Athlete to Attorney: A Natural Transition

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by: Michael McGraw, Associate Editor

From the locker room to the courtroom, playing on lawns to practicing law, and studying playbooks to reading casebooks, many accomplished athletes have transitioned into the study and practice of law.

World Series-winning baseball manager Tony LaRussa and the man responsible for signing Jackie Robinson en route to breaking baseball’s color barrier, Branch Rickey, both obtained law degrees following their playing careers. After winning Olympic gold medals, gymnast Shannon Miller and figure skater Dick Button received their law degrees. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and Pro-Bowler and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Cris Collinsworth earned their law degrees after football. Former Supreme Court Justice Bryon “Whizzer” White was a Pittsburgh Steelers’ first round draft pick and football’s highest-paid player before returning to school for his law degree.

Many Duquesne Law alumni and students have also transitioned from athletics into law, and it is clear their athletic backgrounds helped produce traits that have played an essential role in this evolution.

Competitiveness and Preparation

Hon. Dwayne Woodruff (L’88), currently a judge for the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the Family Division, had the unique experience of playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers while attending law school in the evening at Duquesne. Woodruff won a Super Bowl his rookie season, was voted team MVP in 1982, and held dual roles during his last three football seasons: team captain with the Steelers and attorney with the firm of Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck.

“[T]he practice of law is much like playing football, except you do not get to hit anyone. Yes, there is a competitive nature to law, as there are winners and losers in the game as well as in trial. Each requires that you not only have a potent offense but also a staunch ‘steel curtain’ defense,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff, whose athletic and law career enabled him to make a donation for the dedication of the Woodruff Academic Center at the University of Louisville that provides a place for college football players to study and improve their academic skills, emphasized the importance of preparation, a characteristic strengthened in part through football.

“In football, I had to prepare for various opponents from week to week. I had to study those opponents in order to recognize patterns, anticipate their plays and ultimately to be successful against them,” Woodruff said.

Garry Nelson (L’82) similarly discussed the value of preparation that he established during his basketball days at Duquesne.

Now a solo practitioner, Nelson, whose Duquesne teams made two NCAA tournament appearances and went 21-5 in the 1969-1970 season in which the Dukes finished as the Associated Press’ 9th-ranked team, sees a connection between being a player on the court and being a lawyer in court.

“In hoops, you would prepare for the upcoming games, review scouting reports, films, and the coach made sure we knew the strength and weaknesses of our opposition . . . There is a parallel between preparing for a basketball opponent and preparing for trial,” Nelson said.

Preparation is the primary component to success in both roles, according to Nelson, who was drafted in 1971 by both the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals and the NBA’s Buffalo Braves.

“[T]o prevail in [athletics and law], it takes much preparation and ability. ‘Preparation’ being the key word,” Nelson said.

Echoing Nelson’s comments was Richard DeBlasio (3L), a captain on Westminster College’s baseball team, who earned placement on the 2011 All-President’s Athletic Conference Baseball First Team and Capital One Academic All-Region Second Team.

“In baseball, it is so important to understand what you are going to do in situations before the pitcher even throws the ball . . . In law, so many times you are required to examine situations and come up with a plan moving forward,” said DeBlasio, who had the unique opportunity to have Attorney Larry Kelly of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George in New Castle, Pennsylvania serve as DeBlasio’s baseball coach in college, teaching him first-hand how baseball and law both require attention to detail and preparation.

Meredith Norris (4E), a former goalkeeper for the Duquesne women’s lacrosse team who was once named the Atlantic 10 Conference Women’s Lacrosse Co-Rookie of the Week following wins against Ohio State and Robert Morris, credits her athletic background with not only motivating her to attend law school, but also with providing her guidance on how to handle conceptual challenges while in school.

“I feel that had I not played college lacrosse, I don’t know if I would have had the determination that law school requires,” Norris said. “[W]hen I was struggling with something with lacrosse . . . I would always go back to the basics and break down the particular thing I was working on into steps . . . I think that this translates . . .  with the study and practice of law. If I don’t understand something or something isn’t working out correctly, I know that I need to return to the fundamental law or skill and build upon that.”

For Dane Fennell (L’12), a tight end on the inaugural Saint Vincent College football team, law school provided a competitive carry-over from the dedication required to be a successful athlete.

