**NORMAN, Okla. --**When Jammal Brown completed his football eligibility in 2004, he left the Oklahoma campus as the Outland Trophy winner, an All-American, a first-round draft pick ... and 15 credit hours shy of a promise.
Before Brown's mother, Zola, passed away in 1999, her son, the sure-fire bet for football stardom, promised that he would become the first in his family to earn a college degree.
"Just going to college was being a role model in my family," said Brown, now the left tackle for the New Orleans Saints. "Getting a degree, that would be the ultimate."
It was a long shot too. As a partial qualifier out of Lawton's MacArthur High School, Brown wasn't sure he'd get through more than a semester or two. The promise kept him going.
"I always told my mom I'd get (the degree)," he remembered.
On Saturday, Brown, four years and two Pro Bowls removed from his last game at OU, will make good on that promise when he returns to Norman to receive a diploma in Multidisciplinary Studies.
"It was my mom and being one of the Stoops troops," said Brown, also citing Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops as a motivating factor. "He was one of the best coaches I ever had. He always kept the right things in perspective."
There was a time when Brown might have thought much less of his coach. Signed as one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the country, he arrived at Oklahoma at the same time as fellow d-linemen Dusty Dvoracek and Tommie Harris.
The position was crowded. It was so crowded, in fact, that OU coaches eventually suggested to Brown that he move to the offensive line. The big freshman was distraught.
"I was at the bottom," Brown recalled. "I was a partial qualifier, I was being asked to change positions and I was thinking about transferring. My chances of finishing school weren't real strong."
A little perseverance went a long way.
"I guess I was just strong enough to believe in the program, and I believed in those coaches," he chuckled. "Now I've signed a long-term contract as an offensive lineman and I'm graduating."
It's storybook in many ways.
"Jammal is an amazing story," said Stoops. "I am so proud of him. He is a classic example of trust. If we can maximize a player's talent, sure it helps the team, but it also helps the player, and Jammal is probably the best proof.
"And now he's graduating," Stoops continued. "That's exactly what we preach. There is no reason why the players who are capable of playing pro ball can't also have their degree."
Brown is quick to compliment the academic assistance unit in the OU Athletics Department, and in particular Dr. Gerald Gurney, senior associate athletics director for academics, Teresa Turner, an advisor, and Randy Garibay of academic services.
"OU has a lot to offer in helping you get this done," Brown said. "They helped in my scheduling and got me in the classes that would count towards my degree."
Brown began chipping away at his unfinished hours following his rookie season in the NFL. He came back to campus initially, then completed the requirements with online courses. So dedicated was he to the internet work that he spent part of his time at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu doing class assignments.
"I took my lap top with me," he said. "I still took some time to enjoy myself, but there were times when the other guys were out and I was sitting in front of my computer."
It's the completion of what should be the natural cycle according to Stoops.
"Now he's got that degree and a real opportunity to continue being successful when his playing days are over," the coach said.
Brown has plans for those post-playing days, and the sociologically-related degree and his experiences at Oklahoma are central to those plans.
"I'd like to be an athletic counselor and work closely with the kids," he said. "Going from high school to college is a big jump. You go from being a star to taking a backseat, and some people don't take that too well. I've been there in every situation. I stuck it out.
"A lot of people waste that opportunity when they get into a situation that they're not familiar with, and they never pan out. They need someone to help them transition. I went through all those aspects and I think I could guide them."
On Saturday, the total number of Sooner student-athletes to graduate during this academic year will reach a record 117. His 6-6, 313-pound frame aside, Brown will look just like all the rest. He expects between 10-12 family members, including his father, Charles, to attend the ceremony. And just like all the rest, they'll shoot dozens of pictures and cheer when their favorite graduate crosses the stage.
The one who won't be there, of course, is his mom, Zola, whose life ended before she could see the promise fulfilled. Her inspiration is not forgotten.
Reminded of her absence, Brown paused and said, "She's very important to me and I will be thinking about her Saturday."
It will be an emotional day for the Outland Trophy winner, an All-American, a first-round draft pick ... and the graduate.