IOWA CITY, Iowa — Desmond King became the only Jim Thorpe Award winner to return to school, and there were multiple reasons why.
The Iowa senior cornerback wanted to earn his degree. On Saturday, in only 3 1/2 years, he did that as an African-American studies major. King also wanted to finish his football career with his teammates. On Jan. 2, he’ll do that, too.
Neither was a small task or certainty. As the nation’s top defensive back in 2015, King had a chance to enter the NFL draft and was a likely first- or second-round draft pick. For a tough kid out of Detroit, the idea of significant money was tough to turn down. But the college degree was too important to him and his mother, Yvette Powell.
King initially struggled balancing football with schoolwork, but he acquired time management skills as a freshman. That helped him focus on both while he took 14-15 credits per semester and two classes every summer. By the time he reached his senior season, King realized he needed only one more semester of classes.
Last Saturday, King walked across the stage at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a purple and gold Omega Psi Phi fraternity stole. King stopped as he saw Provost Barry Butler and pulled out his cellphone.
“It was spontaneous,” King said. “I’m going up there on stage and I noticed I had my phone out and I’m up there like this is a great moment, this is a Kodak moment. ‘Why not go up there and take a picture?’ I asked Barry would you like to take a selfie and he said, ‘Sure.'”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was proud of King’s latest accomplishment, especially with the time he took to complete it.
“It sends a really good message,” Ferentz said. “It’s kind of the way he works on the field. He just works, always practicing, doesn’t miss things.
“It’s really an admirable thing, and he’s the first guy in that family to graduate, which I know his mom is very, very proud of and Desmond is proud of it, too, and rightfully so.”
With tears down his mother’s cheeks, King’s whirlwind academic career at Iowa ended with that moment. Just two more weeks remain in his Iowa tenure. If he starts the Outback Bowl, he sets a school record with 51 starts.
And there’s no doubt: He’s starting in the Outback Bowl. Unlike prominent players like LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, King won’t skip out on his final game to prepare for the NFL draft. He never even thought about it.
“For me? Oh, no. Not at all,” King said. “That’s the reason why I came back here. It’s all about playing with your brothers, the guys that’s next to you. But like I said, from a teammate standpoint, I will support them 100 percent (if they chose not to play). I’m behind them because this is their career and this is their decision.”
Opponents avoided King on nearly every pass attempt this year. King often shuts down half the field, so he collected only two interceptions this year after eight as a junior. That kept him from earning consensus All-America honors for the second consecutive year, although multiple organizations did list him as a first-team All-American. When asked if not earning consensus status was disappointing, King said, “Not really.”
“I know the statistics I put up last year,” he said. “I didn’t expect anyone to take shots at me. They took a couple. I did what I could.”
King still has a 2015 prize to collect. He earned a Rolex watch last year as part of his Jim Thorpe Award treasure. At the Feb. 7 ceremony in Oklahoma, which will honor 2016 winner Adoree’ Jackson of USC, King will claim his hardware.
“I called Adoree’ Jackson after he won, (and) he told me he had my Rolex in his hand,” King said. “I told him to put it down. It was pretty funny because I told him I’m coming to collect my items and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ll see you in Oklahoma.’ I’m pretty excited to get that and to meet the new Jim Thorpe Award winner.”
King also picked up a cowboy hat last year, which he brought back to Iowa. It now sits in his closet. He’ll dig it out and wear it in his return to Oklahoma.
But life is more than just football, and King’s graduation symbolizes that. The pillars of Omega Psi Phi include manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift. Those words helped form the cornerstones of King’s daily life at Iowa. They helped him get through adversity and balance his life. They helped him become a leader. They helped him graduate from college in 3 1/2 years.
“About manhood, just the things you do daily as a man,” King said. “Scholarship, like your education. That’s one reason why I came back to college to get my degree. Just persevering through anything that you can overcome. Uplifting others, giving, caring, and enjoying other people.”
As life stands for King, he’s a college graduate, a proud fraternity member, an All-America defensive back, a soon-to-be Rolex owner with a cowboy hat. He’s likely to become a first-round NFL draft pick in April.
Life is good indeed.