Former No. 1 NFL draft choice Irving Fryar is a pastor in Mt. Holly, N.J., with a doctorate degree.
Photo by Omaha World Herald

Irving Fryar Beats the Odds, Earns His Doctorate Before 50

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider   

In this the season that celebrates 50 consecutive years of Nebraska football sellouts, Irving Fryar will turn 50 on Sept. 28. One of Nebraska’s best football players ever, Fryar already has celebrated his milestone because he promised himself he would earn a doctorate degree before 50. Fortunately, he beat the clock with more than three months to spare, and within two hours of receiving his diploma in North Carolina, Dr. Irving Fryar called Dr. Tom Osborne to thank the driving force behind the achievement.

Fryar was an All-American at Nebraska. He was one of The Triplets with Turner Gill and Mike Rozier, who will be sitting next to him Saturday when Nebraska opens the season against Southern Miss. Fryar was the first overall pick in the 1984 NFL Draft. From 1984-2000, he played with the Patriots, Dolphins, Eagles and Redskins. He caught 851 NFL passes and made the Pro Bowl five times, but none of that meant more to him than earning his Ph.D. in philosophy in theology from North Carolina College of Theology in Wilmington, N.C.

Fryar will join Rozier and be introduced at the first-quarter break Saturday, so the N-Sider asked Irving to go down-and-out for a pre-game Q&A, and we invite Husker fans everywhere to join our conversation:

Q: Rumor has it that we can’t call The Triplets Earth, Wind and Fryar anymore. It would be more accurate to say Dr. Fryar. True or false?

A: True. We all know what direction we’re supposed to go in, but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have to fight for it or work for it or go through some struggles and strains to get to it. Getting that doctoral degree was a hideous journey that ended with a great reward ... a Ph.D., and it means as much to me as almost anything I’ve ever done.

Q: You’re the pastor at the New Jerusalem House of God in your hometown of Mt. Holly, N.J. How does a doctorate help you there?

A: It had an immediate impact. I’ve been commissioned to open up a satellite school here in Mt. Holly, and we’re calling it the Burlington County College of Theology. We’re a fully accredited college where we service people with associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master's degrees and doctoral degrees. The degrees will go through the same place I received my degree. They only difference is they will be working through our satellite school, which will be located in the church I pastor.

Q: How does a longtime NFL player celebrate getting his doctorate?

A: Well, I received it on a Saturday in June and we had a big shindig the next day to celebrate the ninth anniversary of our church.  It was the perfect opportunity for me to announce that we were opening a satellite school. My degree was not just for me. It was for my congregation, the community and anybody else that I can help. We want to better our lives, and we know that the market pays based on value for a degree in education. I want to help people learn, be more knowledgeable and get better jobs. Maybe 3, 4 or 5 years from now, I’ll have 6, 7 or 8 congregants with full degrees, which will help them get better jobs. It’s already helped me. When I got my doctoral degree, I got another job at Union County Community College in Cranford, N.J., where I’m a professor of philosophy and sports management.

Q: Who would have thought you would do something like that and what would be the odds?

A: On my way back home after graduation, Dr. Tom Osborne was the first person I called because I wanted to let him know that the seeds he planted in me had taken root and grown.  I wanted to let him know that he had a lot to do with the person I am right now. I also wanted him to know that I still set high goals and will work as hard as I can to reach them, just like he taught me to do. The next person I called was (position coach) Gene Huey, who also had a lot to do with my development. He just retired from coaching the Indianapolis Colts, and he’s really enjoying life.

Q: What does it mean to your coaches when a productive professional athlete has it in his heart to excel academically while he’s still in his 40s?

A: I think it was pleasant for both coaches to talk to me because they know I’ve had to come a long way after some big bumps in the road. If anybody had told them when they were hands-on with me that I would end up as the pastor of a church, have a doctoral  degree, be the president of a satellite college, plus a full-time professor at a university, I think they would have said the odds for any one of those things would have been highly unlikely.

Q: Highly unlikely? You can be more precise than that, can't you?

A: I’m not an odds maker, but I think it would be 2,000 to 1 or 5,000 to 1.

Q: Given everything you’ve been through, don’t you think the odds of earning a doctorate would be higher than that?

A: Actually, when I think about it, it may be closer to 100,000 to 1.

Q: That has to be closer. When you left here as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, you left without a diploma. Take me through the bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

A: When I was playing for the Miami Dolphins, I went back to school and obtained my bachelor’s degree from South Florida Bible College and Theological Seminary in Deerfield Beach, Fla. It took me two years to get my master’s degree at the same school in Wilmington that I received my doctorate. It took me four years to get my doctorate. When I promised myself that I would have the doctoral degree before I was 50, I had to push hard. I didn’t want to let myself down because scripture tells us it’s better to finish than it is to start.

Q: I bet your wife and kids were proud. Did they make the long drive from New Jersey to North Carolina to see their husband and dad wearing a cap and gown?

