Alterraun Verner's lockout to-do list
The Titans CB returns to UCLA to get degree in mathematics and applied science
LOS ANGELES -- It's another late-night study session for Alterraun Verner, and the walls of his cramped UCLA dorm room have begun to close in on him.
His eyes have glossed over and his brain is frazzled, so Verner decides he needs a break.
He does what many other college students living in the dorms might in this situation: He drops the books, scoots over toward the Xbox game console, slides in the Madden NFL game and flips on the TV.
What happens next, however, is unique. Verner clicks a few buttons and wiggles the joystick a few times and suddenly, he's summoned the video game version of himself onto the screen.
Verner, a starting defensive back for the Tennessee Titans, has a little extra free time thanks to the NFL lockout, so he returned to UCLA to finish his degree in mathematics and applied science.
A fourth-round draft pick by the Titans out of UCLA last year, Verner has resumed what he calls "student mode" by moving back into the dorms, dusting off his old study habits and enrolling in the five classes he needed to complete his degree. He will graduate June 10.
As soon as Verner left UCLA last year, he knew he would be back to complete his degree. In his family, there was no other choice.
His mother, Vicki, has a degree in business administration and his father, Robert, is a mechanical engineer. Alterraun has two sisters and both of them have undergraduate degrees and are working toward advanced degrees.
"I told all my kids that everybody in the house was going to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree," Vicki Verner said. "I told them that ever since they were born so there was never any doubt that he would and we're so proud of him that he's doing it."
And it isn't just his parents' voices in his head. Academics have always been important to Alterraun. In middle school, other kids teased him and called him "Brainuerran." He's always loved math, becoming the go-to guy when it came time to figure out the tip amounts when the family went out to dinner.
"It's just the way that I grew up," Verner said. "Academics were a strong focus in my life. The degree is going to last way longer than my football career. That was instilled in me by my parents from a young age so that's why I always knew I would eventually go back to get my degree."
Going back to the dorms, however, wasn't always part of the master plan.
His dorm sits atop a hill on the far west end of campus. It's about a 20-minute walk to the main campus area and the room is certainly no Ritz-Carlton.
He lives in a room on the top floor with a nice view, which sounds luxurious until you realize that it's only about 12 feet by 12 feet. His bed, desk, 42-inch television and Xbox are pretty much all that will fit.
Verner signed a four-year, $2.1 million contract before last season and lives by himself in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Tennessee, but here he is living like a starving student in a cramped college dorm and sharing a bathroom with four other students.
"It's actually pretty cool," Verner said. "That's one of the things about the college experience is meeting new people, so I like it."
Verner has multiple reasons for living on campus. Although a long walk from the main campus, it beats driving in Westside traffic and trying to find parking in order to get to early classes. He also has convenient access to the school's athletic facilities so he can stay in shape in case the lockout ends.
And the lockout also played a major role because when Verner returned to school in January, he had no idea when or if he would have to return to his team.
Not only would renting an apartment be a hassle, it would be difficult to find one in a college neighborhood that would give him a month-to-month lease. He could have lived with his parents in Carson, but that would have meant a hellacious commute.
So when Verner learned through a UCLA academic counselor that his scholarship was still valid, he jumped at the opportunity. Athletic scholarships, it turns out, are valid for five years. Verner played four years at UCLA, but never redshirted, so this would have been his fifth year as a student, meaning he could get into campus housing and it would be paid for.
"Oh yeah, we gave him a hard time about living in the dorms," said former UCLA running back Tobi Umodu, one of Verner's closest friends. "It was kind of surprising, but then that's the kind of person he is. But he's cool with everybody. No matter who it is, he's up for talking about football or whatever, so he's perfect for the dorms."
Plus, it gives him one last taste of the college experience before he leaves it behind for good.
"The thing is, he loves UCLA," said Robert Verner, Alterraun's father. "He loves being there on campus and I think he missed it when he was gone so he was pretty excited to go back and live there."
While he was gone, Verner started building himself quite a nice career. He had a solid rookie season, playing in all 16 games and starting in 12. He had three interceptions and 101 tackles -- the most among NFL cornerbacks -- and was among the top rookies in the NFL.
