Earl Bennett’s post-NFL success: From Bears receiver to life with a Ph.D.
What is the process of writing a doctoral thesis? Like Earl Bennett said, it’s kind of like being a Chicago Bears veteran at the end of August.
There aren’t many people in this world who can make that kind of connection, but intersectionality is what Bennett is about these days.
Bennett can say he successfully completed six training camps in Bourbonnais, Illinois, and successfully defended a thesis at the University of Houston. Who else can say he pulled off that combination?
The wide receiver, who spent his entire six-year NFL career with the Bears, earned his doctorate in philosophy from the university’s higher education leadership and policy studies department in December, with a thesis titled “Promoting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the University”. Sports departments.
“For me, essay mode was like the third week of camp (training),” he said in a recent phone conversation. “You don’t want to be here. it’s hot. Your body is tired. You hate every game call. You hate being in Bourbonnais. You hate getting in the car trying to find a restaurant. And somehow you find a way to persevere through it all.
HOODED #PhD #Dr Bennett pic.twitter.com/FxTGprce3D
— Earl B. Bennett, PhD (@EarlBBennett) December 18, 2022
Over the past few years, you’ve had John Urschel, Myron Rolle, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif as examples of NFL players with PhDs or MDs Dozens of NFL players go back to school when their playing careers are over to complete their undergraduate degrees, but how many continue like Bennett did, especially when they have money, family, business investments and a full-time job?
That’s what Vanderbilt football coach Clark Lea wanted to know when he hired Bennett, now executive director of player development and administration at Vanderbilt, to work at his alma mater ahead of the 2021 season.
“(Lea) says, ‘So for the past two years you’ve done your job at a high level, you’ve also managed to stay married, and your kids are thriving. But also, you’re finishing that Ph.D. program,’ a Bennett said. “He was just like, ‘How?'”
During those two years, during the work week, Bennett said he would walk into the football offices at 6 a.m. and write for two hours. He would then put his thesis out of his mind to do his job working with Vanderbilt football players and the athletic department. When he returned home, he went into family mode with his wife, Rekeshia, son, Earl Jr., and daughter, Skylah.
Any successful professional athlete must be able to compartmentalize. Bennett just didn’t quit. Many find it difficult to balance work and private life. He seems to have understood something.
“There was no way that once I got into that program I wouldn’t finish it,” he said. “It just wasn’t an option for me.”
Of course, he added a doctorate. to his social media profile, but just in case you think he’s getting a big head, Bennett said his kids keep him cool.
“It’s just like, ‘Oh, so you’re a doctor now, you’re having a great time, dad,'” he said with a laugh.
His colleagues at Vanderbilt also had fun putting “Dr.” on his office nameplate.
Bennett is an official SEC legend and is still second all-time in the conference with 236 receptions, behind former Vanderbilt wide receiver/current San Francisco 49ers tight end Jordan Matthews and ahead of former Alabama and current Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeVonta Smith. But these days, it’s more comfortable having a young receiver do an internship at Google than watching a video with them.
Bennett, who watches some footage with the players, works with football staff on recruiting, and he spends a lot of time volunteering with the team and helping players adjust to a physically rigorous college. academic.
“I do most of the programming for our football players,” he said. “It’s mentoring. It’s internships. It’s community service. It’s NIL, which is a monster in itself. It’s the relationship with the parents. It never ends, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Bennett completed his undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt in 2015, a year after retiring from the NFL, then earned a master’s degree in 2018. He was halfway through his doctoral program in Houston when Lea applied for a job.
They talked about the role, but when it came time to accept, Bennett kept pushing Lea away. He and his family had a good life at The Woodlands, located just outside of Houston. Bennett never expected to return to football. After the 2013 NFL season, he rejected a pay cut with the Bears to become a free agent. He was released by the Cleveland Browns that summer, and he said that when a Minnesota Vikings representative told him they would take care of his knees (he blew his knee in high school ) with rest and painkillers, he decided to retire at age 27. .
“I was like, ‘This is the last thing I need.’ If you look at cortisone shots, they don’t really help,” Bennett said. “They make it worse in the long run.”
When Bennett retired from the league, his resume read “NFL receiver”. He wanted to be a professor or work in higher education, and open work in the athletic department was almost exactly what he was working on in his doctorate. It seemed like it was meant to be, so he and Rekeshia debated Lea’s offer. They prayed over it. And as often, they found clarity.
“We sat down and agreed that this place would be the best not only for my professional career, but for the development of our family,” he said. “We decided to move (to Tennessee) and everything was amazing. … It was the best place we could have landed in terms of starting my executive career.
Now that he’s completed his doctoral program, he said his goal is to become an athletic director like his mentor at Vanderbilt, Dr. Candice Storey Lee, or president of an NFL team. He has no interest in coaching or working on the football side of a front office. Even as an undergraduate with a view to making the NFL, Bennett said he felt like he had more to offer than football.
The focus of her thesis changed after she enrolled in the program. In the final version, he wanted to explore the idea that as universities began to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, athletic departments lagged behind.
“One of the reasons I wanted to bring up this particular topic is that you’re starting to see different buzzwords like ‘diversity, inclusion and equity’, and people don’t really understand how that relates to higher education. , let alone higher education athletic departments,” he said. “Being in this space for the past two years has given me a wealth of knowledge about the way to start dissecting and finding ways to make athletics more inclusive.”
When Bennett was a first-time student at Vanderbilt in 2004, he said he was more confident playing in the SEC than his ability to fit into the student body of a wealthy private college. He grew up as the youngest of five children in a single-parent family in Birmingham, Alabama, and was immersed in a completely different environment.
“I had to understand the importance of intersectionality knowing that I was an athlete, but there was so much more to me,” he said. “I had to embrace these multiple identities. Coming to Vanderbilt, I felt out of place, initially, and I think that’s partly because I had a 16 ACT score, and the head coach (banged) on the table for let me enter.
“I knew I could play. I’ve always been very confident in my skills. But as a student, it took me about a year and a half to get my footing. Just because I didn’t feel up to my I didn’t feel like my uniqueness was really embraced on campus at that time.
And now he’s back on this campus, showing other students how to be confident and how they can make it a better place.
He enjoys living in Nashville, the home of many retired athletes. He jokes that parent breakfasts at his kids’ school are like an NFL alumni event. He made new friends through this community, including former Bears player Jared Allen, who joined the team after Bennett’s departure.
After a short but productive NFL career (185 receptions, 2,277 yards and 12 touchdowns) and a reinvention as an academic, Bennett finds himself still a young man with a thirst for knowledge and a desire to make an impact. .
“Our goal is to always move the company forward,” he said. “The way you do that is to push yourself into those positions to actually do it. You must be part of it. For me, one of my favorite Malcolm X quotes is that you can always chase a dream, but it will never matter if you never catch it. I want to catch all my dreams.
(Illustration: John Bradford/The Athletic; photos courtesy of Earl Bennett; Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)