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Madison Ford, Utah football
Former Utah safety Antwoine Sanders celebrates graduation with his family.
I’m so proud of these guys. We encourage all of our guys that come up a little short to come finish it off and finish the deal. —Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Antwoine Sanders fit right in. The cap and gown were worn with pride at a reception honoring graduating student-athletes at the University of Utah. Sanders, who was an all-conference safety for the Utes in 2001 and 2002, went through commencement this week — earning a degree in communication — at the ripe old age of 40.

Sanders had plenty of reasons to get his schooling done. First and foremost, he explained, he promised his mother that he would do so. Secondarily, Sanders wanted to accomplish it for himself. And reason No. 3, he has kids and wanted them to understand dedication, hard work and how to follow your passion.

“Education is very important from now until the day they die,” said Sanders, who acknowledged that he wasn’t close at all to graduating when the Baltimore Ravens drafted him on the seventh round in 2003.

Sanders, a junior college transfer, had 60-70 units to complete. He began lowering the number about 1½ years ago. It started with two classes in summer school, then jumped up three and eventually took five classes over three consecutive semesters. Sanders is now wrapping things up.

“It’s been hard — family, you know, kids and activities, and then working,” he said. “But this is more of the work.”

At the present time, Sanders is doing multiple things. He has a fitness company, is a partner in a juice bar, and just created a container business. He’s also working on projects to help others.

Despite all the endeavors, Sanders said that graduating from the U. is something that he thinks about often — especially with his kids getting to be there with him. He said he’s proud to be living proof that you can be away from it for 15-16 years and actually come back to get it done.

“It is definitely at the very top of the food chain of everything else I’ve accomplished in my life so far,” Sanders said.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham added praise, acknowledging that it’s “better late than never” when it comes to earning degrees. This year, 33 football players — former and current — are in line to graduate.

“I’m so proud of these guys. We encourage all of our guys that come up a little short to come finish it off and finish the deal,” Whittingham said. “It’s great to see Antwoine here and a bunch of other guys, and a bunch of our current players. As I say every year, it’s what it’s all about. That’s why they’re here . . . is for this day.”

Whittingham makes a point of attending the student-athlete graduation reception each year. He admits to feeling a bit like a proud papa.

“It’s a sense of mission accomplished for these young men and it’s providing a future for them,” Whittingham said. “Football comes to an end for everybody. I don’t care if it’s the end of college, after one year in the NFL, 10 years in the NFL. At some point it’s over with and you’re looking at 30 or 40 more years. You better have some options and the degree gives you options.”

Education is something that is emphasized daily by Utah’s coaches. The players take it seriously.

Senior linebacker Chase Hansen, who received a degree in cross-cultural studies, said it’s the “main reason, of course” why the players are in school. “It feels good to finally get to this point, I think, for a lot of us,” Hansen said. “It’s the main goal. I don’t know, it kind of feels like you’re actually moving on now.”

Hansen was pleased to see former players like Sanders come back and graduate, too.

“It’s about priorities and I think that’s obviously a big part of this program,” Hansen said. “Life’s bigger than football and I think that’s a great sign of it. So it’s cool.”

2018 University of Utah student-athletes graduations

BASEBALL: Dylan Drachler, Wade Gulden, Spencer Johnson, Josh Lapiana, Trenton Stoltz.

BASKETBALL (MEN): Gabe Bealer, David Collette, Jake Connor, Tyler Rawson.

BASKETBALL (WOMEN): Tanaeya Boclair, Tilar Clark, Megan Huff, Jada Matthews.

CROSS COUNTRY/TRACK: Alissa Atisme, Shaylen Crook, Grace Englund, Dakota Grossman, Courtney Jost, Madison Lanford, Claire MacMillan, Hannah McInturff, Grayson Murphy, Megan Perkins-Killian, Jessica Sams, Rhianna Williams.

FOOTBALL: Phil Afia, Aaron Amaama, Corrion Ballard, Cody Barton, Jackson Barton, Tyler Bell, Conroy Black, Marquise Blair, Johnny Capra, Keven Dixon, Christian Drews, Lo Falemaka, Jameson Field, Matt Gay, Chase Hansen, Shawn Hansen, Alani Havili-Katoa, Hayes Hicken, Devin Houston, Casey Hughes, Jake Jackson, Karsen Liljenquist, Siaosi Mariner, Everestt Matagi, Jake Murphy, Riley Richmond, Antwoine Sanders, Raelon Singleton, Leka Uhatafe, Quincy Watkins, George Wilson, Mitch Wishnowsky, Dre’vian Young.

GOLF: Nathan Wunderli.

GYMNASTICS: Tiffani Lewis, Baely Rowe, Maddy Stover.

SKIING: Endre Bjertness, Kevin Bolger, Ann Katherine Breuning, Chloe Fausa, Oscar Ivars, Niklas Persson, Sasha Zaitsoff.

SOCCER: Madison Clarkson, Janie Kearl, July Mathias, Paola van der Veen.

SOFTBALL: Heather Bowen, Katie Donovan, Miranda Viramontes.

SWIMMING (MEN): Keanu Interone, Peter Kotson, Nathan Makarewicz, Calvin Rogers, Ben Scott, Brandon Shreeve, Jorge Teber Baez, Ganem Tebet.

SWIMMING (WOMEN): Stina Kajsa Colleou, Nicole Ford, Isabella Kearns, Jenna Marsh, Kat Wickham.

TENNIS (MEN): Santiago Sierra.

TENNIS (WOMEN): Lexie Petrovic, Margo Pletcher, Victoria Robertson.

WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL: Adora Anae, Madison Legerski.