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He's not just a jock 'scooting through'

After a rocky start, Gators defensive end Thaddeus Bullard already has his degree.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Off the football field, Thaddeus Bullard, top, tackles student government and volunteer work at Florida.
GAINESVILLE -- Thaddeus Bullard, dripping with sweat and covered with bits of grass, hurried past exhausted teammates on his way from the Florida practice field.

"What time is it?" he asked.

It was 6:40 p.m. Tuesday. Bullard was running late and, in cleats and smelly shoulder pads, was not the least bit presentable for the student Senate meeting over which he was to preside in 20 minutes.

So much for supper.

"I like to be involved," said Bullard, a senior defensive end recently elected UF's student body vice president. "And that just makes my point more valid. I can come to college and be successful. It's not up to the NCAA. It's not up to anyone but me."

Determined at an early age to conquer his shortcomings -- those real and those perceived -- Bullard has proven to be the college student few might have expected. In his final season at Florida, his only remaining goal is to be the football player everyone expected.

"He's had an excellent academic career here," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Hopefully, he'll finish it off with a good football career."

The past four years, Bullard's focus was off the field. His mission was to prove the NCAA made a grievous mistake when it declared him an academic non-qualifier in 1996, invalidating one of his core courses at Suwannee High School in Live Oak.

Bullard was two weeks into fall practice when he learned he would be stripped of his scholarship, lose a year of eligibility and be saddled with the stereotype of a dumb athlete. Working two jobs to pay for an apartment and tuition, Bullard enrolled at UF the next semester determined to cram a year's worth of classes -- 24 credits -- into the spring semester and two summer sessions. It was the only way he could become eligible for the 1997 season.

"Once I got in school, I had some things to fix," said Bullard, who carried 18 hours that spring semester, more than the 12 or 15 hours most students take. "One was the perception that athletes are just trying to scoot through the system."

Told he might be able to regain his lost year of eligibility if he graduated in four years, Bullard studied like a man possessed. In May, he graduated with a degree in sociology. Soon afterward, the NCAA reinstated his lost season.

"May 6, 9 a.m. -- I'll never forget the day I graduated," said Bullard, now pursuing a graduate degree in higher education with hopes of becoming a coach. "I'm damn proud of what I did."

But Bullard did more than just graduate. He tackled college life with the same bull-rushing gusto he uses to go after opposing quarterbacks. He joined two service organizations, Florida Blue Key and UF Savant. He pledged a fraternity. He volunteered to teach children to read and the disabled to swim. He ran for student government office.

"He wanted to prove some people wrong," said Jamie McCloskey, UF's NCAA compliance director. "He wanted to show people what type of person he really was. He was very mature."

Last week, Bullard spoke on consecutive days to the Black Student Assembly, Gator Connection for the incoming freshmen class, the Asian Student Assembly and a Gainesville middle school. His message to each was largely the same: take advantage of opportunity.

It is a philosophy much different from the one he had a few years earlier. At 13, Bullard was 6 feet 1, 175 pounds with a raging temper. One day in class at his Boynton Beach school, Bullard's teacher dug her nails into his shoulder to wake him up. He struck the teacher in the face with a book.

His mother, Daria Bullard, made the difficult decision to send Bullard to the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranch, a voluntary intervention center in Live Oak. It worked. Free to leave after two years, Bullard stayed for four.

"The ranch, it wasn't a prison," said Bullard, who among his chores was a watermelon bumper, catching melons thrown from the field and tossing them into the back of a truck. "You couldn't go there if you were a juvenile delinquent. You had to want to go. I wanted to turn my life around, and that was a turning point for me."

So, too, is this fall.

In his first three seasons, Bullard had just two starts and 39 tackles in 34 games. This season he is a starter, having won a preseason battle with sophomore Tron LaFavor for the end position opposite All-American Alex Brown. Bullard made four tackles in the opener against Ball State.

To signify his new commitment, Bullard has switched from jersey No. 11 -- Spurrier's old number, which he gave to Bullard as inspiration -- to No. 90. It is a beefy number, befitting his position and 6-4, 253-pound frame.

"It was time for a change all around," Bullard said. "Everything was coming together for me -- I graduated, I got elected student body vice president. I wanted to go out and have people ask, "Who's that No. 90?' It's a fresh start.

"Fresh start, successful finish."

He's running late, but there's still time.

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