Joe Patten teaches a course at Monmouth University called The American Congress. It includes a model Congress, in which students assume the roles of current senators and try to pass legislation.
This past fall semester a particularly gifted student portrayed New Jersey’s Cory Booker with a knack for filibustering and a passion for criminal justice reform. He proposed an ambitious bill to expunge certain first-time offenses, like drug possession, to afford those with an otherwise clean record a better chance at employment.
“It was something I really believed in,” Miles Austin said. “It would be a great way to get people back on their feet.”
Yes, that Miles Austin. The former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, a two-time Pro Bowler who spent 10 years in the NFL, including brief stints with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, returned to Monmouth University and earned his degree in history (with a focus on political science). The 34-year-old completed a year’s worth of credits and did it the old-fashioned way — in the classroom, elbow-to-elbow with students from another generation.
“I went back because I want to be able to tell my kids, finish what you start,” the Garfield native said via phone last week. “I wanted to be in the classroom, I wanted to learn from professors, and history is something I’m passionate about.”
Although Austin won’t be walking at Monmouth’s commencement Wednesday — he is working in San Francisco as an assistant coach with the 49ers — the diploma already hangs from a wall in his Rumson home.
“It’s like opening up a late Christmas present,” he said.
In football parlance, Austin’s final route as a Hawk crossed the goal line. It’s a teachable moment, and not just for his kids.
‘An incredibly strong student’
Austin left Monmouth in 2006, catching on with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. In 2009 he led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,320 and scored 11 touchdowns. He still holds the franchise record for single-game yardage (250).
He married his college sweetheart Stacy Sydlo, who played lacrosse for the Hawks, and stayed in touch with their alma mater. Last spring Austin ran a leadership workshop there for high school athletes and coaches. While on campus in the fall he attended Monmouth football workouts regularly, dispensing advice to the receivers and mentoring Reggie White Jr., who just completed rookie minicamp with the New York Giants.
“We’re all very happy for Miles and very proud of him,” longtime Monmouth football coach Kevin Callahan said. “Regardless of how successful he’s been and what type of playing career he had, this piece was something that was missing in his life.”
Austin carried a heavy load of 19 credits over six classes in the fall, including The American Presidency, The Sociology of Aging, American Countercultures and History of Russia.
“He was an incredibly strong student,” said Patten, a political science professor. “He took all of the work ethic he had on the field and in the weight room and brought it to the classroom setting. His work ethic in the classroom was second to none.”
Austin fully immersed himself. On Election Night, when Patten chartered a bus so students could visit the campaign headquarters of U.S. Senate candidates Robert Menendez and Bob Hugin, Austin came along. In group projects, he led the way.
“When I was a student the first time around, I probably tried to do as little as possible in the group projects,” he said. “But now, because I wanted to get a good grade in class and do it the right way, I was very participatory and almost overly so.”
More than a few students recognized him, of course. When you star for the Cowboys, you’re an instant celebrity. Patten said Austin’s “natural charisma” helped him blend right in, and Austin appreciated that his peers “treated me like a regular student, which is exactly how I wanted to be treated.”
One thing is certain: His renown didn’t make the model Congress any easier.
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SOURCE: Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press