blogpost-835 - Dean Tolson

The First Professional Athlete To Go From Illiteracy To A Master’s Degree

Dean Tolson, a former NBA player, shares his journey from illiteracy to obtaining a master's degree and emphasizes the importance of education. He highlights the negative consequences of neglecting education and urges students to prioritize their studies. Dean recounts his personal experience of learning to read at the age of 32 and the challenges he faced in pursuing higher education. He believes that education is essential for future success and encourages students to believe in themselves and commit to their academic pursuits. Dean's ultimate goal is to inspire every child to graduate and recognize the significance of education in their lives.

Today's message is one our sports-obsessed nation needs to hear. In this episode we dive into the extraordinary life of Dean Tolson, a man whose life changed from dribbling basketballs to championing education. Deanat age 32 and went from the high-flying courts of professional basketball to the halls of academics where he not only learned to read but achieved the unimaginable Master's degree. In his book, Power Forward, Dean shares his inspiring transition from an illiterate athlete to a magna cum laude graduate, his story is not just about the victories or the setbacks; it's a powerful call to action for every listener to recognize the undeniable value of education in shaping one’s destiny. Join us as Dean Tolson unfolds the chapters of his life, offering invaluable lessons on resilience, the importance of education, and the belief in one's potential to overcome any obstacle.

I played the rough cut of this episode for my eighth graders and we had an incredible class discussion about how perhaps we have turned things upside down in our society. I hope there are many more like Dean who rise through athletics and go back and complete their education.

We should all reflect on the emphasis we put on education and the importance of getting a great education even if a student is pursuing a career in sports.

Dean Tolson transformational education story former NBA professional baskeball player who went from illiterate to a masters degree.
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    This week's guest

    Dean Tolson is a former NBA professional basketball player and inspirational/motivational speaker. He began his life in the ghettos of Kansas City, Missouri and became one of the outstanding high school basketball players in the nation.

    He went on to play for the University of Arkansas and during this time served in the U.S. Army, where he received an honorable discharge. Dean’s dream of playing professional basketball was realized when he was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics.

    After playing in the NBA for three years, Dean then traveled the world playing professional international basketball for eleven years. At his mother’s encouragement and with the support of UofA Athletic Director, Frank Broyles, Dean returned to Arkansas to pursue a degree in History.

    His graduation was featured in Sports Illustrated.

    Power Forward book by Dean TolsonDean then started a successful carpet-cleaning business in Seattle and earned a million-dollar contract with the Boeing Company—prior to returning to Arkansas and graduating Magna Cum Laude with a master’s degree in Education.

    Dean now gives public speeches to youth, sharing his experiences and the importance of pursuing an education and reaching for your goals. He tells his book in Power Forward: My Journey from Illiterate NBA Player to a Magna Cum Laude Master's Degree.

    Show Notes


    Power Forward: My Journey from Illiterate NBA Player to a Magna Cum Laude Master's Degree

    1. Introduction and Background – 00:04
    2. From an illiterate NBA athlete to a master's degree – 01:03
    3. The Impact of Family Background – 01:53
    4. The Consequences of Neglecting Education – 02:30
    5. Motivating Students to Prioritize Education – 03:03
    6. The Journey to Learning to Read – 03:40
    7. The Importance of Education for Future Success – 04:24
    8. Achieving a Master's Degree – 04:49
    9. Overcoming Past Failures – 05:58
    10. Believing in Oneself and Commitment – 06:06
    11. The Importance of Education in Life – 06:45
    12. Shifting the Focus from Sports to Education – 08:21
    13. The Dream for the Book ‘Power Forward' – 09:30
    14. Closing Remarks – 10:28


    Spot a mistake in this transcript? Help this teacher out and shoot an email to vicki at coolcatteacher dot com. Thank you for being helpful! – Vicki, your podcast host and friendly fellow classroom teacher.


    Vicki Davis (00:01)

    I am so excited today to be talking to Dean Tolson. He's a former NBA professional basketball player, inspirational motivational And I'm not going to get too much into your story, Dean, because I want you to tell the story. You have a book called Power

    that is a book that we'll reference if you want to hear a lot more of Dean's story. So thanks for coming on the show, Dean.

    Byron Dean Tolson (00:31)

    Thank you, Vicki, for having me on, and your listeners and your audience. And I think that we have something very important to share with them today about receiving a quality education and how that can affect their lives and lead to success.

    Vicki Davis (00:47)

    Okay. So tell us a little bit about your story. I mean, you're the epitome of I mean, every kid, every, every guy I know who plays basketball, what do they want to do? It end up in the NBA, but you're telling us that all they ended up in the NBA, that getting an education is Go back in time and, and back up to the young Dean and tell me your story a little bit.

