Wildcat, turned NFL pro, returns to campus to counsel student-athletes coming after him

Ricky Lumpkin concentrates on the lecture that his professor is giving on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in the White Hall classroom building in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Victoria Rogers | Staff

Erika Bonner

He’s a husband, a father and—to folks in the Bluegrass state—a former Wildcat football player.

He’s Ricky Lumpkin, retired NFL defensive lineman, current academic counselor for UK football and now, at 31, he’s a University of Kentucky student again.

Lumpkin, like many other former student-athletes, is using UK’s Post-Eligibility Program—which provides tuition help and books for UK student-athletes looking to get more of an education.

Lumpkin played football at UK from 2006-2010 and graduated before signing with the Arizona Cardinals after going undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft. He got his degree as a Wildcat, but says it wasn’t always easy.


“Being 17 years old, I was the second youngest in my recruiting class,” Lumpkin said. “I’m from an Army family, dad was a drill sergeant, mom was a staff sergeant. So I got here and I thought I was free, I could do whatever I wanted, that’s including academically, so I started staying up late because I had a 9’o’clock bedtime as a senior in high school.”

Just like everyone when they get to college, Lumpkin felt a sense of freedom. But his freshman year didn’t go as he’d hoped. He said he had a 1.60 GPA and was put on probation, and heard he was at risk of suspension.

“I was like, I’m not going to have that happen to me,” Lumpkin said. “I don’t want to be in the newspaper back home, that’s an embarrassment to my family. It wasn’t even really about me. It was thinking more like my parents and they raised me better than this.”

He took that motivation and turned his academics around, earned a spot on the All-SEC Academic Honor Roll and decided he wanted to eventually become an academic counselor.

“I’ve never had that quitting attitude. I don’t believe in quitting. I don’t believe in giving up,” Lumpkin said.

He got his degree, and despite never really having the dream to play in the NFL, earned a spot on the Arizona Cardinals. He was in the league from 2011-2016, playing for six years on three teams with six different head coaches, learning a lot along the way.

“Your whole life, playing football or playing a sport in general, you’re told exactly where to go, what to do, how to do it, when to do it,” Lumpkin said. “I got hurt in in Indianapolis, destroyed my finger which is still messed up…you can hear it pop. The tendons are destroyed. They told me if I continued playing I would’ve lost it. And even though I knew what I wanted to do, be an academic counselor…. I had no clue. I had no path. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it.”

In January 2016, when he was trying to decide whether or not he was going to retire from playing football, Lumpkin’s father passed away.

“That really threw me,” he said. “That’s when I was like, I’m done with football, it was real random, I was like, this sucks. My world just dropped.”

He decided then to hang up his jersey and started looking for jobs as a graduate assistant or academic counselor. He had a short stint in Akron as an academic coordinator before getting his job in Kentucky. Always wanting to get another degree, he decided to take the leap, and is currently working on his masters.

When he graduated as a traditional student-athlete, even though he knew he was headed for the NFL, having that degree gave him a ton of confidence as he went into the real world.

“Knowing I had that to fall back on was amazing,” Lumpkin said. “I knew I needed a masters to go further beyond, to really separate myself, and I just didn’t know when I was going to do it because of football.”


But Lumpkin isn’t the only former Wildcat to come back to Kentucky for school. More than 150 former athletes have returned to graduate through a program called the Post-Eligibility Program. It was established in 1989 and provides for tuition and books for UK student-athletes who return to school.

“Most of our student-athletes pursue a career in the work world, but some have opportunities to play professional sports,” UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said. “What they all have in common is that education is essential no matter what. Even for elite athletes, 15 years is a long career. That means they will spend decades doing whatever they do after they play. A college degree opens doors along that path, not to mention the fact that earning one is an incredible achievement.”

Recent stars like Randall Cobb and Jodie Meeks are two that have returned to complete their degrees, and John Wall is one who is still working on that goal. He’s been taking online classes to complete his business management degree, and for him, getting that piece of paper is something he says would mean everything to him.

“I always promised my dad, before he passed, that I was going to go to college and get a degree,” Wall told the Kernel. “My job is to finish that goal. My sister is the first one to graduate from college from my family. I was the first one to go. I owe it to my mom, who passed recently, and my dad who passed on when I was nine. I definitely want to make sure I go back and get my degree.”

For Wall, his motivation was his parents. For Lumpkin, his motivation are his kids.

“I have two kids, I can’t tell my kids to get a degree when I don’t have a degree,” he said.

Both Wall and Lumpkin felt welcomed with open arms and described the close-knit community that comes from being a former UK athlete.

“If I talked to AD or Devin Booker or KAT, I feel like I played with those guys even though they came years after me,” Wall said. “That just says how much we love the school and the brotherhood.”

Lumpkin, being both a current employee and student at Kentucky, says he would do anything for the athletes because he used to be one, donned the same colors they do, and poured the same amount of heart into it.

“It does make it so tight-knit, because you know one thing, people love the blue and white, people love the Big Blue Nation, people love this place.”