Let’s face it – NFL players have a reputation for being, well, perhaps not the sharpest crayons in the box. It’s not that they’re unintelligent – it’s just that, for the majority of athletes talented enough to make it to the NFL, they learn early on that their main focus should be on their performance on the field. So, it becomes easy to value gym time over study hall and many just take whatever courses seem easiest so that they can focus their mental energy on the game. They use all their study skills to memorize football plays rather than Shakespeare’s plays. They study footage rather than footnotes. They select schools that place a high value on athletics. They hit hard – not hit the books hard.
However, there are a few athletes who truly take the ‘student’ part of ‘student athlete’ to heart. They likely managed to snag a spot at their institution of choice through a football scholarship, so they certainly put in the necessary effort to excel on the field. However, they realize that they’ve been given the chance to get a college education, and that’s something they don’t want to squander. So, they hit the books as hard as they hit the weight section of the gym, studying and pursuing academic passions. They give intelligent, thoughtful post-game interviews rather than reciting the same old stock phrases some of their teammates utter in interview after interview. They have a fallback career path in place for when they eventually decide to retire from football. Several of them have (or are currently) pursued graduate degrees, even while actively playing football, because they just love to learn and enjoy their academic subject of choice. The 15 gentlemen on this list prove that all NFL players aren’t meatheads – but you might be surprised to find out just how smart these guys are.
15 John Urschel
Canadian-born guard John Urschel was only drafted in 2014, so it’s understandable if you don’t know much about this Baltimore Ravens player. However, once you learn more about him, you might find yourself questioning who exactly this guy is. You see, when Urschel isn’t in his gear on the field, he’s pursuing his other passion – mathematics. While many athletes obtain the necessary Bachelor’s degree and go on to their NFL careers, Urschel has a Master's in mathematics, and is currently pursuing his PhD in mathematics – at MIT – and has made several contributions to academically rigorous mathematics journals. I mean, the movie practically writes itself.
14 Marshawn Lynch
In addition to being an absolute beast on the field, Marshawn Lynch is one of the most fascinating players in the NFL. He’s notoriously silent, refusing to talk to the media, but that’s not because he’s not capable – it’s because he’s notoriously shy, and hates being the center of attention like that. Lynch attended UC Berkeley – an academically demanding school, in comparison to many of the schools that NFL players come from – and burst into the NFL. He’s smart about personal branding, using his media silences to help create a huge demand for his BeastMode clothing line. He’s also financially savvy – while many NFL players squander their money and go broke quickly after retirement, Lynch has reportedly lived off endorsements his entire career, saving his salary for the future.
13 Desmond Bryant
Given that one of his biggest claims to fame is the ridiculous mug shot he took, it’s easy to assume that Desmond Bryant doesn’t have a lot going on in the brains department. However, you’d be wrong – Bryant got his start on Cambridge fields playing for the prestigious Harvard University. Despite receiving offers from several schools to come play football, he opted for Harvard because of what the coach there told him and Bryant himself has confessed that it may not have been the best fit for him, as he didn’t spend much time with other students. However, his focus on football paid off, as he’s had a fairly successful NFL career thus far, and he has a psychology degree from Harvard once he retires, which is a pretty sweet thing to fall back on.
12 Zak DeOssie
You might recognize Zak DeOssie from his time on the field with the New York Giants, but would you recognize a younger version of him clad in prep school attire? Well, if you looked at any older pictures of the football player, that’s exactly what you’d find – while many NFL players come from normal public schools, DeOssie got his start at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover, and ended up going to college at Brown University. He had a successful college career and ended up getting an invite to NFL Combine week – making history as being the first player from Brown to ever snag an invite.
11 Kevin Boothe
Before he was tearing up stadiums as an offensive lineman in the NFL, Kevin Boothe was a Cornell man, running plays on Ithaca’s tranquil fields. The three-time All-Ivy League Selection graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Hotel Administration and was even a member of the Quill and Dagger Society at Cornell, a senior honor society comparable to Yale University’s famous Skull and Bones society. When Boothe was selected in the 2006 draft, he was the first pick from Cornell in nearly 10 years. And, to top it all off, while he was an active player in the NFL, Boothe still placed a priority on his education, earning an MBA from the George Washington University School of Business.
10 Mike Catapano
New York Jets defensive end Mike Catapano looks like your typical jock, but rather than opting to attend one of the Big 10 schools that many future athletes attend, he went in a different direction – to the Ivy League, attending Princeton. The amount of players who end up moving from an Ivy League school to the NFL is far, far smaller than in big state schools, and when he was drafted in 2013, Catapano was the first Princeton player to get called up to the big leagues since 2001 – over a decade of drought! Oh, and in case you thought he just coasted by in an easy major, you’d be wrong – Catapano got his degree in psychology, and his senior thesis was on the topic of visual cognition and memory.
