April 25, 2013
By Courtney Ratkowiak
Former Michigan wide receiver Greg Mathews (2006-09) was five days removed from being released by the Chicago Bears practice squad when he got the call to go to St. Louis. In October 2010, Mathews joined the Rams' practice squad and found an unexpected instant mentor in fellow former Wolverine James Hall (1995-99).
Hall, like Mathews, had been an undrafted free agent, but he went on to a successful career with the Detroit Lions from 2000-06 and the St. Louis Rams from 2007-11. During their time together, Hall taught the 22-year-old Mathews about how to take care of his body and how to conduct himself in the NFL -- to treat football as a job, not just as a sport.
"When he came in, I told myself I wanted to make sure I shared with him about how to be a professional in this business as much as I could, just because you want to see the guys from your program succeed," Hall said. "Accountability is first and foremost in this business, and perception is reality. How people perceive you and how you go about your business on a day-to-day basis is going to have a lot of effect on how far you go."
Little did either of them know then that two years later Mathews would continue to benefit from Hall's leading by example. Mathews returned to Ann Arbor to finish his college degree, thanks to Hall and his Degree Completion Scholarship.
Both Hall and the University of Michigan Club of Greater Detroit contribute to the greater University of Michigan Athletics Degree Completion Program fund, which finances former varsity athletes' return to school. This year, Mathews, former Michigan football player Shawn Crable (2004-07) and former women's basketball player LaTara (Jones) Chaney (1991) are benefiting from the fund.
Back in 2010, after finishing his college football career, Mathews decided he needed a change. The senior left Ann Arbor after the season with roommate Stevie Brown (2006-09) to train in Miami for the NFL Draft, knowing that he would not complete his degree. Mathews went undrafted but signed with the Chicago Bears that April.
But after being waived by the Rams in September 2011 and by the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League a few months later, Mathews headed home with no clear football-related plans.
"That was a big eye-opener when I got released. On that flight from Arizona to Florida, I had some time to think -- it was a long flight," Mathews said. "I continued to work out, but that became very monotonous, and I was pretty sure it was going to be tough to get a job without a degree or any experience."
He reapplied to the University and found out he had been re-accepted a couple of days before the start of the 2012 fall semester. Mathews is taking nine credits this semester and will take one writing class in the spring semester before graduating with a general studies major.
While on campus this year, Mathews has noticed marked changes from when he was on the football team. He has more energy and time to do schoolwork and more time to explore parts of campus beyond the athletic campuses. He has hopes of eventually becoming a high school football coach after graduation.
Crable, this year's other fund recipient from the Wolverine gridiron, has similar post-graduation aspirations of coaching high school football. Crable is using the Degree Completion Program fund to take one statistics class at Kent State University, near his hometown of Massillon, Ohio.
When Crable was at the University, he was a few credits short of graduation and received a D in his final class instead of the needed C. He was training for the NFL Draft and put his degree on hold, but he knew he would eventually re-take the class. Crable was drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but his three seasons in the NFL were plagued by injury.
After Crable heard about the Degree Completion Program fund, his main motivation to finish his degree was for his four children, aged 8, 6, 5 and 3. While watching his children attend school, the need to complete his final class and become an official University of Michigan graduate became even clearer.
"They've seen me play football at the highest level, they've seen me with my trainers, they know I'm a great athlete and what it takes to play at the highest level," Crable said. "What they don't know is what it takes to be a successful businessman in society, in the workforce, and the drive and persistence, and it's up to me to show them that."
Chaney's motivation to succeed the second time around in Ann Arbor also comes from being a mother. Four times per week, her husband drops both her and her eight-year-old daughter, Kamryn, off at school -- Kamryn at Burns Park Elementary School and Chaney on the University campus.
Chaney's new life with her family in Ann Arbor is a far cry from when she last lived in Ann Arbor nearly 20 years ago. Then LaTara Jones, she left Ann Arbor for the last time in December 1995 after redshirting her sophomore year due to a knee injury and losing her scholarship as a junior. Without a scholarship and unable to afford tuition, Chaney moved back to her hometown of Chicago and joined the Village of Park Forest Police Department.
In June 2010, after 14 years with the police force, she was chasing a burglary suspect on a midnight shift and injured her knee -- the same injury she had suffered as a sophomore in college. With permanent knee damage making future patrol work difficult, she started to look at colleges to finish her degree.
After learning about the Degree Completion Program fund, Chaney applied and was re-admitted to the University. She took 12 credit hours in the fall semester and is taking 12 this spring, putting her on track to graduate in May with a degree in sport management. She takes classes in the morning and works at the Ross Academic Center in the evening.
With her years in the workforce behind her, Chaney enjoys the chance to share life experiences in classes like Organizational Behavior and Gender & Sports. She is focusing on building relationships with professors and U-M Athletic Department colleagues in her job, and is trying to learn more about becoming an academic advisor.
"Now, I really, really appreciate learning -- I really enjoy it," Chaney said. "I don't have sports and practice, and I can really focus on learning and enjoy my classes. I didn't have that passion before. It's been a great experience."
Without the Degree Completion Program fund, Chaney could not have afforded to relocate to Ann Arbor and return to the University to complete her degree. With it, she earned all A's as a full-time student last semester and is on track for another 4.0 semester this spring -- and she was able to show Kamryn her grades last semester with pride.
"I'm hoping if there are other Michigan athletes out there who have been putting this off, they'll get the drive and feel they can do it, because I did not even think that it was possible," Chaney said. "There was absolutely no way in the world I would have been able to come back to Michigan without that opportunity, and I can't say enough about it."
One member of the University of Michigan Club of Greater Detroit, Roger Zatkoff, has a personal motivation for helping contribute to the fund. In 1953, the All-Big Ten linebacker left the University 14 credits short of a degree in kinesiology to play for the Green Bay Packers and, eventually, the 1957 Detroit Lions' world championship team.
Except for one teammate who passed away shortly after graduation, Zatkoff was the only member of former Michigan coach Bennie Oosterbaan's 1950 Rose Bowl team who didn't graduate. The coach did not let Zatkoff forget that.
"Bennie Oosterbaan would stick his finger in my chest and tell me I was the only member of the team that didn't get my degree," Zatkoff said. "I would go to Michigan functions, and if I knew Bennie was going to be there, I'd try to avoid him. There were times where I would duck and hide from him. He'd always get on my case."
During the NFL offseasons, while also working as a substitute teacher in Detroit, Zatkoff went back to school. It took nine years, with Zatkoff generally taking two credit hours per semester on Saturdays. But he graduated in 1964, eventually started a family business, and could finally go to Michigan alumni functions without fearing his former coach's reprieves.
For the past 30 years, Zatkoff has been instrumental in giving back through both the University of Michigan Club of Greater Detroit, which currently gives more than $70,000 in scholarships each year, and personally, through multiple endowed Athletic Department scholarships.
And though Zatkoff's and Hall's paths to their Michigan degrees were different, their motivation for helping to fund the Degree Completion Program is the same.
"No matter how much you're succeeding in life, just know that you didn't do it on your own. People at some point have helped you get to where you are, and you should give back as well," Hall said. "I felt like it was something that would be big for the Athletic Department to be able to say, 'We brought these guys in to play football at Michigan and graduate, and for whatever reason they didn't, but we still want to give them the opportunity to finish their degree.'"