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Jim McMahon: 37 years later, former BYU star finishes up requirements for graduation

PROVO — Graduation day is always cause for celebration, whether it's from college, high school or heck, for that matter, even preschool.

But this will be one very special graduation day, one that was 37 years in the making.

Jim McMahon, the former record-setting BYU quarterback who went on to win a Super Bowl as the "punky QB" of the 1985 NFL powerhouse Chicago Bears, has finally finished up his requirements for graduation from college — some 37 years after he first started attending the Provo school.

That in itself would be considered quite an accomplishment. But perhaps the bigger prize in this case is that McMahon's pending graduation means he is finally eligible to be inducted into BYU's Athletic Hall of Fame — a long-awaited, very well-deserved honor that he could not be granted until he graduated from the school.

Now that those requirements have been met, McMahon should probably start working on his Hall of Fame speech, because his induction — after all of his spectacular accomplishments at the school — would seem like a mere formality.

And the former quarterback, whose struggles with severe and chronic headaches, memory loss and early onset dementia brought on by the many concussions he sustained as a hard-nosed football player have been well chronicled, is greatly relieved that he's finally done what was required of him to earn that degree.

"A big weight has been lifted off my shoulders," he said by telephone from his Scottsdale, Arizona, home last week. "I got real tired of studying. I think I studied more in the last eight months than I did in the five years of school that I went there.

"I'm glad it's over with. It's taken me 37 years, but I got it done."

McMahon's induction in the BYU Hall of Fame has been something his father, Jim Sr., has been crusading for for years.

"That's the first guy I called was Pops, and he's real excited," McMahon said. "I'm glad to get it done for him and mom."

The big question now is whether — and when — the 55-year-old McMahon will make "the walk" that graduates, dressed in their caps and gowns, are privileged to take when receiving their diplomas.

"Everybody's all over me about that," McMahon said. "I don't really want to do it in December because it's so cold there in December. But I guess I've either got to do it in December or next April."

"He's been getting a lot of flak from people if he doesn't walk," said Laurie Navon, McMahon's longtime girlfriend. "I mean, it's been 37 years coming, so everbody says he has to be there to walk."

Whenever he does decide to take that long-awaited "walk," it will be the culmination of an effort that was encouraged by McMahon's family, friends and anxious BYU officials who realized that arguably their greatest quarterback ever was a glaring omission to their Athletic Hall of Fame — an omission that needed to be fixed.

McMahon, who was a multi-sport star at Roy High School before graduating in 1977, was only a few credit hours short of meeting his graduation requirements at BYU when he left the school back in 1982 after a stellar collegiate career in which he rewrote the NCAA record book.

After the highs and lows and bumps and bruises of a 15-year NFL career, he waited until a couple of years ago to get serious about going back to school via online classes to finish up the remaining requirements he needed for graduation.

He took a public speaking class, a children's literature class from his former high school English teacher Eleanor Olson, a statistics class with the help of BYU professor Jen Nelson, and finished things up with his last class titled "mind, body and spirit."

"I thought it might have something to do with martial arts," McMahon said with a sly laugh. "It turned out to be a religion class."

So how did the notorious bad boy feel about taking a religion class?

"Well, now that it's over with, I guess it wasn't that bad," he said.

McMahon, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999 and to the Utah Sports Hall of Fame a year ago, will now have his jersey No. 9 retired by the school and will be honored at the Cougars' game against Utah State on Oct. 3.

And someday very soon after that, he'll be an official BYU graduate.

"Now I can give my boys (Sean and Zach) a bad time about not graduating," McMahon said. "They both went to college for four years and didn't graduate. But my daughters did — Ashley from Wisconsin and Lexi from Iowa."

And now Jimmy Mac gets to join his girls on the proud list of college graduates.

"Technically, he had to complete every class and those grades had to be submitted before he could graduate," Navon said. "Everything is done, and there's nothing that can stop him now."

And that probably sums up precisely the way BYU's opponents felt when McMahon was wearing Cougar Blue back in the late-1970s and early ’80s — nothing can stop him now.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com