WASHINGTON — In his decade as an NFL offensive lineman, Derrick Dockery has never had such a challenging schedule.
His three young children — ages 5, 3 and 2 — rouse him out of bed by 7:30 a.m. He and his wife, Emma, get them dressed and take them to school. Then the couple makes the one-hour drive from their Virginia home to George Washington University in the nation's capital, where they spend eight hours trying to absorb a week's worth of material in pursuit of a master's degree from one of the most prestigious business schools in the country.
Some nights there's a three-hour study session tacked on. Otherwise, it's back home to get the kids in bed and then two hours or so of homework.
Sure, there are plenty of stories about NFL players going back to school to finish a degree or start a new one. Few of them go about it quite like this.
"It's pretty intense," said Dockery, a free agent who spent the last two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. "Our time is limited with each other. Our time with our kids is limited. But we feel like it's a sacrifice for a larger reward long-term."
More than 40 current and former players — including Shawne Merriman, Will Witherspoon, Marques Colston, Antwaan Randle El, Samari Rolle and Stephen Bowen — are doing the extreme cram degree, attempting to earn a full MBA from GW by taking a series of two-week courses over two offseasons.
This is no free ride, in every sense of the phrase. The athletes are responsible for the roughly $110,000 for tuition, travel and lodging, and the program — which include non-athletes — has a dropout rate of about 10 percent. Emma Dockery said the financial markets class is taught by a professor known as "Mr. C." in the graduate business school "because his highest grade typically is a C."
"I want to break down those stereotypes," said Dockery, who admits he wasn't exactly the most motivated of students when he was on his athletic scholarship at the University of Texas. "Especially all those negative ones, the bad ones. NFL, athletes in general.
"When I walk into a room, I want to be one of those guys who's engaging and knows what he's talking about. This gives me an opportunity to garner those skills and get that information that I need, so when I do walk in that meeting I'm prepared, I know what I'm talking about. I'm a better student now because I take it more seriously."
In theory, Dockery and his wife should already be set for life. He signed a pair of free agent contracts that guaranteed him more than $26 million in 2007 and 2009, but he's also seen firsthand the teammates who waste their fortunes and have no plans for life after football. He's involved in a political action committee and can give his own analytical argument for solving the country's budget deficit. If he doesn't play another down, he's ready to move on and will have quite the resume to do so after graduation day on May 17.
"We always try to plan for worst case scenario," Emma Dockery said. "We've been very blessed financially and we are thankful to be where we are right now, but you just never know."
The Dockerys started the program last spring. Two weeks at GW. Then a two-week online course. Then two weeks at Columbia in New York. Then two weeks at UCLA over the summer. The cycle repeats itself this year, except for an optional trip to Shanghai in May instead of the stint at UCLA. It would have been almost impossible to get it all done a few years ago, before the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement limited the amount of time that teams can hold offseason workouts.
Classes meet Saturdays and Sundays, although a rare Thursday off gave the Dockerys and Tennessee Titans linebacker Witherspoon a chance to talk about their endeavors over lunch. Witherspoon owns a 500-acre cattle farm in Missouri and was educating the table about the benefits of all-natural probiotic fertilizer and what to look for in various types of beef.
Witherspoon, who splits his offseason home between Nashville and the farm, is staying in a hotel, so his schedule for these two weeks isn't as frenetic as the Dockerys'. Unlike Derrick Dockery, Witherspoon was a high-octane student at the University of Georgia, getting an atypical football player's degree in housing and community development with minors in horticulture and landscape architecture.
"I'm programmed to do something all the time," the 11-year veteran said.
Witherspoon believes there is a "silent majority" of NFL players who do plan responsibility for the future, but they get overshadowed by the attention given to the spectacular failures who waste everything. Even so, the GW program is a step beyond the norm, and it's not for everyone.
"Some people have found it a little overwhelming and are moving on," Witherspoon said.
Until it was mentioned to him, Witherspoon didn't realize one irony of the situation: After getting free tuition at a major football school, he's now paying lots to attend one that doesn't even play the sport.
"Well, that's kind of good," he said with a chuckle. "It means you're focused on education."