.Sc. in Medical Anthropology. He was second on Sporting News’ smartest athletes list, which included not only NFL players, but all athletes. After spending a year as an offseason/practice squad member for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rolle decided to leave the NFL. He’s currently in medical school at FSU.
7 Dennis Norman
Dennis Norman was cheered on by Tigers fans as he spent his college years playing for Princeton University. Norman was named first-team All-Ivy League for three consecutive years – something only three others players have ever managed to do. Drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in in 2001, he has also played with the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Diego Chargers.
While Norman’s NFL record may be less than stellar, he’s well aware of the implications of his decision to select a school more known for education than athletics. He’s spoken in interviews that, had an NFL career been his sole dream, Princeton would not have been his pick – he selected it because he wanted to be assured a successful career, athletic or otherwise. This is, interestingly, one of the reasons many feel the NFL dislikes Ivy League players – they don’t necessarily like the idea that someone has considered a back-up plan outside of football. Norman’s degree is in computer science engineering: if the lights ever go out at another Super Bowl, maybe he can take a peek at the system. He is currently a free agent.
6 Bryan Walters
Wide receiver Bryan Walters spent his college career at Cornell University. His BA was in Economics – a seemingly popular choice for brainy NFL players. Perhaps they want to know how to spend the big NFL salaries when they’re making them. While he went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft, he has since played with the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, and Seattle Seahawks.
5 Desmond Bryant
Cleveland Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant, formerly on the Oakland Raiders roster, also played on Cambridge fields in an audience of crimson-clad fans. Though Bryant received offers from several schools –Duke, Florida A&M, and Towson University- he ended up choosing Harvard despite their lack of athletic scholarships. He wasn’t swayed by the school, however, but the coach – in interviews, he’s confessed that he selected Harvard because of what Harvard Crimson coach Tim Murphy had said to him. He’s described himself as a fish out of water in the Ivy League, someone who didn’t spend much time with students outside of his teammates and focused more on his playing than his studying. He eventually made it through and got his degree in Psychology.
4 Zak DeOssie
While other players were circulating in big, raucous state schools, Zak DeOssie played in the fields of Brown University. After a successful college career with three first-team All-Ivy League honors and two third-team All-American honors, DeOssie became the first Brown player – ever – to get an invite to Combine week. He was also, notably, the only Ivy League player there. An admirable showing at Combine led him to be drafted in the fourth round by the New York Giants in 2007. He has been a two-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time Super Bowl champion (Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI.)
3 Kevin Boothe
The Oakland Raiders’ offensive lineman Kevin Boothe honed his skills on Ithaca’s tranquil fields as a player at Cornell University. Boothe, a three-time All-Ivy League selection, graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Hotel Administration. While at Cornell, he was also a member of the Quill and Dagger society, a senior honor society comparable to Yale University’s infamous Skull and Bones society. When selected in the 2006 NFL Draft, he was the first Cornell draft pick in nearly ten years. While an active player, Boothe continued his education and just recently (2013) graduated from the George Washington University School of Business with an MBA.
2 Mike Catapano
Mike Catapano, freshly drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft, is a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs who got his college start playing for Princeton. A 2012 Ivy League Defensive Player of the year, he was the first Princeton player picked in the draft since 2001 when Dennis Norman was taken. A psychology major, for his senior thesis at Princeton he selected the topic of visual cognition and memory – so being aware of where everyone is on the field and remembering the complex plays shouldn’t be an issue.
1 Ryan Fitzpatrick
Who else would it be? After getting accepted with an SAT score of 1580, Fitzpatrick honed his quarterback skills at Harvard University. He was backup for Neil Rose in his first two years with the team, but eventually took over the starting position when Rose had graduated. In 2004, he won Ivy League MVP honors, led Harvard to win the Ivy League Championship and is the first Harvard quarterback to rush over 1,000 yards during his university time. He topped this off with scoring a 48 on the Wonderlic when he took it, one of the highest scores to date. Fitzpatrick has bounced around a fair bit in his career: he’s served stints with the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, and Tennessee Titans. As of fairly recently (March 18th of this year) he’s signed on with the Houston Texans for a two year contract. Though there may not be that many Harvard grads in the NFL, Fitzpatrick has the additional distinction of being the first Harvard grad to start at quarterback in an NFL game. Like a lot of the Harvard players, his degree is in Economics.
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