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LSU's Athletes Excel On and Off the Field

Sophomore business major Eric Reid Jr. is a nerd.

A dork. A dweeb. A geek.

Call him whatever you like: the facts are indisputable. He knew what he wanted to major in – business administration – before he enrolled at LSU. He was named to an honor roll as a freshman. He's on course to graduate in 3.5 years. He doesn't hesitate to admit that winning a national academic award is one of his major collegiate goals.

But there’s something that sets Reid apart from the rest of the honor roll students in the E. J. Ourso College of Business: When the No. 1-ranked LSU football team takes the field in Tiger Stadium to play Florida on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be out there at safety trying to disrupt the Gators’ offense, swatting away passes intended for receivers and delivering devastating tackles to ball carriers.

Yeah, he’s that Eric Reid. The one who is second on the team this year in fumbles recovered and total tackles. The one who had interception returns of 31 and 32 yards against No. 12 Arkansas and No. 18 Texas A&M respectively as a true freshman last season.

Forget 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday –Reid is a nerd who one day soon will be paid handsomely to work on Sundays.

LSU’s athletic prowess is no secret to anyone who follows the Tigers. The football team is currently the top-ranked team in the country, and has won two BCS national championships. The baseball team has won six national championships since the start of the 1990s. The men’s and women’s track and field teams have won 31 national titles between them, and have sent numerous athletes to the Olympics (where they live for the gold literally as well as figuratively). Last year LSU became the first school in history to win the men’s and women’s individual golf titles in the same season.

But there’s one thing that ESPN, CBS and ABC rarely mention while broadcasting Tigers and Lady Tigers games – LSU’s athletes pull their weight in the classroom too.

College athletes have, it must be said, a bad reputation in the eyes of the public when it comes to academic prowess. They’re slackers. Their GPAs are below the Mendoza Line. The only books they read are playbooks.

But for the most part that stereotype is simply untrue.

Geek Squad
Eric Reid (l) and D.J. Howard (r) in one of the CCACSA's computer labs. Student-athletes study and receive tutoring in the labs.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

The LSU Lady Tigers golf team, led by 2011 national champion Austin Ernst – who fired a hole-in-one during the final round of the NCAA Championships – graduated 100 percent of its student-athletes between 2004 and 2008. The men’s golf, women’s cross country, gymnastics, women’s tennis and volleyball teams are all ranked in the 70th-80th percentile among all sports in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, making them among the top 20-30 percent of academically-achieving collegiate sports teams nationwide. Among SEC football teams, only Vanderbilt and Georgia graduate a higher percentage of players than LSU.

As of 2003, the most recent year that a complete data set is available from the NCAA, student-athletes were 15 percent more likely to graduate from college than non-athletes.

When you look at the numbers, the stereotype of the dumb jock crumbles faster than a wide receiver who knows Reid is about to tackle him.

“We have a stigma that we may not be the brightest ones, but I think something [the public] doesn't realize is the amount of studying that goes on,” said punter D.J. Howard, who averaged 38.9 yards per punt while filling in for an injured Brad Wing this year.

Howard, who is currently working on his Master of Business Administration after graduating with a management degree in May, was one of 15 LSU football players named to the 2010 SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll. Another two football players – including Reid – were named to the 2011 SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll.

In all, 162 LSU student-athletes were named to the SEC’s various honor rolls during the 2010-11 academic year, a list that in addition to Reid, Howard and Ernst also includes Major League Baseball first-round draft pick Mikie Mahtook (baseball), 2011 NCAA champion John Peterson (men’s golf), 2010 SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Rachel Fico (softball), Canadian U-20 national team member Allysha Chapman (soccer) and volleyball standout Madie Jones.

The 162 athletes – who, among other on-field criteria, needed GPAs above 3.0 to be eligible for the SEC’s academic awards – represent 24 First-Team All-America, seven Second-Team All-America, 17 Honorable Mention All-America and one Freshman All-America awards; two NCAA championships; and three SEC championships.

“Being named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll is really important because the more athletes we have on the honor roll, the better LSU looks,” said Chapman, who represented Canada at the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and picked up First-Team All-SEC honors last year. “It means a lot for LSU to know that we’re not giving our scholarships away to just athletes; we’re giving them away to students.”

“It means that my hard work paid off,” said Reid of being named to the 2011 SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll. “I got recognized for my work, and I’m happy about it. A goal I set for myself is to be an Academic All-America. I’m still working on that, but hopefully later on I’ll get that.”

