Nakobe Dean waited just eight days after the Philadelphia Eagles lost Super Bowl LVII before sitting down in a 30-person fluid mechanics class at the University of Georgia. He bounced back from a rookie season that stretched a month longer than most of his peers by taking a course in heat transfer.
Super Bowl Sunday, clean out your closet and attend exit meetings in the days after, and make sure you’re in class and taking notes the following Monday.
This is an atypical way for a professional football player to spend his first offseason. But Dean is the atypical type.
He is a trained mechanical engineer who aspires to open a prosthetics company. First comes his NFL career, but he has 26 credit hours left to earn his degree after completing six hours this spring in fluid mechanics and heat transfer. If anyone in the Eagles locker room wants to know how the diameter of pipes changes with fluid, or how heat is transferred between windows and walls, find No. 17. He can tell you. (Among the remaining courses, one is on orbit. That one will be much more difficult, he warns.)
“I wasn’t just an athlete going to school — I was a student-athlete,” Dean shared Athletics last week. “I was a student who had the opportunity to play a sport that I love. I knew my ‘why’ – to go to school and get an education.”
Dean would have been an impressive student in his own right — he had a 3.55 GPA before leaving school — but he also happened to be the best linebacker in college football as a junior in 2021. He left Georgia early and was selected by Eagles in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Dean was mostly a special teams contributor as a rookie. But he’s projected to be the Eagles’ top linebacker in 2023, and the team (and Dean) plan accordingly.
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Before he could begin the offseason program, however, he was back on Georgia’s campus. As a rookie with the Eagles, Dean set the wheels in motion. He set his schedule in November for the postseason, determining what was left on his transcript and what funds were available. The academic calendar started in early January as the Eagles prepared for the postseason. There were no virtual opportunities for classes, so he learned the best he could through notes from his peers. Teammates heard he was going back to school, and some could empathize. Quarterback Jalen Hurts received his master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma this offseason.
“There’s something in the Philadelphia Eagle water,” said Carla Lide-Buglione, the NFL’s senior manager of player engagement.
Lide-Buglione wanted to know. She helps and educates about a league benefit that helps players get their degrees. The NFL and the NFL Players Association have a collectively bargained tuition reimbursement program that allows players to pursue a diploma or advanced education program. (It was put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic and is back in effect now.) It’s a tiered program based on the player’s credited season, ranging from $20,000 to $85,000. But Lide-Buglione called it “almost unheard of” for a player to return after his rookie season, in part because of the adjustment to the NFL.
“It is extremely atypical. (Dean is) like this NFL unicorn,” Lide-Buglione said. “Because going back at the end of your rookie year, you’re playing on a Super Bowl team, that’s not the norm. And it just shows how much grit you have. You think differently and you plan differently. And his motivation is his mother and his personal history and connection to her medical problem. And so it’s very atypical. We don’t see that much. We see most guys in their third, fourth, fifth year saying, ‘You know what, I never finished my degree’ or ‘I’m thinking of getting a graduate degree. Let me take advantage of the league’s benefits.’
Dean didn’t think twice. His mother is a veteran, and he grew up in Horn Lake, Miss., where he attended the VA Hospital. This exposed him to veterans with lost limbs. He became interested in prosthetics and was determined to learn more about them in college. He didn’t like chemistry, so he bypassed the pre-med track and studied mechanical engineering instead. He has since become interested in entrepreneurship, and he would like to combine the two majors to open a prosthetics business – of course with football as a daily routine.
“My mom always made me (focus on) academics,” Dean said. “We never had anyone from my family play college ball, or barely even in high school. … So for me to earn, my family was always pushing academics, academics, academics.”
The NFL also uses Dean as an advocate for continuing education. He spoke on a panel earlier this month in Orlando, Fla., about his experience returning to school. Dean shared his story, explained his purpose and began testimony that the league plans to continue wiretapping.
“He was talking like a six- or seven-year-old player,” Lide-Buglione said. “‘I don’t know what tomorrow may bring and I have to prepare for my second career now.’ A lot of times you don’t hear rookies or second year players actually own that reality. It’s usually later as a veteran player. And they’re like, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve got to get involved in something. I have to prepare. I have to go back to school.’ To hear that from someone that young was like, “OK, this guy gets it.” And I have to bottle it up and pitch it to other younger players so they can prepare as well, because we’ve seen over the years that peer-to-peer is what sells. The league could come up with the best marketing campaign, the best advertising. That’s hearing it from a Jalen Hurts. It is to hear it from Nakobe.”
Once completed, the league sends a customized game ball with the player’s name, school and grade, accompanied by a letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledging the work done while he played.
“I hope I’m seen as more than just an athlete and football player,” Dean said. “But seen as someone who values education, values business and entrepreneurship.”
Dean will get that recognition one day. He has 26 hours left.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / Athletics; photos: John Greim / LightRocket, Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire, Matthew Hatcher / Getty Images)