But it's not as if he goes around bragging about that or wearing a Titans jersey or showing off how much money he's making. He's stayed humble and grounded and considers himself just another student at UCLA who happens to already have a job.
"I kind of keep a low profile," Verner said. "It's not like I'm going up and introducing myself as an NFL player or anything. I just like being a normal regular person. I feel awkward when people are starting at me or asking me a whole bunch of questions or they put me on some kind of pedestal or something. I mean, I'm just like you. I'm still trying to get good grades just like you. I'm working just as hard."
He fits in so well that a lot of people, even some who live on his floor in the dorms, don't even know he is an NFL player.
Many of his teachers don't realize they have a professional athlete in their class -- "Math teachers don't pay much attention to sports," Verner says -- and even some students who have known him for quite some time are clueless.
Verner likes to play basketball at the Wooden Center on campus to blow off steam. He became a regular there during his first four years at school and got to know some of the other regulars. When he went back in January, a familiar face greeted him and they got to talking.
"It was this guy who I've been playing against ever since I started at UCLA," Verner said. "And he's asking me what I'm going to do after I graduate. I just started laughing and this other guy says, 'Man, he's on the Tennessee Titans."
Even people who you might think would know that Verner plays football for a living didn't have a clue.
Current UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, the only other athlete who lives on the same floor as Verner, enrolled at UCLA at the same time Verner returned. Hundley, a freshman, never played with Verner at UCLA, so he had never met him and figured it was just another student living in the dorms.
"I had seen him and said 'hey' and whatever," Hundley said. "And a few days later, I was sitting in my room playing Madden and him and his friend walked in the room and stopped by to talk.
"I was actually pretty shocked, to be honest, when I found out who he was. That was pretty weird when you got an NFL guy coming in your room and sitting down and sitting down to talk."
Verner draws little attention to himself at school. He walks among the crowds, eats at the dining hall and shops at the bookstore, just like most of the other students. It's easy for him to blend in because he's a 5-foot-10, 190-pound defensive back.
"If I was a quarterback or a real big offensive lineman or something, I'm sure I'd stand out more," Verner said. "But I'm a normal-looking guy who plays a position nobody really knows, so I blend in pretty easy."
When Verner was drafted last year, he left UCLA five classes shy of graduation. He took three last quarter, but ended up dropping one, and then enrolled in three this quarter when it began to become clear that there would, indeed, be no reason to report for work.
Still, things were iffy, with negotiations between the player's union and the league going to court and the possibility of the lockout ending at a moment's notice.
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"I was at the point where I said if I take a midterm, then I'm staying and finishing," Verner said. "But if the lockout had ended before I took midterms, I probably would have dropped my classes to get back."
There were times, Verner said, that he wishes the lockout had ended. Upper-division math classes are hard enough, but he had no idea how missing just six months of school could change things so dramatically.
"The hardest was getting myself in tune with being a student again after being off playing football with the Titans," he said. "All of my classes give a tremendous amount of homework so it was hard to get motivated after being away and not having to do homework. The hardest thing was getting over that mental block and getting back into student mode."
Some parts of student mode aren't too bad, however.
Like when you miss class, nobody fines you. And when you feel like staying up late, you can stay up late. And you have all the time in the world to play Madden NFL football on the Xbox. That part is especially cool when you can play the game as yourself, although there is a small problem with that for Verner.
"I'm not that good in the game," he said. "If I do that, then people are just going to keep throwing the ball at me and I can't stand seeing myself get beat all the time."
Still, Verner says, it's pretty cool sometimes during those late-night study breaks to kick back in his dorm room and put in a video game that he is in.
"It's still a crazy feeling," Verner said. "I was playing the other day and I made the tackle and the announcer said, 'Alterraun Verner with the tackle.' And he pronounced it right and everything. That tripped me out."
And with that, Verner pauses and has a moment of reflection as he ponders how lucky is to have gotten a second chance at the college experience.
"I'm really happy I did it and did it this way," Verner said. "This is a place I wanted to go to when I was young. The years I had here were good and some of the best experiences of my life. It's like coming home."
But soon, it will be back to the real world, where he'll have to make real tackles and real announcers will pronounce his name correctly.
"Yeah, but this time I'll have a college degree," Verner said.
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.