‘I Know He’s Proud’: Former Penn State Running Back Bill Belton Honors Late Father By Completing Degree
When former Penn State running back Bill Belton officially graduated this weekend, the achievement was eight years in the making and fulfilled a commitment he had made to his mother and late father.
“We always told [Bill] that he needed to go back and finish his degree,” Belton’s mother Carma said. “My husband and I had always instilled that education is important and that no matter what happens with football, he always would have his education to fall back on.”
Belton’s father Bill Sr. died on April 21, more than a year after suffering a serious stroke in March of 2018 that left him unable to move or talk.
Bill Sr.’s death came two weeks before Penn State’s spring commencement ceremonies, but not before Bill Jr. had been able to share the news that he had completed his degree.
“If I had it my way, I probably would’ve went back a little later, but [Bill Sr.’s stroke] was something that changed my life and put a new drive in me. I really wanted to get my degree before my dad passed,” Belton said. “So I’m happy I did it sooner rather than later.
“I promised my parents I’d get my degree. They both graduated college and set a standard for me, and I was able to live up to that. I know that he’s proud.”
After taking the field as a true freshman and playing his four years, Belton left Penn State in 2014 with about a semester’s worth of credits separating him from a degree in recreation, parks, and tourism management.
He spent a brief stint with the New York Jets the spring after his senior season before shifting his career ambitions to coaching. Driven by a desire to help students realize their dreams on and off the field, Belton opened his own business for training young athletes and began coaching at Timber Creek High School in New Jersey.
But going back to school remained on his radar, thanks in part to the encouragement of his parents and James Franklin, who has helped him “navigate through these battles along the path.” Eventually, Bilton re-enrolled in the World campus in 2017 and worked his way through his remaining requirements.
“For us, it wasn’t a big push,” Carma said. “Bill knew going back was something he needed to do in order to be successful. He wanted a career that was meaningful and that would allow him to support himself and his future family. And he knew education was going to be a big part of that.”
Belton completed his last few classes online before his last requirement took him to a familiar place: back to the gridiron. Only now, he’d be in the front office and have his focuses on improving the community, rather than shaving seconds off his 40 time.
In order to graduate, Belton needed to complete an internship, which he did with the Philadelphia Soul, an Arena Football League team. With the Soul, he worked in marketing and business development and helped plan events that engaged the community and built up the team’s following.
Although Belton said the work he did during his internship doesn’t seem like the path he wants to take as a career, football is where he wants to make his living and where he feels his calling. He plans to continue his coaching career, work his way up to the college ranks, and hopefully one day, reach his dream job of becoming the head coach of “a historic program.”
“Bill loves the game of football and to teach and mentor,” Carma said. “I think [coaching] will be a really good fit for him. With his love and passion for football and wanting to see other people succeed, that wouldn’t feel like work for him. It’d be something God meant for him to do.”
In addition to being his pathway to a successful career, Belton’s graduation represents the embodiment of what originally drew him to Penn State as a four-star recruit out of New Jersey’s Winslow Township High School in 2011.
Joe Paterno, known for his “Success With Honor” tagline and emphasis on graduating his players, set a precedent when it came to education while recruiting Belton.
That precedent held up under the two coaches who followed him at Penn State, including Franklin, who congratulated Belton on Twitter Sunday. Belton made a similar promise to Franklin when he left school in 2014, and the head coach held him to it over the past five years.
“[The program’s focus on academics] was one of the reasons we kind of pushed [Bill] toward Penn State,” Carma said. “We knew that the support would be there for him and that Coach Paterno was big on education and his guys getting their degrees. We felt like he wasn’t just going to be a football player. He was going to be more than that.”
As evidenced by his interests in mentorship and work within the community, Belton was able to become just that by coming to Penn State and meeting mentors of his own like Paterno and Franklin. Their priorities aligned with those of Carma and Bill Sr., who had emphasized the importance of education when Bill Jr. and his older sister Kayla were very young. Now that they are both grown, it seems to have worked out, with Bill Jr. sticking with his degree to the very end and Kayla graduating with an MBA in 2017.
Although he wasn’t able to attend the commencement ceremony over the weekend, Belton ranks the accomplishment of earning his degree and sharing the news with his father as the defining moment of his elongated college career — a career that also includes a certain game-winning touchdown you might remember.
“[Graduating] is at the top of the list,” he said. “Something so prestigious from such a prestigious university, how can that be not one of your biggest accomplishments? Even with all the stuff I did and accomplishments I have, getting my degree has to be the one I’m most proud of.”
But aside from the value of a Penn State degree, Belton’s graduation carries a bit more weight and meaning for his family.
“My husband can rest now,” Carma said. “He knows both of his children are doing well and will have strong futures because of their education. For Bill, completing his degree before his father passing meant everything to him and everything to both of us.”
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