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Former Packers player Dr. George Koonce finds purpose in shaping next generation of scholars

Dr. George Koonce
Posted at 2:45 PM, Feb 20, 2024

FOND DU LAC — Since Dr. George Koonce can remember, football had always been the center of his world.

He recalled a vivid memory in his North Carolina childhood bedroom where he would fantasize about playing on football's biggest stage.

"I dreamed about playing in the National Football League, playing in playoff games, playing in a Super Bowl," Koonce shared.

After a two-year playing career at East Carolina University, Koonce went undrafted in 1991. He spent one season with the Atlanta Falcons before being signed by the Green Bay Packers in 1992.

“When I got [to Green Bay] on June 1st and I signed my contract on June 2nd, 1992, things changed," Koonce recalled.

Koonce played eight seasons for the Green Bay Packers (1992-99) starting 102 of 112 games and is a Super Bowl XXXI Champion.

Dr. George Koonce
Dr. George Koonce has Packers memorabilia scattered throughout his office at Marian University.

The former linebacker signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent in 2000 before retiring after ten seasons in the NFL.

However, his toughest opponent was just on the horizon.

“I thought I was prepared for life after football, but I wasn't at all," he shared. "Depression set in. I started self-medicating when it came to alcohol… When that bubble burst, I struggled big time.”

Koonce battled addiction for several years until a single-car crash became his wake-up call.

“I thought that I was a failure because I wasn't playing the National Football League, and that was the furthest thing from the truth," he explained.

With a new lease on life, it came time to draw up a new game plan.

Koonce's mother had always been an advocate for education, which inspired him to go back to school. The former Packer earned his Master's in Sports Management from East Carolina University before returning to Wisconsin to pursue a Ph.D at Marquette University.

He affectionately became known as "The Doctor of Defense" after receiving his Ph.D in Sociology and Sports Management. The former linebacker is just one of only two players in the Green Bay Packers 100-year history to earn a Ph.D.

Dr. George Koonce currently serves as the Senior Vice President of University Relations at Marian University, which is where he's made it his life's purpose to shape the next generation of scholars.

Dr. George Koonce
Dr. George Koonce has his PhD from Marquette University on display next to a pair of game-worn cleats.

At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, Marian University launched the Dr. George E. Koonce Scholarships program, which gives students in need across Wisconsin an opportunity to pursue higher education. He's hopeful this scholarship will eventually serve 50 students per year.

“Education provides opportunities," Sharveta Parker, a special education teacher at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, expressed. "It opens doors, especially for our students who may not otherwise even consider that when they have so many other factors that are happening in their personal lives and in our community.”

Another big piece to Koonce's scholarship program is bringing Milwaukee area high school students to Lambeau Field.

“It was a lot bigger than what I expected," MHSA senior Rasauna Batemon recalled.

Although, the field trips are not for a Packers game. They are intended to expose high-schoolers to jobs outside of being a professional athlete.

Dr. George Koonce
Dr. George Koonce speaks to a group of high school students at Lambeau Field.

While there are 53 players on an NFL roster, there are more than 1,500 employees who work for the Packers organization on game days.

“It was very eye-opening and very inspiring because he didn't want us to focus on what he did in the past," MHSA senior Daniel Hamilton shared. "He wanted to focus on what we're going to do in the future.”

“He's showing them that there's life and careers after professional sports," MPS School Board of Directors President Marva Herndon added.

Since September, more than 250 students from Milwaukee area high schools have visited Lambeau Field with Dr. Koonce. Along with receiving a stadium tour, the trip also serves as a 'lunch and learn' where students learn about Marian University's academic programs and collegiate support services.

“They had sat us down and really allowed us to gain insight on things like tuition and scholarships," MHSA senior Adriel Vizcaino shared.

“I just want the kids to go to school because if they go to school and get a degree, it's gonna make Wisconsin better," Dr. Koonce smiled.

Dr. Koonce is receiving an award for Black Excellence on February 23rd in Milwaukee for the positive impact he's had on local students and the city.