9 Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman has become one of the most popular players in the NFL, partly due to his larger than life personality, but you’d be wrong to assume that he was just a meathead who made it through school based on his athletic prowess. Sherman worked hard in high school, graduating with a 4.2 GPA (the second in his class), and he went from his Compton-area high school to Stanford on a scholarship. Sherman played for Stanford, slowly improving, and eventually earning his spot in the NFL – and even then, Sherman didn’t rest. He studied game film relentlessly, always trying to improve. And, while many NFL players are happy to recite stock quotes in post-game interviews, Sherman is willing to take a stand and say what he wants, and what he thinks needs to be said.
8 Ryan Fitzpatrick
Everyone knows Ryan Fitzpatrick as a solid QB with a recognizable beard. Quite honestly, he just looks like a typical athlete. However, his alma mater is different than a lot of his teammates’ – rather than opting to attend a state school, Fitzpatrick got his degree in economics at Harvard. In case you doubted his intelligence, it’s also worth noting that he’s become famous for his Wonderlic score – 48 out of 50, the highest of any quarterback in history. He can also solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes and he’s even passed on his brain power to his offspring – his son, Brady, joined his dad at a postgame news conference and showed the media his long multiplication skills.
7 Sam Acho
Before he started playing with the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears, Sam Acho played for the famous Longhorns at the University of Texas and majored in business and marketing. During his senior season, Sporting News voted Acho one of the 20 smartest athletes in sports, and Acho was also the recipient of the William V. Campbell Trophy, given to college football’s top scholar-athlete. New York Jets head coach Tom Bowles has also said that, in his opinion, Acho has the ability to make plays based on his intelligence alone. That’s high praise!
6 Benjamin Watson
New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson got his college start at the prestigious Duke University, and eventually transferred to the University of Georgia to pursue his football dreams. However, it wasn’t because he couldn’t handle the academic rigor of a school like Duke – in fact, Watson scored a 48 on his Wonderlic test, which is one of the highest scores ever recorded in NFL history. He’s also rumored to have an IQ of 170+ and majored in finance, so we’re betting that he’s made some smart choices with the money he’s earned after over a decade in the NFL.
5 Alex Smith
Quarterback Alex Smith may not have attended an Ivy League school, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an academic superstar while also playing some great ball. Smith was busy in his high school years, earning a ton of advanced placement credits that allowed him to graduate from the University of Utah in only two years with his economics degree. In fact, before he was drafted, Smith had actually started working on his Master’s degree in economics. He’s even told Sporting News that one of his dreams was to get his J.D. – and anyone who willingly wants to study dense legal texts is probably a pretty smart cookie.
4 Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning may not have an Ivy League degree or a record-breaking Wonderlic score, but he’s without doubt one of the smarter players in the NFL. First of all, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society and given the National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Award in his college years, and once he earned his spot in the NFL, he worked to make sure he was always on top of his game. In fact, fellow smarty Richard Sherman has told Sports Illustrated that, in his opinion, Manning is the smartest quarterback in the NFL because of how he can think on his feet and respond to the situation on the field within an instant.
3 Andrew Luck
It’s no secret that quarterbacks tend to be the players in the NFL who fall on the brainy side of the spectrum, but Andrew Luck is a cut above even the average quarterback. First of all, his alma mater is the prestigious Stanford University. He showed up to an interview with the Indianapolis Star with a book on Nelson Mandela. He’s fascinated by architecture and always has fun building facts to share with his teammates – although they might not be as interested in the history of concrete in Cincinnati as the architectural design major is.
2 Toby Gerhart
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart came to the NFL from Stanford, so it’s safe to say that he has a pretty big brain, but you might be surprised to find out just how smart this player is. When he was younger, Gerhart joined his mother in community college, taking classes to earn extra credits when he was only 13 years old – and acing them. At Stanford, he kept up a rigorous schedule, taking classes like Introduction to Prehistoric Archaeology simply because they sounded interesting. His parents claim that Toby, their oldest child, was a big influence on pushing his younger siblings to succeed in academics, and we’d have to agree!
1 Joshua Garnett
Joshua Garnett may just be starting his NFL career out, but the material about this young offensive guard already hints that he’s one smart cookie. Garnett attended Stanford and majored in human biology, and has stated that, once he’s done with the whole football thing, he plans to become a trauma surgeon – a pretty lofty goal! His college schedule was absolutely brutal, and in between football practices, he worked in a cell biology lab and shadowed a doctor in the ER. We have a feeling that whatever team takes him, and however long his NFL career ends up being, Garnett is going to be wildly successful someday.