Like teammate Howard, Reid is a student in the E. J. Ourso College of Business. However, the safety and the punter aren’t the biggest bookworms on the football team – that honor, both figuratively and literally, goes to 6-6, 301-pound left guard Josh Dworaczyk, a senior working towards his degree in education.

That would be Dworaczyk’s second degree, as he already graduated from LSU with his first earlier this year.

Reid, Howard and Dworaczyk – who will not suit up for LSU this year after injuring his knee shortly before the season started – are carrying on a proud tradition, as the team has produced a number of stellar scholars in recent years. Rodney Reed, 1993 graduate, was a two-time First-Team Academic All-American, four-time SEC Academic Honor Roll member and a National Scholar-Athlete award winner; and 2005 graduate Rudy Niswanger won the Draddy Trophy (the “Academic Heisman”), while also being named SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year, National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete, two-time First-Team Academic All-American, three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll member, and summa cum laude graduate and University Medalist with a 4.0 GPA in pre-medicine.

Geek Squad
Allysha Chapman (l) and Madie Jones (r ) study together in the Steven W. Deumite Library. The library is the largest study room in the academic center.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

Niswanger graduated prior to the start of his senior season and put medical school on hold for a year so he could finish his LSU career. Six years later, medical school is still on hold as Niswanger is still in the NFL, most recently with the Detroit Lions.

Niswanger and Reed left quite a legacy for todays Tigers to follow, though it’s a legacy Reid has been preparing himself to live up to for many years.

“My dad taught me when I was young that school came first, and if I didn’t do well in school then I didn’t get to play sports,” said the sophomore defensive back. “I used that and carried that over into football. When they gave me the playbook, I studied that just like I studied in school, and last year it worked to my benefit.”

The link between athletic success and academic success may be a tenuous one as far as some armchair quarterbacks are concerned, but it’s very real in the eyes of LSU’s superb student-athletes

“Being competitive and being on a team helps me in classes,” said junior volleyball outside hitter Jones. “On Moodle, we’re ranked where we are in the class, and I’m always shooting to be first or top 5. I’m really competitive in that respect.”

In addition to landing the budding engineer on the SEC Academic Honor Roll, Jones’ competitive streak is paying dividends for LSU on the volleyball court too. Her .308 hitting percentage and 186 kills lead all regular starters for the SEC West-leading Tigers, and her kills per set and points per set are both among the top 10 in the conference.

LSU’s commitment to supporting brainiacs from all walks of life – regardless of whether they’re athletically gifted or not – means students have at their disposal all manner of study aids. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the Center for Academic Success, a national award-winning center dedicated to helping LSU students improve their grades and maximize their learning potential.

Available for use by all LSU students, the Center for Academic Success helps students fine-tune their critical thinking skills and develop better learning strategies, and offers free tutoring and study sessions.

But the needs of your typical student-athlete are a little more unique than those of other students – a uniqueness that extends far beyond the list of cold and flu remedies student-athletes aren’t allowed to take when they’re feeling under the weather. During their seasons, student-athletes can miss anywhere from a few hours of class on a Friday afternoon (for football players) to half a week (for golfers). When they’re not on the road competing, they’re trying to juggle their class schedules with practice schedules, while still finding time for homework.

“My Mondays and Tuesdays are the busiest because that’s when I have labs,” said Chapman, who is taking 17 hours of upper level biology classes during her senior season with the No. 14-ranked soccer team so she can earn her biology degree in December. “On Wednesdays, I have practice, shower after practice, go straight from the soccer complex to class, have two hours of class, go home, eat lunch and come back to school for another one-and-a-half-hour class.”

Chapman’s academic prowess is hardly unique on the LSU soccer team, as a total of nine members of the 2010 squad were named to the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll, including seven starters. Including Jones, five members of the volleyball team made the same honor roll, four of whom were regular starters.

“I wake up, go to class, come home for a little bit and have something to eat, go to volleyball practice, go straight from volleyball to weights, then after that I’ll have some sort of club meeting afterwards, and then usually get home around eight or nine and go straight to bed because I’m so tired,” said Jones, who is an industrial engineering student in a department that’s not only ranked the best in Louisiana by the U.S. News and World Report, but is also ranked ahead of SEC rivals Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State.

All of that work must mean road trips to away games are a time to relax and focus on nothing more than LSU’s next opponent, right?

Wrong.

“Our Saturdays are nice, they give us a chance to relax,” said Howard, who plans on owning his own alternative energy company after earning his MBA. “We can hang around our rooms and settle down and not have a full day of football. There’s usually a couple of hours where I can squeeze some homework in and catch up on a couple of things.”