    Byron Dean Tolson (01:12)

    Well, I'm the first professional athlete in American history to go from illiteracy to a master's degree and graduate magna cum laude. No other professional athlete in any sport has ever achieved

    Vicki Davis (01:29)

    And so back to young Dean, how did you view education when you were I mean, you probably loved basketball back then when you were in elementary school, right?

    Byron Dean Tolson (01:44)

    I was illiterate and so I did not even understand about focusing on education and how important it was at that time. I was a true athlete and of course grew to be 6'9″, unknowing to me as a child growing up, but I was always the tallest kid in my

    Vicki Davis (02:04)

    Yeah, but you couldn't read. When did you learn how to

    Byron Dean Tolson (02:09)

    when I was 32 years

    Vicki Davis (02:11)

    See, how does that happen as you look back and think on it? I how does this happen? You went the way through school, went all the way through college,

    Byron Dean Tolson (02:19)

    Well, then, bye!

    Vicki Davis (02:22)


    Byron Dean Tolson (02:22)

    Yeah, my mom had a eighth grade education and my dad had a third grade education. And so I flunked the fifth grade two times. And so I was going to flunk. My school was going to flunk me the third time. And my mom came to the school and intervened and said, Look, he's the tallest kid in this class and I want you to pass him on anyway. So that developed the trend.

    Vicki Davis (02:29)





    Byron Dean Tolson (02:49)

    for teachers passing me on even though I wasn't learning and I'm still illiterate, but I can play

    Vicki Davis (02:59)

    But that had to be when you were sitting in class. How did you when you were sitting? I mean, that just, it hurts my heart. This hurts my heart, Dane, because it does hurt because it just, like.

    Byron Dean Tolson (03:06)

    You're hurting me, Mickey!

    Vicki Davis (03:12)

    Byron Dean Tolson (03:12)

    I played and goofed off all day and look at the clock to make sure that at 3 o'clock I can't wait to get out of school. All day, every day, for

    Vicki Davis (03:25)

    So what's your word to kids now who want to do who want to goof off all day, every day, and who are getting passed on? You know that there are kids today that are a lot like young Dean, right?

    Byron Dean Tolson (03:37)

    They do the same Absolutely. And that's why I'm doing this story, Vicki, to share with them, do not do that. Don't do

    It's detrimental.

    Vicki Davis (03:50)

    So, yeah, so when you go to schools and you're given your motivational speech about the importance of education, what do you tell the and what do they tell you about your story?

    Byron Dean Tolson (04:04)

    I tell them to be committed and apply themselves in school at all times. You have to do this. You can't let somebody be on you all the time about get your books, go study, get your lesson, don't do this, don't do that, pass tests, study hard, you

    You can't keep doing it. You have to get kids to do that themselves. And that's what I finally did in life. I finally did it

    Vicki Davis (04:36)

    So that was take me back in time and explain how you were feeling when you said you were 32 when you started Explain how you felt what you were doing and what made you decide you wanted to learn to

    Byron Dean Tolson (04:45)


    Vicki Davis (04:52)

    Byron Dean Tolson (04:54)

    I decided that after every level of high school, college, and professional basketball, and 11 years of international basketball all over the world.

    become a failure in life.

    And to go to play at all those levels, that's the dream of every kid in this country is to play at every level. But then once you're done and you don't have an education, you cannot come out here and be an integral part of society and get a job and earn a living wage. It ain't going to happen. You can be flipping burgers at McDonald's or Burger King or Or doing pushing a broom.

    Vicki Davis (05:16)

    Yeah, it is.


    Byron Dean Tolson (05:39)

    Cutting grass? Something you don't want to

    And that's what it taught me and that I'm young enough at 32, I better try and go back and overcome this deficiency that I've created.

    Vicki Davis (05:57)

    Well, you didn't just start reading, you got your masters. I mean, that's That's huge. You went from not being able to read to getting, what was your degree in, in your

    Byron Dean Tolson (06:12)

    Masters of Education in Workforce Development and Workplace Development with a concentration in Human Resources. Adult Education. And Statistics was the hardest course.

    Vicki Davis (06:21)



    Well, I mean, because you basically had to learn

    Byron Dean Tolson (06:35)

    Yeah, I really learned. When I was at the University of Arkansas, I created 80 hours of failing grades on 124-hour transcript. That's what I went back to overcome this, what happened to me. They made me retake every single class I failed, yes. And I was moving 200 points. So you can imagine 200 points.

    Vicki Davis (06:47)


    So you had to go back and retake your bachelor's degree.

