George Koonce never considered himself Ivy League material.
He grew up in what he called a "socially and economically deprived area of eastern North Carolina," and his only goal was to try to go to college.
"I really didn't have any idea that I would one day play for the Green Bay Packers," said Koonce, now 46 years old and 15 years removed from an NFL career that lasted nine seasons, included 128 games and gave him a Super Bowl ring.
As the former linebacker shared those words, he paused for a second or two. When his next words came through the phone, it was clear he was overwhelmed by his surroundings.
"And I didn't even dream about taking a class or stepping foot on a campus like Harvard," he continued. "It's been a dream come true."
Yes, Koonce was calling from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spent part of this summer at the Harvard Institute for Educational Management. He plans to take what he learned back to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where he is the vice president of advancement at Marian University.
Koonce is sharing his story not to boast but rather because he hopes to show other former NFL players -- and current ones -- that just because they have a successful career on the field doesn't mean they shouldn't strive for the same off the field later in life.
It's what Koonce tried to instill in players when he served as the Packers' director of player development in 2006 before he began a career in college administration at Marquette University.
"It all started when I met Reggie White when I was 24 years old," Koonce said. "He changed my life in so many ways. The main thing that I took away was, he'd say, 'George, always be committed to changing the community you live in to make it a better place in which you found it.' If I'm living in Milwaukee or Green Bay, if I'm working for the Packers or if I'm working for Marian, I'm trying to make it better than I found it. That’s something that he preached every day."
Koonce was one of nearly 100 college administrators admitted to the program at Harvard this summer. He said the only other NFL player ever to participate was Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, who also went on to work as a college administrator after his career.
Koonce, who was the first member of his family to attend college, said his dream now is to become president of a university. He has a bachelor's degree from New York University at Regents in Albany, New York; a master's from East Carolina and a doctorate from Marquette.
And now he can add Harvard to his resume.
"This gave me a chance to gain even more knowledge and insight on what other senior leaders around the nation and the world are doing on their campus," Koonce said. "I can take this information to my team and institution to maybe help us do a better job serving those 2,200 students that attend Marian, in which about 70 percent of them are from low-income families and are the first in their families to go to college."