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The Whole Nine YardsJeff Byers, Trojan Offensive Lineman and USC Marshall MBA Candidate Puts His All Behind Academics and AthleticsOctober 16, 2009 • by Matthew Kredell
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Jeff Byers came to USC for the football but will leave with so much more.
Before the offensive lineman is expected to be drafted into the NFL in April, he will complete a master's degree in business administration from the Marshall School of Business in December.
In an era of cynicism regarding the designation of "student-athlete" to NFL prospects who leave college early to play professional football without getting an undergraduate degree, Byers is taking full advantage of all USC has to offer.
"Coming in as a freshman, I played my first season and thought I'd be out of here in four years, get my undergrad in business and go from there," Byers said. "In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd come out of here with my MBA."
Byers, 24, was one of the jewels of USC football coach Pete Carroll's 2004 recruiting class, a five-star player who was the Gatorade National Player of the Year -- a rare honor for an offensive lineman -- as a senior at Loveland High in Loveland, Colorado. He attends USC on a full scholarship.
Although his family valued academics, it was the lure of playing football for the defending national champion that brought him to USC. Football had been his life since first strapping on a helmet in youth leagues. But that would suddenly change.
Byers started the final four regular season games of his freshman season, helping USC to its second consecutive national title. He was in line to be the full-time starter as a sophomore but ended up undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove torn cartilage in his right hip in the offseason, forcing him to redshirt.
He recuperated and appeared ready to reclaim his starting position in 2006, but only lasted one game before injuring his back in practice. Sidelined for a second season in a row, Byers' future in football was in doubt. It's not uncommon for such serious setbacks to derail players in other areas of their lives. Byers decided that his injuries could keep him off the field but weren’t going to stop him from experiencing a prestigious university.
"The truth is, when you lose something that you really love, you've got to find something to fill that void," Byers said. "I dug into the books and tried to study more, tried to forget what I was missing on the field by just working hard at school and taking more classes."
Byers completed his bachelor's degree in business administration in three and a half years with a 3.27 GPA and enrolled in the master's program. He made the 2009 National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society and twice was named to the Pac-10 All-Academic team. Byers was also recently selected as a semifinalist for the 2009 William V. Campbell Trophy, presented by the National Football Foundation to the nation’s top scholar-athlete.
"Jeff has been a great addition to the school," Marshall Dean James G. Ellis said. "He blends right in, which is hard to do for someone his size—6 foot 3 and 290 pounds. Beyond that, he is very respected in the classroom, by both peers and professors, and has worked hard to achieve Dean's List honors within the School. He is building his resume for the future, both on and off the field, and we are proud to be a part of that process."
While Byers excelled academically, his health finally aligned to allow him to give football another try. He started all 13 games in 2007, and earned All-Pac-10 second-team honors for his play in 2008. Due to his two missed seasons, he was granted a sixth year of the eligibility by the NCAA and entered the 2009 season named to preseason all-American teams by ESPN and CBS Sports.
Byers showed his versatility by starting the season opener against San Jose State at center to fill in for injured Kristofer O'Dowd, then moving back to his natural position of left guard. He was elected one of two offensive captains by his teammates for the second year in a row, a leadership position he says his Marshall School experience prepared him for.
"I think there are a lot of things you learn on the football field and in the classroom that relate to each other," Byers said. "I've taken a couple leadership classes and group-dynamic classes that helped me understand where guys are coming from and to take a better angle to approaches on things. On the football field, you learn to trust people and work hard with people and be trustworthy, and I think those are very important assets to have when in the business school or business in general."
Byers discovered a love for the investment side of business last year after taking a class called Money and Capital Markets taught by Associate Professor of Finance and Business Economics Kim Dietrich. He's been loading up on investment classes ever since, and thinks it could lead to a career as a portfolio manager or investment banker. Eventually.
First, Byers has his eyes set on another career, one in which his advanced degree will be unusual. While the NFL doesn't release the numbers on players in the league who have graduate degrees, a spokesperson confirmed that it's a rarity.
Norm Katnik, a former USC offensive lineman who Byers met on his recruiting trip to USC, just entered the workplace after bouncing around mostly as a reserve player in the NFL for five years. He looks back and regrets that he didn't start on a master’s degree or go out for a summer internship the way Byers did at the U.S. corporate headquarters for Toyota.
"I wish I had taken advantage of my time at USC the way he has," Katnik said of Byers. "Whether football works out for him or not, he will be heads and shoulders above any other graduate coming out of football or even USC as a whole. He'll have his MBA done without a single dollar to pay off. That is pretty amazing."
Whether Byers' playing career ends this year, in five years or 15 years, he’ll be well prepared for the next stage of his life.
"This is a demonstration of extraordinary character," Carroll said. "You can't ask for a guy to be more together. He's maxed every opportunity he's had here and will receive the benefits of that for the rest of his life.”
About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.