We’ve witnessed some great stories in sports recently, the launch of LeBron James’ “I Promise” school being one of the biggest.
One type of story that we’ve seen occur from time to time is instances of athletes returning to college to obtain their degrees. We’ve read the stories of All Stars such as Vince Carter, Shaquille O’Neal, Damian Lillard and Yao Ming all returning to school, decades after leaving for pro careers, to walk the stage and obtain their degree, fulfilling promises they made to their loved ones after deciding to turn pro.
We recently learned of another former athlete in Washington D.C. who also fulfilled a promise more than two decades in the making.
Drafted by the New York Giants with the seventh pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, Ike Hilliard was a stand out wide receiver from the University of Florida who played in the league for 12 years. After officially retiring eight years ago, he turned his attention to something started in 1994 when he stepped foot on the Gators’ campus, and we’re not talking about anything involving cleats.
Instead of trying to get back onto the field, Ike decided it was time to go back to school and finish what he started, a promise he made to his mother after becoming an All=American and winning a national championship in 1996, his junior year at Florida.
1996: Ike Hilliard’s Stop & Pop in ’97 Sugar Bowl vs. FSU
In the Gators’ 1997 Sugar Bowl victory over the Seminoles, Danny Wuerffel threw to a well-covered Ike Hilliard, who juked 2 Florida State defenders with what has become known as the “Stop & Pop”. For the greatest plays, players, coaches and games in Florida Gators history download the Florida Vault – FREE on iOS and Android devices.
So over 20 years after leaving school, Ike Hilliard walked the graduation stage at the University of Florida, receiving his degree in criminal justice and becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. While excited to have graduated, the moment was also one of sadness as his mom, Doris, who stressed the importance of education, had passed away twelve years ago, so he couldn’t share the moment with her in person.
It would have been nice for my mom to be here to see it, said Hilliard, now an assistant coach with the Washington Redskins, to the Washington Post’s Kimberly Martin. But its a commitment that I made, and I promised her as well, that I would finish at some point. And that days here.
This was a journey only he, his wife and professors knew about, one that included time apart, sacrifice, long drives and lots of studying.
Sundays after games, he drives home hes studying, said his wife Luly to Martin in their phone interview. After training camp hed be studying. Wed be halfway around the world on vacation hed be studying. This has been nonstop since 2012.
And while she’s happy and proud of her husband, she couldn’t resist clowning him just a little.
So between the six years it took him to get these 60 credits, plus the three years he was there [at Florida], plus the time in between this is a 24-year degree. So its a huge deal.
Hilliard’s journey to the graduation stage was so secretive that he didn’t even inform his head coach, Jay Gruden, until this off-season when he asked for the day off to attend the ceremony. But these stories are so important to share, especially with the younger generation, as it shows the value of education and importance of working hard and keeping your word.
Because of this, his wife pushed him to share the news and story, understanding the effect it could have on team members, fans and strangers who might be inspired by Ike’s fulfillment of, and dedication to, both his education and promise.
Because of what he does, and the industry hes in, and hes around these young guys, its super inspiring, said Luly. They need to hear this story because the amount of time that has passed doesnt matter. Its not something that he talks about openly. He just put his head down and got to work. He didnt want anybody to tell him to leave the building early because he had to study. He just wanted to do it on the hush-hush.
But he did it and now the world knows, and hopefully more will follow suit and pursue their education regardless of the time from start to finish.