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Aztecs great DJ Pumphrey adds another accolade — college graduate

(San Diego State)

Former SDSU running back’s education was interrupted by pro career, but now he’s eyeing coaching career with degree in hand

DJ Pumphrey ran for more yards than any player in college football history during his four seasons at San Diego State.

It was a short walk Friday on campus that Pumphrey will remember as much — or more — in the years to come.

Pumphrey was among the thousands of SDSU students participating this weekend in graduation ceremonies.

He let out a big sigh of relief while approaching the stage at Viejas Arena to be recognized for the degree he earned in social science.

“About time,” Pumphrey said. “Overdue.”

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It was in reference to the decade that had elapsed between taking his first handoff in practice in the summer of 2013 and being handed his diploma Friday afternoon.

A standout on center stage at SDCCU Stadium for the Aztecs, Pumphrey on this occasion was just another face in the crowd — each one of them wearing a cap and a gown and a broad smile.

Each graduate received six tickets to the ceremony to share with those close to them. Among those watching from stands was Pumphrey’s mother and father, grandmother, girlfriend and her mother and SDSU assistant coach Hunkie Cooper.

“I made that promise to my mom when I came to San Diego State, to be the first in my family to graduate,” said Pumphrey, speaking as excitedly as at any time during his record-breaking football career. “It’s a super huge achievement.”

Pumphrey followed a path unlike any of his classmates. Though others may have been delayed in getting their degrees for one reason or another, none of those reasons were to pursue a career in professional football.

A few months after becoming the NCAA’s career rushing leader with 6,405 yards, Pumphrey was a fourth-round selection of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2017 NFL Draft.

He received a signing bonus of $575,888 as part of a four-year, $2.97 million contract.

A torn hamstring sidelined Pumphrey his entire rookie season, though he did receive a Super Bowl ring when the Eagles defeated New England in Super Bowl LII.

Pumphrey was released a year later by the Eagles, went to camp briefly with the Detroit Lions, then returned to Philadelphia and was on the team’s practice squad before again being released amid final roster cuts before the 2019 season.

“The NFL didn’t really pan out the way I wanted it to pan out,” Pumphrey said. “I had kind of put school on the back burner to pursue the NFL.

“A lot of guys, even if they don’t make the team, for the next year or two years they’re still chasing that dream. That’s what I was doing.”

He was selected in the 2020 XFL Draft by the DC Defenders, but had his contract terminated along with every other player when the ill-fated league suspended operations.

And so it was time for Plan B.

“I want to coach at the college level,” Pumphrey said. “That’s always been a dream of mine. I had to graduate to fulfill that dream.”

Pumphrey was 18 units shy of his degree when he sat down early last year with SDSU running backs coach Jeff Horton and one of the university’s academic advisors to make the dream a reality.

“He’s impacted everything here at San Diego State, in college football and the community,” Horton said. “He’s impacted it too much not to finish it off. I think this is an even greater honor.”

Cooper, who is the wide receivers coach at SDSU, was Pumphrey’s coach at Las Vegas’ Canyon Springs High, though he became a steadying influence in Pumphrey’s life well before high school.

On the road recruiting the past two weeks, Cooper made sure to return to San Diego in time for the graduation ceremony.

“Like most inner city kids, his life came with challenges, a lot of challenges,” Cooper said. “I’ve been there for some pretty significant junctures in his life. ...

“For him to come out after the NFL didn’t work out the way he wanted it to, and to set his pride on the shelf and come back and be a 25- or 26-year-old student, not only did he come back and be a student but he was an honor student.”

Amid completing his studies, Pumphrey joined the coaching staff last fall at Bishop’s. He coaches the running backs on the varsity as well as being the freshman head coach.

What Pumphrey really aspires to, however, is becoming a college coach. SDSU is his first preference, of course.

“I feel like I have so much knowledge from the game and didn’t get to utilize it at the next level,” Pumphrey said. “I want to give it to this next generation and watch them succeed.”

Pumphrey has been very visible with the SDSU football program the past year.

He visited practice frequently last fall, speaking often with current players while soaking up details that could help with his coaching career.

He was among 10 former SDSU greats named as program ambassadors over the winter.

He was honorary head coach for one of the teams in the 2022 Spring Game.

“He can come take my place one day,” Horton said. “Start him out working under us as a grad assistant, learn the ropes and work his way up. He knows how to play, obviously. I’ve watched him train guys on the side. ... He commands instant respect with what he’s done. He’s going to be a great coach.”

Added Cooper: “I would take a guy like that in a heartbeat because he’s been here. His legacy is in concrete here, what he’s done as an athlete. His passion. He’s proud to be an Aztec.

“For him to get that college degree, to me, is the most important thing. It gives him relevance to being in kids’ lives. You reach young men the way somebody reached you. Pump’s been through it.”


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