TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s a few minutes before 9:30 a.m. on a cold, gray Thursday morning in January, as Bo Scarbrough makes his way silently through Bryant Hall. Hood up, staring intently at his phone, he walks through the doorway of Room 232 in search of a seat.
Finding one alongside the far wall, he squeezes himself into a desk with a design less than ideal for a 6-foot-1, 236-pound man. Wearing a gray Motor City Lions hoodie and black jogging pants with white tennis shoes, the Detroit Lions running back has no reason to be inconspicuous.
Scarbrough is a son of Alabama. Now, he is back in the classrooms he sat in not so long ago as a full-time student at the University of Alabama. This was his plan after leaving in 2018 with a year of eligibility remaining and five classes to finish.
He always told himself he would return to school. Even though he’s just 23 years old, there are times he feels a little different from the other students in Section 001 of Criminal Justice 290, a career-planning class.
“It’s like, I feel so old,” Scarbrough says, scanning the gray-and-white classroom.
Scarbrough is back not only because of the promise of completing a degree. It’s also the beginning of a potential post-football career as an investigator solving cold cases with forensic evidence.
Professor Patrick Farris walks in a few minutes later and pulls down a projection screen. Scarbrough takes out a notebook -- his football notebook with room to diagram plays on the side -- and writes down what Farris says.
Class has begun.
The conversation is one Molly Dowd has had countless times. Whenever one of her students decides to leave Alabama early to pursue the NFL, the Crimson Tide academic advisor tells him a version of the same thing: Just because you’re leaving school before graduating doesn’t mean you’re leaving me.
In other words, she’ll remind him to come back and finish up -- whether that’s a return to Tuscaloosa or completing the degree online. It’s a continuation of a message delivered by Tide coach Nick Saban when his players leave.
Some conversations, some situations, can be more daunting than others. Scarbrough, Dowd said, was easy. When he decided to leave, he assured her he would return.
“We had a conversation about it before he left and sort of made a plan that we know you want to come back,” Dowd said. “Let’s just go feel it out.”
They initially spoke about a return during Scarbrough’s first season in the NFL as he bounced from Dallas, where he was a seventh-round pick, to Jacksonville and then Seattle. They both decided it wasn’t the best time. He needed a little more stability, even though he was with the Seahawks all offseason.
Then he was waived and spent two months training at IMG Academy in Florida with no team, no paycheck and knowing little about his future. Detroit called and brought him in -- first on its practice squad and then a 53-man roster promotion. The Lions offered him a shot in the league, where Scarbrough started five games and rushed for 377 yards.
As he started to emerge in his NFL career, he spoke with Dowd again.
“I want to pursue my dream and graduate,” Scarbrough said. “It was something that I was looking forward to after the season and after I was finishing getting my stuff together in Detroit.
“I was excited to come back and keep me busy in the offseason and keeping up to date on myself as far as body-wise and workout-wise. I would do everything here. It pretty much worked out for the better for me.”
It started with a television show. Scarbrough was 12 or 13 years old -- he’s not entirely sure -- when he found "Forensic Files," a cable show with 406 episodes explaining how forensic science was used to solve crimes, accidents and illness.
Scarbrough wanted to become a professional athlete, like many boys his age, but this show piqued his investigative interest. Each episode, he tried to solve the mystery before the half-hour was over.
As he went through high school and then started college, the same thought stuck. He wanted to do this -- not work with a police department, but “in an agency” like the FBI or Homeland Security. Maybe he'd become a criminal profiler. He calls the idea “my passion.”
“I like hands-on and like to be out in the field,” Scarbrough said. “I like to help people and I’m caring. I just figured that it would be the right thing for me. That it would be comfortable for me.”
Before he left for the NFL, he started to cobble together the beginnings of a career. He interned at the local public defender’s office in Tuscaloosa and sought advice from employees at various Homeland Security offices.
Scarbrough always paid attention to the criminal justice field. It’s his future -- and also his present as he works toward his degree. Every class he’s taken, every internship he’s acquired has been set on making it his post-career plan.
