The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charles Mann gets his college degree, 32 years after Redskins drafted him

Charles Mann, in the Super Bowl. (1992 photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

During the first offseason of his pro football career, Charles Mann decided he would begin finishing his college degree.

The defensive end had been drafted in the third round by the Redskins in 1983, leaving Nevada without completing his business coursework. In his first pro season, Washington went to the Super Bowl. That spring, Mann said, he signed up for a night accounting class at George Mason. But within the first few weeks, the already-popular defensive lineman missed one of the sessions. When he returned, he was lost.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Mann said this week. “It was like they were talking in Chinese, and I had no understanding. I went to maybe one more class, and then I filed an incomplete and dropped out.”

More than quarter-century later, Mann traveled to Southern Cal to watch his oldest child, Camille, receive her college degree in print journalism (!), with a minor in art history — accomplishing something he had never done himself. That experience started Mann down a road that will take him to Verizon Center on Saturday afternoon, when he will receive a bachelor’s in business administration from Strayer University.

Mann, 54, said he never thought about taking classes during his NFL career after that first attempt at George Mason. As time went by and he started racking up Pro Bowl appearances and sponsorship deals, a college degree seemed less important. But he began considering it again six or seven years ago, when he started wondering if he might have a future in politics, and if that would even be possible without a degree.

Seeing Camille graduate in 2010 pushed him over the edge.

“As happy as I was for her that day, I was sad for me,” Mann said. “I said, ‘Wow, she completed something that her dad never completed.’ And it just stuck in my craw, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Not long after, Mann said, he was discussing his potential schooling at a charity golf tournament. Rob Silberman, the executive chairman of for-profit Strayer, overheard the conversation and handed Mann his card. By fall 2011, after meeting with a Strayer counselor, Mann was back in school, taking two classes a quarter — one online, and one at the school’s Ashburn campus.

Despite the three-plus years at Nevada, Mann still needed 24 classes to graduate. That meant three years of night school, of classes in statistics and accounting, in economics and finance. It meant writing papers and doing homework, having study sessions with college-aged kids and continuing-ed students, some who knew about the former Super Bowl winner’s past and some who didn’t. Mann said he sat in the front of every classroom he entered, asked frequent questions, became part of “a little crew” of students taking similar courses, and “worked my butt off for three years.”

His business law professor — a Redskins fan — assigned him a presentation about the liability of football helmet manufacturers for injuries suffered by players. She liked it so much that she continued inviting him back to address her students.

“They were mesmerized by it, even if they weren’t football fans,” the professor, Renee Berry, said. “He was all-in. He had a great sense of humor; he was an active participant in my discussions. I loved having him.”

Mann said he still won’t show his three kids his transcript from Nevada — “if my kids ever saw it, I would be ruined as a father,” he joked — but he will happily share his more recent work. He said he received just three B’s over the 24 classes, and will graduate cum laude Saturday. He’ll also be giving the commencement keynote address; he already shared his 15-minute speech with youngest daughter Casey, a senior at North Carolina, for proofreading.

“I’ll be right there, cheering him on,” Casey said. “My dad never starts something and doesn’t finish it. There was no doubt he was going to finish. I didn’t know when, but I knew there was going to be a graduation for sure.”

After seeing Steve Harvey doing commercials for Strayer, Mann also reached out to the school about forming some sort of partnership himself.

“I was like, ‘What? I’m living it,'” Mann remembered thinking when he saw Harvey’s spots. “I’m on that campus; I’m doing the dirty work.”

As a result, Mann is partnering with Strayer on a four-part “inspirational video series” about, among other things, returning to college as an adult. He also said he’s “almost certain” he will enter politics at some point; first, he plans to start working on his MBA at Strayer this summer.

But before that, he has a diploma, a cap and gown and a speech to think about. One of his talking points Saturday will involve an expression he uses often, so often that his son — to Mann’s extreme chagrin — got it tattooed on his arm.

That phrase? “It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.”