In 1985, Oliver White was captain of the University of Kentucky football team, celebrating one of its most successful years under Coach Jerry Claiborne. Scouts from the Pittsburgh Steelers had checked him out for his talents as a tight end, and any minute he expected to be drafted. Even though he was only a few credits shy of graduation, school was just not a priority.
White went to talk to Bob Bradley, an academic advisor to the football and basketball teams, who wrote down all of White's coursework on a white legal pad, then persuaded him to withdraw from school, instead of flunking out.
Sure enough, White was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and moved to Pennsylvania with his future set.
"I was thinking I'd play in the League forever," he said, "but that's why it's called NFL, Not for Long."
For White, a bad ankle injury led to him being cut after one year. He moved to Louisville, where he had family, got a job at a manufacturing plant, got married, had two boys. A good life, if not the one he'd imagined. But through the years, every once in a while, he'd think about that legal pad and that missed UK degree.
"Sometimes I would train people to be my boss because they had a degree and I didn't," he said. "You had to have a degree to advance so far. That has held me back over the years."
His boys grew up and got their own college degrees, which allowed White, 54, and his wife, Yvonne, to move back to Lexington where they had many friends. White's most recent job was at Aramark, the food services company, but he was let go after nine months because of layoffs.
"That one hurt me," White said. "I said, I need to give myself more options."
He went to see Bradley, who was now an associate athletics director in charge of the Center for Academic and Tutorial Services (CATS) Center, which coordinates all the tutoring and academic services for UK Athletics. He said, wait here a minute, and went to a storage closet. Then he pulled out the same legal pad, now yellow, where he'd written White's classes down so many years before.
There was a slight hitch; White was just a few credits shy of a major, therapeutic practice, that no longer exists at UK. So Bradley suggested Community Leadership and Development in the College of Agriculture. It was a natural fit for White, who already understood many of the tenets of team-building and community engagement, but he still had to pack in 62 hours in the last 20 months.
"I've loved this degree," he said. "I've had so many professors who were so nice to me, and learned so much."
One of his professors, Karen Rignall, appreciated White's presence in her Foundational Theories of Community and Leadership Development class.
"He brought a wealth of life experience to class, not just because he was an older student but because he was so thoughtful about the experiences he has had, because he brought an energy and enthusiasm for learning, for gaining new perspectives, and for jumping into challenges however hard they are.," she said. "I think all of us — students and myself included— learned from him. The material I taught in this class—theories of inequality and social change — was hard and intimidating to most students. He could have been intimidated, too, but engaged the challenge with relish. He always wanted to know more, and asked questions when he wasn’t getting something, also showing others that hard stuff is ok – it’s an invitation to push yourself. I could tell this is how he lives his whole life and feel lucky to have had a chance to share a classroom with him his final year."
It's been hard work as he works part time as an academic advisor for the swim and dive teams, made more difficult by the language requirement that was not in place when he was in school.
"I have a 3.5 GPA, but it would be better if I didn't have Spanish," he joked.
On Friday, he gets to walk with other UK graduates and finally receive his diploma, a moment he says fills him with chills. Best of all, the degree has been free, part of UK's Cawood Ledford Post-Eligibility Scholarship program, which began in 1992 under then-Athletics Director C.M. Newton. More than 100 former UK athletes have used the scholarship to return for degrees, including Jodie Meeks (basketball), Randall Cobb (football) and Ryan Strieby (baseball); it's currently budgeted at about $227,000 a year to pay for tuition and books.
The program has continued under current Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, said Bradley, a recognition of what athletes do for UK, and what UK owes them. Bradley is retiring in August after 40 years at UK, but says he's glad he was here for White.
"Oliver is a role model for all of us facing a new challenge later in life.," he said. "He bowed his neck, dug in and pushed through to the finish. Not an easy task for any older adult but the opportunity is there."
After graduation, White will start looking for jobs, which he hopes might continue with athletic academic advising. He has plenty to talk to the students about. Mostly regarding their future diplomas.
"When you're young, you don't think ahead," he said. "I tell these guys, 'finish your degree while you're there because sooner or later you're not going to be able to play ball.'
"For me, getting a degree means everything."
UK Gradution will be held on May 4 and May 6 at Rupp Arena
Friday, May 4:
10:00 A.M. - College of Agriculture, Food & Environment, College of Communication & Information, College of Public Health, the Martin School of Public Policy & Administration, the Patterson School of Diplomacy & International Commerce
2:00 P.M. - Gatton College of Business & Economics, College of Health Sciences, College of Fine Arts, College of Nursing, College of Pharmacy
Sunday, May 6:
10:00 A.M. - College of Arts & Sciences, College of Social Work, College of Design
2:00 P.M. - College of Education, College of Engineering, College of Medicine