A: We have four children, ages 26, 24, 22 and 19. They were all at the graduation ceremony except for my 24-year-old because he had to work. I tried to talk the kids out of going because they had 8½  hours of driving and then had to come right back the next day to our church celebration. They came anyway, and they were very proud. Twelve of my congregants, including some elders and deacons, also made the trip. They insisted on being there, so they rented two vans and we all drove down together and came back together. None of us can ever take credit for what we’ve done, achieved or obtained  without looking behind us and telling somebody thank you. And I can’t thank my wife (Jacqueline) enough. She’s definitely been supportive through everything. There have been lots of long nights and early mornings and study and writing time in between. My dissertation was 257 pages. I put a lot of effort into doing it – typing two fingers at a time. It was entitled “God Has a Church for You” and it was about denominations. Most of us have a negative perspective of denominations. Those of us who are Christians understand that denominations can bring division to the body of Christ, and that’s just not the way it should be.

Q: Did you know that Jamie Williams is working for Coach Osborne now and what do you remember about him?

A: I don’t know Jamie real well, but I did play with him a couple years and know he’s had his doctorate degree for a long time now. He went after his pretty quickly. It didn’t surprise me at all because Jamie is a very articulate and a very intelligent man. I believe Coach Osborne was the inspiration for Jamie getting his doctorate, just like he was the inspiration for me getting mine. Here’s the thing. Getting a doctorate is one thing. The other thing is, once you get it, you understand that the work is really just beginning. You have to apply what you’ve learned. There is a purpose for getting the degree. Once you accomplish it, you need to use it.

Q: I know you’re teaching and in the ministry and helping others. I’m guessing you won’t miss the daily grind of being a student at age 50. Would I be right about that?

A: That’s ironic you even mention that because in addition to everything else I’m doing, I’m also pursuing another doctorate in ministry at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. I’ll be doing a lot of my work in New Jersey and really only have to be in Lynchburg three or four times a year. My first semester there starts later this month, so I’m excited about that, too.

Q: You’re going to be sitting with fellow New Jersey native, college teammate and still close friend – Heisman winner Mike Rozier -- at the season opener tomorrow. That’s two-thirds of the Triplets in the same section. When are you going to look up the third triplet in Lynchburg?

A: My doctoral program there will take two years. I’ve already talked to Turner (Gill) and made some plans. I’ll be at Liberty Nov. 10 when they have their last home game of the season. He knows Liberty has asked me to speak to the student body while I’m there. I’m looking forward to that and will be keeping close tabs on Turner all the time he’s there.

Q: I love your passion, but isn’t one doctorate enough?

A: Actually, the second one plays into my role at Union County Community College. The graduation rate there is not where they want it to be, so my goal is to help get that rate up and to become a part of their chain of command. I’ve set both of those goals for myself. Coach Osborne taught me how important having goals are.

Q: You’re so busy with everything you’re doing, you probably don’t have much time to follow college football, do you?

A: You’re right. I’m so consumed with teaching and counseling and spreading the gospel and going to church and pursuing another doctorate, it doesn’t leave much time for football. I don’t have a whole lot of time for sports, actually. But I did find an outlet. I’ve caught the bug for golf, and in one year I’ve brought my handicap down from a 21 to a 12. I’ve taken lessons, changed my swing path and learned to understand the game. I’m a long way from being where I could be if I had more time. But at least the ball’s not flying all over the place anymore.

Q: You’re the pastor of the New Jerusalem House of God in your hometown. How big is the church, how long are your sermons and give me some idea of how they relate to your own life?

A: We have about 350 in attendance every Sunday. My sermons are close to 40 minutes, and I had a six-week series this summer on the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. I try to help people understand what God is all about so we can shape our theology, know who He is and find better ways to respond to Him.

Q: What drives you and pushed you from football into the ministry?

A: I’ve had my rough times – times that were real shaky, so shaky that people who were close to me didn’t think I was going to make it. But there’s a scripture in Romans that says nothing can separate us from the love of God. When others gave up on me, He didn’t. God loved me through all of my down times. That’s why I’m here today. I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box. I didn’t do everything God asks us to do. I’m here because He loves me, He never gave up on me and He never left me.

Q: Anything else you want to share that I haven’t asked?

A: Another favorite scripture of mine says to whom much has been given much is required. For no reason at all, except that God loved me, I went from New Jersey to a football scholarship at the University of Nebraska. That’s a major university and a place that loves football. I came here and became the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL. I worked hard and I had talent, but it was nothing that I deserved. For some reason, God gave me a platform, and it just took me a lot longer than it takes most people to figure that out so I wouldn’t squander the opportunity.

Q: For someone soon to be 50, what’s the most exciting part about being in Nebraska for the season opener?

A: I’m excited because I get to hear (Anthony) Slick Steels sing in Omaha and watch Nebraska kick off the season in Lincoln. I get to see Mike, and I get to see Ricky (Simmons). Ricky has had his share of struggles, too, but used his faith to get back on solid ground. We played for Coach Osborne, and we love him because he never quit loving us even when we were living in ways that did not honor him. Coach Osborne never called himself Dr. Osborne, but I know he’s proud that he can call me Dr. Fryar.

Q: Even if he's kidding?

A: Even if he's kidding.

Q: Who besides Tom Osborne would think you’d be where you are now?

A: My Heavenly Father, so I have a lot of work yet to do.

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