“If I have a really big test I’ll bring my stuff on the road,” said Reid. “If it’s something I think I can handle then I’ll study before the game and try to get it finished so I don’t have to worry about it.”

With such unique time constraints placed upon them, LSU’s student-athletes need a little extra help to manage their schedules and stay on course to graduate.

Enter the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes, or CCACSA.

"The Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes is our student-athletes' home away from home, therefore, we advocate, support, and encourage success in all aspects of their lives," said CCACSA executive director Kenneth Miles. "We do not do this alone. We have a tremendous amount of support from campus resources, and together we develop retention strategies to improve their social integration into campus life and Baton Rouge, as well as their academic success."

“We are the student-athletes’ primary advisor, but we work very well with people on campus to make sure that we’re in line with what they’re doing,” said Derek Cowherd, director of academic affairs at the CCACSA. “We make sure that we’re in line with what the advisors on campus are saying because they’re the ones who certify the degrees. But we know more than them what time constraints the students have with practice and what the coaches need, and that’s too much to put on anybody on campus.”

The list of things the CCACSA handles is impressive. Cowherd and the other advisors schedule tutoring and study hall hours, monitor eligibility, and handle class scheduling to ensure students stay on track to graduate – and to make sure they don’t fill their schedules with the underwater basket weaving classes some critics accuse student-athletes of taking.

“It’s the first thing for almost every coach to show when an athlete is here on a recruiting visit, and they’re upset if they don’t get to show it first,” said Cowherd. “[Head football coach Les] Miles’ spiel is not, ‘Hey how are you doing? I saw your game.’ It’s always, ‘Hey, how about that academic center?’ It's the first thing he says to every recruit, and its not just lip service. He’s serious, and he talks about that with the family and the kid for a long time. He preaches academics, graduation and national championships.”

“The consensus among the parents after we give the tour is it’s up to the kid, because anything they could need to help them navigate their four years at LSU is here,” said Walt Holliday, assistant director of the CCACSA. “They have all the resources available to them, and the onus is on them.”

The importance of a building like the academic center for LSU’s student-athletes is not something that is lost on the budding sports stars either.

“It caught my attention that LSU had a whole facility for academics,” said Reid. “That’s something in my family that’s really important.”

Family is definitely important to Reid, whose father, Eric Reid Sr., was a three-time All-American and 1987 NCAA champion as a hurdler at LSU. The younger Reid chose to major in business so he could manage his money in the NFL, and then use it to help his family.

“My goal and dream ever since I was in high school was to go to the NFL, and if I was fortunate enough to get there to then open my own business,” he said. “It would be a family business. That’s my whole plan: Make it to the league and open doors for business.”

While the earning potential in the Women’s Professional Soccer league compared to the NFL may not be in the same stratosphere, soccer midfielder Chapman – who was honored as a CollegeSoccer360.com Primetime Performer of the Week this week after helping limit the potent No. 10 Tennessee and Georgia offenses to one goal combined – nevertheless plans on joining the likes of Marta, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan in the professional ranks, saying, “I want to try and go pro next year. I’m going to start with that and see where I go from there.”

But before she can start earning money trying to stymie the world’s top offenses, she has to overcome the 17 hours of biology classes standing between her and her degree. Lucky for her, and lucky for LSU, she enjoys studying biology as much as she enjoys studying her opponents’ attacking tendencies.

“I really liked my genetics class here,” she said. “There’s math in it, and I’m pretty strong mathematically, and it’s interesting to see how people get the traits that they do. I like genetics.”

Whether or not people are genetically predisposed to liking the colors purple and gold isn’t scientifically proven, but it’s a fact that LSU is home to many – and wants to attract more – academic all-stars.

LSU’s alumni have invented spacecraft, governed nations, run Fortune 500 companies, won Oscars and Emmys, written bestsellers and recorded platinum-selling albums, led soldiers into battle and saved lives.

LSU is in the top tier of U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” list for the fourth year in a row, and the incoming freshman classes are not only growing in size, they’re also bringing higher test scores than ever with them.

Chapman, Howard, Jones and Reid aren’t that different when compared to LSU’s other outstanding current and future leaders of industry. They study just as hard as the students in the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture who recently won five major national awards. They do their homework just as diligently as any of LSU’s 14 Rhodes Scholars.

The only difference is while LSU fans fill the stands each weekend to cheer for the Tigers, those four – and their fellow honor roll teammates – are getting ready to show that just because they’re nerds doesn’t mean they’re not also jocks.