    Byron Dean Tolson (07:06)

    of credits to get it up to a two point because when I left there I had like a 1.43. That's what I left there. 1.33 something like that.

    Vicki Davis (07:10)



    Byron Dean Tolson (07:18)

    Vicki Davis (07:18)

    Well, you know, there are a lot of folks in life who we all make mistakes and, but there's very few that fight back and say, this is the direction. what was your self-talk like to get you um, the learning and just the work that was required to get to where you are

    Byron Dean Tolson (07:23)



    The first thing I had to do, Vicki, was believe in myself that I could possibly pull off the unimaginable. Because if you're talking about 124 hours to graduate and you already then accumulated 80 hours of F grade on a 124 hour transcript, that's unimaginable to graduate, right? Well, I had to be committed.

    Vicki Davis (08:04)


    Byron Dean Tolson (08:08)

    and apply myself to pull off the unimaginable. And I did it. I'm the first person in American history to ever do

    Vicki Davis (08:12)


    So go back in and what would you say to young Dean in fifth grade if you could talk to him now and intervene? Yeah, you Dean is a fifth grader. What would you say to yourself?

    Byron Dean Tolson (08:28)


    Pay attention to whoever is up in front of that class and teaching you. Give your undivided attention to that person. Do not play around and goof off because it's gonna come back and bite you in life later. I had this wonderful, lustrous career I played.

    15 years of professional basketball and 15 years of amateur basketball and when it was all over I had nothing.

    Vicki Davis (09:14)

    You had nothing because you didn't have an education, huh?

    Byron Dean Tolson (09:17)

    That's it. Where do you go from here? That's what I had. Where do I go from here? And so my mother taught me in doing this and going back to school in the book, read the book, she'd tell you, she hid my plane ticket, my passport, and my contract in the attic of the house and told me, you're not getting it. You're not leaving going back over there to Athens, Greece. You ain't

    Vicki Davis (09:19)




    Hmm. Wow.


    Byron Dean Tolson (09:47)

    I said, oh yeah, mother, I'm

    And I ended up listening to her and enrolling in the University of Arkansas at 32 years old as a freshman and graduating at 36. And Sports Illustrated did a five-page story on my entire journey from illiteracy to graduation at the University of

    Vicki Davis (10:07)


    I love that. I'm glad you're telling your story. How have we gotten it backwards? Because I mean, when you talk to, that we haven't, you know, you know this, we have a sports obsession in America. I don't think we have an education obsession. How did we get it backwards and, and how can we shift it back in the, in the right order?

    Byron Dean Tolson (10:14)

    Thank you.

    for the love of the game. I love living, eating, and breathing and playing basketball. I loved it. I did not love school. And that was a misnomer. I should not have done that. But hindsight is 20-20. And…

    I learned from that mistake and that's why I'm out here on this interview with you on this podcast trying to get this most important message to our kids because they need it now very badly. And they need to focus in math and science because that's our weakness in this country, math and

    Vicki Davis (11:22)

    So if I could wave a magic wand and give you your wish of what this book would accomplish and the name of the book is Power Forward. What would be your dream for what could be accomplished with this book?

    Byron Dean Tolson (11:29)


    to put a cap and gown on every kid's head in And you can, and I know you can do it because I did it and I was illiterate and all of y'all out there ain't illiterate. I know you ain't. So now it's all about the attitude and the commitment to do it. That's all you gotta do. And then you'll be rewarded in ways you'll never ever dream of. This book right here, Power

    Vicki Davis (11:36)



    Byron Dean Tolson (12:00)

    That is the most proud thing I ever did in life. It wasn't playing in the NBA. Believe me when I tell you

    Vicki Davis (12:10)

    Wow. You have such a great story, I just hope it gets in front of so many and kids and parents need to hear the story.

    Byron Dean Tolson (12:13)


    Everybody needs to hear it. This has been every home, every library, every school and institution for kids to learn from this experience that this is important in your

    Vicki Davis (12:35)

    Well, and you're speaking as one who has been there. This is not somebody who couldn't make the NBA saying this. This, this is somebody who did it and says, yeah, after I was done with the NBA, I went back to school because missed up, messed up the first time. I love that, Dean. Thank you for coming on the show. The name of the book is Power Forward by Dean Tolson. Thanks for coming on the show.

    Byron Dean Tolson (12:42)

    Yes. Thank you.

    My website is, you go to

    Vicki Davis (13:06)

    Okay, thank you for coming on the show.

    Byron Dean Tolson (13:08)

    you have a wonderful rest of your day.

    Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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    Vicki Davis

    Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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