Former K-State, NFL player returns for college diploma 8 years later

By Bryan Richardson

You’ll have to excuse the student speaker at the K-State College of Human Ecology graduation for taking a while to earn his degree.

Nick Leckey had to make a six-year detour to the National Football League before finishing college. Leckey, a four-year starter at K-State, was the captain and starting center of KSU’s 2003 Big 12 championship team.

“Some people finish their undergraduate in three or four years,” he told the audience Saturday. “I finished mine in 12.”

Leckey, who majored in hotel and restaurant management, was 47 credits shy of graduation when the Arizona Cardinals selected him in the sixth round of the 2004 NFL Draft.

All of those credits still remained because it took Leckey a while to find his academic footing coming from Grapevine, Texas, in 2000.

Leckey started off at K-State as a finance major doing just enough to get by, he admitted. In his junior year, Leckey said his advisor suggested he try another major. He jumped at the chance, although he essentially became a freshman again.

As he told his story, his wife, Erin, their toddler son, Harris, and his family from Texas supported him from the front rows. The group included the two women he made a promise to eight years ago.

After being drafted by the Cardinals, Leckey promised his mother, Cathy Pate, and his aunt, Maggie Wilson, that he would get his degree. “It was long coming but well worth it,” Wilson said. “We’re proud of him.”

Pate said there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that Leckey would eventually fulfill his promise. “We both knew he was going to do it,” she said. “It just takes time.”

The time it would take was understood because everyone sensed the once-in-a-lifetime nature of playing in the NFL. “He had one of those detours you can’t pass up,” Pate said. “Everybody doesn’t get to play in the NFL.”

Even fewer people earn a Super Bowl ring like Leckey did with the New Orleans Saints in February 2010. It’s also a safe bet that fewer people still asked for an extension on a test because they were preparing for a Super Bowl that week like Leckey.

This is because he already enrolled in Second Wind, a K-State Division of Continuing Education program that helps former K-State athletes finish their degrees online.

Leckey joined people like former NBA player Rolando Blackman and former NFL player Tim Stone, who both earned degrees through the program.

Starting in January 2010, Leckey would take two classes per term - spring, summer and fall. He said he never got discouraged, even after initially thinking he only need 30 credits before his real climb of 47 credits was revealed.

Leckey said he realized he couldn’t play forever, and he wanted to start working on keeping his promise. He said he also wanted to be an example that K-State football coach Bill Snyder could use to show that players graduate.

This was an especially good attitude to have because by the start of the season following the Super Bowl win, Leckey was out of football. “I was essentially not wanted by any more teams,” he said. “It was a forced retirement, but I was happy with that.”

Leckey said he enjoyed his time playing professionally but kept things in perspective. “I never really got too wrapped up in what it was,” he said. “The NFL was just a job like a doctor or a teacher.”

Leckey said he is aware of the issues many former athletes have adapted to life away from football. He said taking his college classes helped him with this process.

“A lot of people get in trouble because they let football define them,” he said. “They can take football away, but they can’t take that degree.”

Leckey imparted some of the lessons from the NFL to his fellow graduates. He used two quotes from one of his favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Action is character” and “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” Leckey said he applies those quotes on a daily basis, which helped while in the NFL. In the bizarre world of the NFL, all 6 feet, 3 inches and nearly 300 pounds of Leckey was considered small.

“I cannot control my height, but I can control how hard I work and how much research and preparation I put into each game,” he said. “It’s a simple mantra of control what you can control that helped me survive six years in the NFL.”

More than 1,400 students graduated from K-State this weekend. Leckey may have had a previous career in football, but he is just like the rest of the graduates in seeking to take the next step.

Leckey, who lives in Lake Quivira, said he doesn’t want to limit himself in his job search. He said his quick thinking and communication skills learned from football will help him in his next career.

“I think that will allow me success in whatever endeavor chooses me,” he said.

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