TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Bobby Butler did it after years of preaching its importance to his kids.
Derrick Gibson did it because he promised his mother he would.
Both Butler and Gibson, two of the finest Florida State defensive backs of their eras and a pair of first-round NFL draft choices, had often thought about one day returning to finish their degrees since they finished their playing days in Tallahassee – Butler in 1981 and Gibson in 2001.
No longer content to say “one day,” they each recently turned an idea into action, re-enrolled at FSU and, after a couple years’ worth of determination, finished what they started so many years ago.
The two were awarded their bachelor’s degrees in social science last week at the conclusion of the summer semester.
“I was real hard on my kids about getting their education,” said Butler, a two-time All-American in 1979 and 80. “And it kind of hit me one day – ‘You know, you don’t have yours and they have theirs.’”
“It was something I wanted to do,” added Gibson, the starting rover on FSU’s 1999 national championship team. “Something I promised my mom. I just had to be dedicated and put my mind to it.”
Butler and Gibson took advantage of Florida State’s recently revamped degree completion program, which connects former FSU student-athletes with the resources they need to finish their coursework on a schedule that meets their needs.
Former FSU offensive lineman Josue Matias was among the first to graduate through the program, and several other Seminole football players – including Leon Washington, P.K. Sam and Ernie Sims – are working toward their degrees as well.
Having Butler and Gibson involved, though, carries a little extra significance, as it helps to bridge all of the eras of FSU football and show that any former FSU student-athlete – no matter how long he or she has been away – can reach this goal.
“It’s amazing to see,” said Ashton Henderson, the associate director of football advising at FSU. “There’s so much more value added to the (degree completion) program. You’ve got Josue, who just finished, from that national title year in ‘13 with Jimbo Fisher, all the way to Bobby Bowden’s first recruiting class. …
“It’s very cool to connect all these dots and stories and know what each one of them has meant to the program and what it means to us to see them graduate.”
Butler, picked 25th overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 1981, played 12 years in the NFL and went on to build a successful career in the business world.
He always liked the idea of returning to school, but FSU was in Tallahassee while his life and family – his wife Cyrillin and children Brenton, Brice, Brelan and Brandel — were in Atlanta.
But “fast-forward a few years later,” Butler said, “and next thing you know we’ve got online courses.
“So I decided to give it a shot.”
Technology made it possible for Butler to take classes, but it also created another set of hurdles. Safe to say that the college experience today is a little different than it was when Butler first arrived at FSU in 1977.
“There were no personal computers,” Butler said with a laugh. “There was no Powerpoint, there was no Word. There was none of this stuff that I’ve really never had to use a lot in my life, so I didn’t have a lot of experience with it. From a technology standpoint, it was tough.”
That’s where Butler’s four kids came in. (Brice Butler is a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, while Brenton plays professional basketball overseas.) After a few laps around some modern programs and applications, Butler found himself settling into a groove as a college student.
Most of the time, anyway.
“Every time I felt that way, there was a class that made me not feel that way,” he said. “Some of these classes had me pulling my hair out – that’s just like college, right? It was tough, I can tell you that. It was the toughest thing I’ve done in a long time.”
But maybe the most rewarding, too.
An NFL veteran who succeeded both during and after his football career, Butler didn’t need a degree to better his life.
But after staying on top of his kids about their own academics, he can now join them as a family of college graduates.
“You can’t just say it,” Butler said. “You’ve got to be about it. So I decided, why not go ahead and finish?”
Gibson has a similar story.
A three-year starter on some of Mickey Andrews’ best defenses, the Miami native spent six years with the Oakland Raiders and is now a high school football coach who counts former FSU stars Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook among his protégés.
But for every Freeman or Cook, there are dozens more whose careers ended at either the high school or college levels.
“I preach to my kids that not everybody can play in the NFL,” Gibson said. “But one thing you can promise your parents is that you can come back with a piece of paper saying you’re a college graduate. It’s hard to preach that if you don’t have one yourself.”
Like Butler, Gibson pursued his degree through online courses and found that things had changed a lot over the last 16 years.
“My first semester was very challenging, just to get back into the college mindset,” he said. “And doing it online, you’ve got to be more focused because you’re not going to class every day. It’s a lot more reading.”
But Gibson worked with Henderson to chart a course to graduation, and, after a little while, got the hang of the rhythm and routine that comes with being a long-distance student.
Now that he’s finished, Gibson said he’s started to encourage others to follow his lead and do the same.
“I just told Dalvin when he left (FSU), ‘No matter what, make sure you’re still on track to get your degree,’” Gibson said. “I told Devonta Freeman the same thing.”
Both Gibson and Butler had the internal drive to finish school, but each said that they relied on an old friend to provide an initial spark.
The same old friend, actually.
Monk Bonasorte, a former teammate of Butler’s who returned in 2003 to lead FSU’s Varsity Club, stayed in touch with the two – as well as hundreds of other Seminole football players – for years before dying of brain cancer in 2016.
Each time they would talk, after a little catching up and reminiscing, Bonasorte would always steer the conversation in a certain direction.
“Monk was trying to guide me to the right way,” Gibson said. “He kept telling me, ‘Man, you need to come back. We’re here to help. Come back and get your degree.’”
Butler, Bonasorte and Keith Jones all arrived at FSU at the same time and started three seasons together in the FSU secondary.
The three combined to win 39 games in their four years and made back-to-back appearances in the Orange Bowl to finish their careers.
Nearly 40 years later, Butler sees Bonasorte’s fingerprints on this achievement, too.
“We all became the best of friends and we’ll be brothers until the end,” Butler said. “Of course, we miss Monk. I wish he was here to see me finish, because we had a hundred conversations about this.”
Butler connected with Jones, coach Bobby Bowden and several other teammates at Bonasorte’s memorial service inside Doak Campbell Stadium last year.
Otherwise, he’s made only a handful of visits to Tallahassee over the years, although that’s something he plans to change soon.
With his degree in hand, Butler intends to join the thousands of other FSU alums who return each year to tour the university, see how things are now and remember the way they were.
“I want to walk the campus,” Butler said. “I haven’t really walked campus since I left in ’81. So I want to check it out, establish some new memories.”