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Nearly four decades after leaving Tuskegee University for a professional football career that included a Super Bowl appearance with the Denver Broncos, Ken Woodard made good on his promise to become a Tuskegee graduate. This past spring semester, the 59-year-old Detroit native completed the last of the remaining two years’ worth of credits, the old-fashioned way — in the classroom, with students from another generation.
On May 11, he joined 521 other members of Tuskegee’s class of 2019 as he walked across the stage to receive his degree in construction science management.
“I always knew I would return to Tuskegee – and because of that, I made sure to hold on to my word. I wanted to earn my degree because it meant something to my mom and me,” he recalled. “I enjoyed education. It was one of my reasons for coming back, but I also wanted to make my mom proud and set an example for my family.”
Woodard first enrolled in Tuskegee in 1978 on a full-ride athletic football scholarship under the leadership of Coach Haywood Scissum while majoring in what was then called building technology. Also, during his initial time at Tuskegee, Woodard participated in Army ROTC, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served at Fort Riley, Kansas.
In 1982, however, he put his academic dreams on hold to pursue another dream – playing in the NFL. That year, he was drafted in the 10th round (274th overall) by the Denver Broncos. During his 10 years in the NFL, the former Denver Broncos linebacker became the first Tuskegee Golden Tiger to play in a Super Bowl — appearing in Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl against the New York Giants.
While with the Broncos, Woodard started 13 of 73 games, tallied 11 sacks, two interceptions (including a 27-yard return for a touchdown), and two fumble recoveries (one being a 16-yard touchdown return). His career later included two brief stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers.
As anyone would expect, the classroom changed a great deal during Woodard’s 35-year educational hiatus. He recalled that one of the biggest challenges he faced during his second time around as a student was adjusting to classroom technology.
“I remember a teacher saying, ‘All of the assignments could be found on Blackboard.’ I looked at him in dismay realizing that there couldn’t be many blackboards on campus, since I knew Tuskegee was up-to-date with technology — so I merely I thought he was joking. I was then told that the assignments were on the computer, online,” he recalled of realizing how big of a role technology would play in his college studies.
Woodard said his return to college as a traditional student left him with no regrets. When asked about his experience as a traditional student, Woodard said his classmates didn’t treat him as a former pro football player, but often as a regular student.
“Although I wasn’t considered a ‘traditional student,’ my instructors and peers treated me like a regular student – I was expected to adhere to the same course requirements and I personally held myself accountable to a higher expectation, because I knew they too were watching and wanting me to succeed as much as I did,” he noted.
“Coming back [for my degree] has made me a better person and has given me the chance to invest not only in my education, but in this university as well,” he continued.
Woodard has since started up the Skegee Golden Tigers, a booster club to support the university’s Athletics Department and provide scholarships to deserving students. In addition, during home football games, Woodard can be heard announcing game play-by-plays.
Woodard recalled how, now that he is a Tuskegee alumnus, his life has truly come full circle. He’s been able to fulfill his dream of playing football, provide for his family, and cross the finish line by receiving his degree. That circle will further expand this September when Woodard is inducted with 10 other honorees into the Tuskegee University Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Tuskegee has so much opportunity for students, and because of that, it has provided me with wonderful and endless possibilities,” he said. “Because of this institution, I’ve been able to deal with pressure, build my work ethic, and learn to never settle.”
© 2019, Tuskegee University