"My dad used to have a little system back when I was in elementary school," said Antoine Caldwell, the 6-foot-3, 292 pound All-Southeastern Conference Alabama center. "For every ‘A' I got, he would give me $20. And you know kids. That really motivated me. There were a couple of times I made all ‘A's', in all five of my classes, so I got $100. It was good for me. It did a lot for me. It motivated me then, and as I got a little older, I guess it kind of stuck with me."
So it was Andrew Jackson, the U.S. president whose face adorns the $20 bill, who first inspired the Montgomery native as a six year old to work hard in school and make good grades. The $20 bills quickly piled up in Caldwell's savings account where he promptly deposited them after he received his report cards. Though the reward money would eventually stop long before he entered high school, "My parents probably got tired of losing so much money," he jokes, Caldwell remains as motivated in the classroom as ever.
He was graduated from the University of Alabama Saturday morning, along with four of his Crimson Tide teammates, all of whom have last names beginning with the letter ‘C,': Chris Capps (consumer science), Matt Caddell (consumer science), Jamie Christensen (management) and Joshua Curry (general studies in human environmental science). A few hours later, the five reconvened at another famous campus landmark, Bryant-Denny Stadium, for a football scrimmage.
Caldwell set the first football record of the 2007 season. He is the first Tide football player to graduate within three years of entering school at The University. The general studies in human environmental science major was a freshman in the fall of 2004.
"Since I've been here, he's the fastest graduate in football that we've had," said Jon Dever, assistant athletics director for Student Services who has been in charge of the Crimson Tide's academic program since 1992. "We've had a bunch of football players who have graduated in three-and-a-half years, but this guy has really busted his rear end in the summer and gotten through. He really wants to go on and do something else academically, so he's going to try to get another undergraduate degree."
Graduating in less than four years is no longer novel among the Tide's student-athletes, particularly some of its most high-profile names. It is becoming more and more common. As a UA student-athlete, the NFL's DeMeco Ryans graduated from Alabama within three-and-a-half years as will Tide basketball All-Southeastern Conference point guard Ronald Steele this December. Tide linebacker Keith Saunders already has his degree, and in December, Alabama football is on track to graduate nine more men.
"I'm proud of all of them," said Dever. "Keith Saunders has graduated already. Keith graduated in three-and-a-half years in business, so there's another good success story. He's been working on a second degree since January. That's another neat thing: we will have six guys who have their degrees starting opening day. That's something we are proud of. By the time we go to the bowl game, we'll have even more graduates on the team."
Handling full class loads and playing a varsity sport, and excelling at both, may seem daunting, but Caldwell says it's been engrained in him since first grade. He was excited, he says, when Dever informed him at lunch on Thursday that he was the first Tide football player to graduate within three years, but he says the feat came naturally.
"It wasn't really that hard for me at all," said Caldwell who enters the 2007 season with a streak of 25 consecutive starts at center. "I've always been focused. My parents preached to me academics from the start, since the first day I stepped in a classroom in elementary school. I was motivated when I came in here at Alabama. I've remained pretty confident throughout. I've focused on my grades a lot. I knew how important that was. I knew the importance of what I am: I'm a student-athlete. I knew that football would come to an end one day and I'd need a degree to fall back on, so that's what I pushed toward, getting that degree."
Caldwell, the son of Mack and Priscilla Caldwell and twin to brother Anthony, prepped at Lee-Montgomery. He broke his foot early in fall camp and was forced to redshirt that first season at Alabama in 2004. He followed that year with 12 starts in 2005 and made Rivals.com's Freshman All-American First Team. Last year his starting streak continued, adding all 13 games, and he was voted Second Team All-SEC by the league's coaches. He'll enter the 2007 season, his junior year on the field, as a contender on the Rimington Award Watch List which recognizes college football's most outstanding center.
"I probably spent a little more time studying my first year," said Caldwell of that redshirt season in 2004. "Even though I was hurt and couldn't play, I was still with the team a lot. I still travelled with the team and was doing all the team activities. But I went in knowing I had to stay focused, and I remained focused throughout. It's been great for me."
Along the way to Saturday morning's graduation, Caldwell has packed four years worth of classes into the three. The hardest of those?
"Probably CSM 445. It's a computer design class that I took last spring," said Caldwell, "and it was tough. I wasn't really interested in it and that probably had something to do with it. In most classes if you get behind, you have a chance to catch up. And in that class you can't catch up. It's just work on top of work on top of work. You get a day and you get behind and it just doubles up on you, especially if you are taking it during the season, it makes it worse. But that's how it goes. I got through it.
"I loved all the personal health classes I've taken: health and nutrition. I was really in to that stuff. Anything to do with consumer protection and consumer affairs, I liked those as well. That's the benefit of the degree I have. There are a lot of diverse things you can do with it, and I think that's why I've enjoyed it."
Caldwell's last official final examination as a University of Alabama undergraduate was this past Monday morning at 10:30.
"It kind of dawned on me then what I had actually done," said Caldwell of what he felt like putting the pencil down after taking his last final. "Our academics staff did a tremendous job in helping and guiding me. I realized Monday what I had done here in school, and it was just a great feeling. It was great just knowing that you had completed something like that. Having a degree is something that will take me somewhere."
Caldwell says this fall he is taking several consumer classes because he's leaning toward the consumer affairs field. He's also eying a career in real estate after his summer job experience of working in a real estate office. He has two more years of football eligibility remaining and will work toward that second degree while he continues to star on Saturday afternoons in the fall, a role he hopes will also lead him to the NFL.
"The guys that were great football players here and who did well in the classroom, the DeMeco Ryans and the Tim Castilles, those were guys I looked up to," said Caldwell. "In the same team meetings that we're having now, they (the coaches) would talk about how well those guys were doing in class, and that's something I enjoyed. I thought, ‘Man, these guys are playing football, and they are not just average football players, they're great football players. And they're doing that in the classroom.' It shows people that you can dedicate your time to football but you can dedicate just as much time to academics. It is possible. No matter what people say and try to stereotype football players and student-athletes, it is possible and we are getting it done on the field and in the classroom and graduating. I feel like I'm blessed to be in this position to show it off, to show that we are doing it."
Dever believes the success of the trend to graduate in less than four years is a result of a variety of factors.
"It's a family-type thing. I think a lot of things go into a student-athlete's success in the classroom," said Dever. "One is the student-athlete himself: their motivation, their drive and the commitment they have to school. And, secondly, the information that we provide them. I think our staff does a great job of trying to communicate with the student-athletes. And you can't do it without the support of the coaches, the support of the administration athletically, the support of the administration campus-wide. We have it all here. We really do, from Dr. (Robert E.) Witt, Dr. (Judy) Bonner, all the faculty and staff, the registrars. Really, it's a group of folks who work very closely together to do what these students came to do: graduate from the University of Alabama."
Saturday will be a full day for Caldwell, Caddell, Capps, Christensen and Curry. The celebration with their families and elation they'll feel as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas will have to be brief. Within hours they'll be back to team meetings and joining their full squad for a 2:30 p.m. scrimmage.
"Matt Caddell and Chris Capps and I have talked a lot about this," said Caldwell of Saturday's graduation. "We all sit by each other in the locker room. We talk about what we're going to wear under our caps and gowns, joke about that. It's all fun. We know how hard we all worked toward it. We're just glad that we are so blessed to be in the position that we are in and we're proud of each other."