Finishing the game is important to Kelly Stouffer, and this month, some 18 years after he started, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University.
Stouffer played quarterback during the 1984-87 seasons for the Colorado State Rams and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 1987, about a year short of a degree in biology.
He had always intended to finish college, but a pro football career and a family placed demands on his time. It wasn’t until he quit playing in 1996, until his children began to grow and he became a small-town volunteer football coach himself, that he realized it was time.
"I needed to finish what I started, because that’s what I tell my kids to do and because that’s what I do," he said.
Stouffer is the first undergraduate from Colorado State ever to earn a degree from the College of Agricultural Sciences via distance-learning. His baccalaureate is in extension education, a field that allowed him to take courses via the Internet and complete an internship at a Nebraska agricultural extension office.
Life has permitted Stouffer, who manages his own investments, to do pretty much as he pleases. He and his wife Barbara bought an 800-acre ranch 20 miles north of their birthplace in Rushville, Neb. (population 1,200). They raise a hundred acres of crops and let a relative run cattle in the Ponderosa pine forests that spill down from South Dakota’s Black Hills. They’re home-schooling their 7-year-old daughter, Maci; waiting for Max, almost four, to be ready for studies; and enjoying their family and friends.
Two years ago, Stouffer began coaching the football team at Rushville High School. He wanted to give back to the community where he and his wife grew up but found himself in an awkward position when talking with high school players and other young people in the small town.
"Part of what I tell them is that you just have to develop the right habits in life, and part of that is that you need to finish what you begin," he said. "We always have to work through adversity and difficulty, but that’s part of growing up-you learn what you’re made of, so to speak. I saw it as hypocritical to tell them that and yet to be just short of a college degree.
"To me it never was an issue whether I would or wouldn’t finish," he said. "It would only make sense that I would. But football became what it did, and in terms of making a living it put me in a different position. Timewise, I just didn’t have the ability to go back to the campus (and take the courses required to finish a biology degree)."
Stouffer has remained close to several people in Colorado State’s athletic program, among them head coach Sonny Lubick, who was offensive coordinator until Stouffer’s senior year. Invited on a road trip by Lubick a few years ago, Stouffer met Associate Dean of Agriculture James Heird, who was then faculty advisor to the team. The two talked, and Stouffer, realizing that finishing in biology meant moving to Fort Collins for a time, later contacted Heird, who suggested the distance-learning degree. Heird is delighted with the program’s first undergraduate degree recipient.
"This is the way the College of Agricultural Sciences continues to move into the 21st century with cutting-edge educational processes," he said. "We’re proud and excited to have Kelly as a graduate."
Glenn Rask, associate professor and coordinator of agriculture extension education, said the fledgling program Stouffer completed "is evolving toward one in which a student can move from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State entirely through online studies." A similar program started last fall that offers an online master’s degree has generated "an incredible response," he said.
Stouffer’s football career went well at Colorado State-he led the Rams to a 23-7 win over traditional rival University of Colorado at Boulder in 1986, his senior year. He was a first-round draft pick for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Differences with the Cardinals’ owner left him sitting out his rookie year in 1987, but after being traded to Seattle he played five years, starting three. Despite leading the Seahawks to their only division title up to that time, serious injuries kept interrupting his seasons and he was released in 1992. Stints with the Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers ended with his release early in the season, and he retired in 1996.
It might seem glamorous to have been a team’s leading player under the lights of national television, but Stouffer is a quiet but devoutly religious man. He and his wife-high school sweethearts-chose to return to Rushville and to parents, siblings and friends to raise their own family.
"What’s offered here in terms of opportunity kind of pales compared to what else is out there," he admits. "But we’ve seen the other things that are out there, and we’ve been blessed with the ability to live pretty much wherever we want. We felt led back to here.
"I was away long enough to learn that there’s a quality of life in the heartland, and I include Colorado in that. What I may have viewed as mundane and boring when I was growing up-the quietness, the sincerity, the innocence-is simply not found in a lot of other places."
As for the degree, it won’t change his career or necessarily broaden his opportunities, but Stouffer derives a great deal of satisfaction from completing it.
It’s really more a means to an end (than a career move)," he said.
"But it did give me a far greater understanding of the area that I live in. My family lived in town".
"I didn’t have much of an understanding of the ranching life, but this study has given me a much greater appreciation for all of that."