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'Higher Education Is Good Medicine'

Tony Terrell was once a steadying force on the Rebels offensive line. Now he helps students stay the course to graduation. Catch his new Facebook Live series.

Athletics  |  May 3, 2017  |  By Jamie Evan Bichelman
Tony Terrell

Now with a Ph.D. to go along with his football stats, former offensive lineman Tony Terrell is assistant director of UNLV's Academic Success Center. (UNLV Creative Services)

On May 4, former Rebel football player Tony Terrell was among the newest inductees into the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame. He was joined by standouts Jamaal Brimmer, football player (2001-04); Gwynn Hobbs, women’s basketball player (1992-95); Shan McDonald, softball coach (1987-2003); Ryan Moore, men’s golfer (2002-05); Eric Nielsen, baseball player (2002-04); Mark Wade, men’s basketball player (1986-87); the entire 2003 UNLV baseball team; and “Voice of the Rebels” announcer Dick Calvert. The late Rich Abajian, a former football assistant coach and longtime supporter, was the recipient of the Silver Rebel Award. Visit the UNLV Athletics website for more information.

With his 6-foot-4 frame and booming voice, Tony Terrell looms large as he enters a room. It’s not hard to envision him as a standout student-athlete, piling up on-field accolades as he anchored the only offensive line in team history to produce back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers.

He played for UNLV 1999-2002, starting in 40 straight games while working on his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. He was the only two-time winner of the team’s Bill "Wildcat" Morris Most Inspirational Award and in 2002, became the first UNLV player named a community service All-American as a member of the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team.  In 2002, he headed to the San Diego Chargers camp as a free agent.

But, even as he’s inducted into the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame, Terrell underplays his athletic achievements and focuses on the student part of student-athlete. Today, as assistant director of learning support for UNLV’s Academic Success Center, he helps ensure all Rebels complete their degrees.

“I bring up my playing career (to students) only in the sense of overcoming adversity,” he said. “I have a picture of my termination contract with the San Diego Chargers as an added motivation of how important education is. I’m trying to strive to advocate the importance of attaining things that can’t be taken away from you. College is one of those things where there’s a clear path to achieving something; whereas with the NFL, you can work out every day, do everything feasible to succeed, but still not make it.”

Once it became clear he would not make it in the NFL, Terrell returned to UNLV to work as an undergraduate admissions recruiter and traded in a football helmet for more graduation caps en route to a master’s of education in physical education in 2007 and a Ph.D. in sports education leadership in 2012.

“I earned the bachelor’s degree to make my mom happy — I thought that was my zenith,” he said. “But the pursuit of advanced diplomas changes you; it can change your whole family legacy. There has to be that seed that's planted, that belief, that trust, that this higher education medicine is good for you.”

Terrell speaks often to students about perseverance and shrugging off labels that inhibit personal growth.

“I want to eliminate students’ chances or possibilities for excuses at not being successful,” he said, telling them that “‘the formula for success in college is perfect: Go to class, study, use the resources available to you, and be disciplined. I can give you the recipe, but it’s up to you to implement it and do what it takes to be successful.’”

Tony TerrellIt’s not uncommon for students to approach him on campus, inspired by their experiences from his classes. After earning his Ph.D., he co-developed the first-year seminar course for the Division of Health Sciences and served as the coordinator/instructor. He’s also taught advanced-level kinesiology and weightlifting classes, drawing from his days as a mentee of world champion powerlifter and strongman competitor Mark Philippi.

His playing career required endless hours in the gym and forgoing the holiday breaks that other students enjoyed; he brought the same discipline to working full-time before heading to night classes. “Higher education has been transparent to me in the expectations.”

His professional career has given him the platform to impact student lives, just as his was changed by UNLV, he said. He also contributes to many of UNLV’s community service programs, such as the DASH program that feeds homeless people and Nevada Reading Week in elementary schools. 

“There’s no degree sheet for how to navigate life,” Terrell said. “It always felt like I was working from a deficit, and that’s where the competitive nature came from. I’ve seen the realities in my neighborhood, and I always wanted to strive for higher than that. I was always told, ‘This is your ceiling,’ but every time I applied the formula of hard work, dedication, and discipline, I broke through a perceived ceiling.”

Now, he said, “there’s no greater joy than seeing a student persevere. The payoff in pursuing higher education is that you're not going to be the same person … so pay it forward to someone else.”