When Chaz Powell’s Penn State career ended after the 2011 season, he had aspirations of playing on Sundays.
The Susquehannock High School graduate knew that it would take a full commitment during the spring semester of 2012 to prepare for a shot at earning a place on an NFL roster. To best prepare for the draft, he devoted his full attention to training for the NFL Combine and his Pro Day workout.
In doing so, Powell pursued his dream of being a professional football player.
Powell found his way to Oakland after the Raiders signed him as a free agent following the draft. He was released during the final days of August that year, and decided that he would shift his attention back to another lifelong dream.
Powell worked with the Morgan Academic Center staff that works with the PSU football program to complete paperwork to re-enroll back at Penn State to finish his degree. Powell needed just one class to complete a degree in criminal justice.
But, on the day he submitted paperwork to finish the degree, Powell received a call from the Green Bay Packers. The organization invited Powell to a tryout. The Packers signed Powell, and for the next two years he tried to earn a permanent NFL roster spot in Green Bay and with the New York Giants.
During his stint in the NFL, Powell always had the final Penn State class necessary to graduate in the back of his mind. But the timing and his budding NFL career did not grant him an opportunity to invest a full semester’s worth of effort into earning his degree.
In total, he spent three seasons with NFL organizations and then shifted his attention to earning money to make ends meet back in York County.
“I came to Penn State to play for Coach (Joe) Paterno and attend school at a great university. He always preached to us that you need to go to class and get your degree because football is not going to last forever. And he was right,” Powell said.
Getting back in class: Needing just four credits of Statistics 200, Todd Kulka, Penn State's assistant director for football academic support services and an academic counselor, called Powell this past summer and asked if the fall semester was a time he could finish his degree.
Working regular hours as a plumber in the York area, Powell committed to driving two hours from his home to the University Park campus for the Stat 200 class each Thursday from 6 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.
Powell usually arrived on campus a bit early on Thursdays to complete homework assignments before participating in the class session. He would then get back in the car and drive home to York before waking up each Friday at 5 a.m. to begin his work day.
Long trips: For 16 weeks this fall, Powell made the 220-mile round trip commute and is on schedule to earn his criminal justice degree at the Penn State commencement ceremony this Saturday afternoon in the Bryce Jordan Center.
“I was gifted enough to play in the NFL for three years, with a couple practice-squad opportunities here and there,” Powell said. “But like Coach Paterno said, football didn’t last forever. And I learned that having your college degree can take you anywhere in the world. It will mean a lot to me.”
He is on track to join 14 football student-athletes intending to graduate this weekend. Penn State football owns a graduation success rate of 81 percent, which is nine points higher than the NCAA Division I and Football Bowl Subdivision average.
Powell has aspirations of working in law enforcement, but is on track to also become a registered plumber. With a degree in hand and his work toward becoming a licensed professional in the plumbing industry, he will have options, all thanks to countless hours of time and effort to become a Penn State graduate.
“My mom is really excited about it,” Powell said. “It’s going to be a big accomplishment for me and a big relief to have my degree in hand.”
His PSU career: Most Penn State fans will remember Powell as a versatile athlete with great speed. A four-year letter winner, he began his career as a receiver before shifting to the defensive backfield before his junior season in 2010. Powell was also a dynamic kickoff returner, becoming the first Penn State player to deliver a 100-yard return for a score in more than 35 years in the 2010 season opener. He owns schools records for career kickoff returns (73) and kickoff return yardage (1,866).
“Once you are given the opportunity to go out there and showcase what you can do, it just proves that anyone can do it, no matter if you are from a small town or not,” Powell said. “There are so many alums in this world from Penn State, and it really felt like a family to me when I was here. I was only two hours from home, so my family got to come watch me play. Now, it will be a big relief off my shoulders and something that means a lot to me come Saturday.”
Tony Mancuso works for Penn State Strategic Communications.