“As far as I can remember, he has always been pretty focused on the criminal justice side of things,” Dowd said. “And wanting to do investigations and that sort of thing. That’s always been where he’s sort of been headed.”
Farris’ class is in the middle of watching an eight-minute video the school typically shows to incoming students, both informative and a pitch to join the Alabama community in criminal justice. Most students are bleary-eyed; Scarbrough watches with his arms folded and his left leg bouncing. Restless.
The video finishes -- Farris misses on a joke about not being in the video due to a contract dispute -- and then the professor starts to review the information from the film. Scarbrough takes out his pen. He has particular interest in the part about the FBI hiring 800 people as agents in 2018. This is Scarbrough’s dream job.
“It’s competitive,” Farris tells the class. “It’s competitive for sure.”
Farris mentions a summer internship process with the FBI. Scarbrough jots it down. His notes, all in script and in order, are impeccable. Almost everything the professor suggests, he takes note of -- from the 10 steps to academic success to information about a study abroad program Scarbrough won’t be able to participate in.
Football made him a better note-taker. With the Lions, he usually writes down what he’s told and makes his own notes later. In class, he does it all in real time. The football notebook -- there’s purpose behind it.
“At first I wasn’t going to use it,” Scarbrough said. “Then I came up with the conclusion that if I use my playbook for my notes in class, like my notes that I took in Detroit. If I use my notes in that same book in class, I feel like I stay up-to-date on my plays, also.
“I can view that a little bit and then view [my class notes]. It gave me a win-win situation.”
This is Scarbrough’s learning process, honed over the years in classrooms both football and academic. While he doesn’t say much throughout Farris’ class -- no students speak during the hourlong session -- he’s often engaged.
In his COM220 class -- interpersonal relations -- Scarbrough says he often tried to relate his experiences to the conversation. He worked to cite real-life examples during the classroom discussions, although he rarely mentioned anything about the career making him famous: football. Unless it had something to do with an assignment -- for example, he had to present an artifact about his identity and used a souvenir from the Rose Bowl -- it didn't come up.
Instead, Scarbrough tried to engage his classmates in what they want to do, how they reached Alabama, what they are studying. He’s genuinely interested, but it’s also a way to allow people to view him in a certain way.
“When Bo finds something really interesting that maybe he has something to offer to the class or contribute to the class, then he does participate,” said Khadiza Jannat, his COM220 instructor.
Scarbrough strokes his small beard with his eyes locked on Farris. The professor is talking about networking, employment history and the importance of finishing your degree. Scarbrough gets it. It’s why he’s here.
Farris brings up something Scarbrough has begun to contemplate, too: a graduate degree. It would help elevate his future resume. The conversation validates his decision to return to finish “a dream that came true” and make sure his undergraduate time in Tuscaloosa was not wasted.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t altered his academic schedule, although like millions of other college students he finished his coursework for the semester online. He received A’s in the career planning and COM220 courses and a B in statistics during the spring semester split between in-class and online work. Now, in his final college semester, he’s taking a biology class and an African American studies course.
Scarbrough is on track to graduate from Alabama this summer, with hopes of walking in graduation ceremonies next spring since training camp and football season will potentially conflict with other possible dates.
Class ends and Scarbrough chats with Farris. Then Scarbrough jumps in his white Porsche and drives to Alabama’s football complex, where he’ll get in a workout to train for the 2020 season while rehabbing some lingering ailments from 2019. After the coronavirus hit, Scarbrough and O.J. Howard found a gym locally in Tuscaloosa to train mid-mornings almost daily.
Football is his present, and along the way he’s been setting himself up for his future. Sitting between two baths inside the football complex after his workout, he explains exactly why all of this is so important. Getting his degree matters, for both his future and to himself.
“At some point, we have to do something for ourselves. Like we went to college. Like, we went to this school and made it to the NFL. ... We do everything people asked of us and we have to reward ourselves with something,” Scarbrough said. “We have to be proud of ourselves for doing something for ourselves. Like everybody is going to be proud of you scoring touchdowns or stuff like that, but most of the time they are not going to remember that touchdown or whatever that you’ve done.
“They will remember that you graduated from college. It’s a big thing for me.”