“[W]hen it comes to studying for classes, the bar, or even trying to prepare for a case or a deal, it often comes down to a ‘You vs. You’ competition,” said Fennell, a Quality Control Specialist for Solvaire Technologies, L.P. “I think that the dedication that is required to maintain your body playing sports at a high level is a lot like the dedication it takes to get through law school and studying for the bar.”

Another football player, Nicole Scialabba (L’06), learned the value of a strong worth ethic from her athletic background. An inside linebacker and special teams player on the 2007 undefeated national champion Pittsburgh Passion women’s football team, Scialabba said, “Hard work and determination will get you anywhere. One of my coaches always said, ‘What your mind can perceive, your body can achieve.’ I think back to that quote whenever I need a little inspiration in anything that I do.”

Building Relationships

According to Scialabba, it is not just competitiveness and preparation that play an important role in the transition from athlete to attorney. Scialabba, currently the Assistant Director of Placement for the Florida State University College of Law, also came to appreciate the importance of building relationships while playing football.

“Learning about how the different parts work to make up a team and that teamwork is really the key to anything getting done has also helped me in my professional career,” Scialabba said.

Matt Lambach (L’11), an associate attorney at Babst Calland Clements and Zomnir, P.C. in the Energy and Natural Resources group, found his athletic background instrumental in developing respect for peers. Lambach, a member of several state and national teams while in high school, wrestled while attending the University of Pennsylvania.

“The most valuable takeaway from my athletic background and practicing in law is how important it is to respect your peers. In a wrestling match . . . regardless of the outcome, you should look your opponent in the eye and shake his hand at the end of the match . . . The same can be said for the practice of law . . . Regardless of the outcome, you should be demonstrating respect to your client, the adverse party, and the counsel of the adverse party.”

Affirming Lambach’s comments, Tony Comas (L’02), a former pitcher for Slippery Rock University and the brother of Maria Comas, the Duquesne University School of Law Director of Career Services, said, “Being a good winner is just as important as being a humble loser.”

As a member of the 1997 Slippery Rock team that made it to the Division II College World Series, Comas, now an associate attorney with Burns White, LLC in the Medicare department, developed the dedication needed to balance athletics and education.

“[T]he discipline of practice and the time commitment of college baseball was valuable. I had a schedule to keep . . . This prepared me well for the time commitment and prioritization of time in both law school and the practice of law,” Comas said.

Time Management

As any law student or attorney will attest, the ability to balance one’s time is essential to achieving success.

Michelle Cicero (3E), who swam at Allegheny College after making it to the national championships for the YMCA during high school, spent twenty-four hours a week in the pool throughout college in preparation for her meets, requiring her to develop time management skills that have proven beneficial in law school.

“The ability to have every moment of the day scheduled definitely started in high school with swimming and it’s still the way I work most efficiently . . . Swimming so often made me comfortable with having such a full schedule and taught me how to balance everything,” Cicero said.

While starting as a free safety at the University of Pittsburgh and being a member of the 1973 Panthers team that participated in the Fiesta Bowl under head coach Johnny Majors, Daniel Rullo (L’78) also learned time management.

“[A]s a student athlete, you develop the discipline of time management which is critical in balancing the requirements of your academic pursuits as well as your preparation for the athletic competition,” Rullo said.


Rullo, now concentrating in litigation and municipal law as a partner at Barbera, Clapper, Beener, Rullo, & Melvin, LLP in Somerset County, also valued the confidence he was able to develop while playing football.

“[T]he athletic background establishes a self-confidence that is easily transitioned to your ability to handle difficult matters that come under your responsibility as a practicing attorney,” said Rullo, who was inducted by the Pitt Varsity Letter Club into its Letterman of Distinction in 2007.

Daniel Kunz (L’02) also developed a transferrable confidence while playing lacrosse at Saint Vincent College, where he received the John Granish Award, given annually to student athletes who make the most of their talent. Among other roles, Kunz is the Director of the Veterans Court Clinic at Duquesne and is a certified agent with the National Football League Players’ Association.

“My athletic background contributed to my decision to attend law school in that I was confident in my abilities to achieve. Athletics instilled a work ethic, which during college I transferred to academics. I was confident that I could do well in law school,” Kunz said.

Like other athletes, Kunz felt that the study and practice of law was a “natural progression.”

“All through that progression I found the competitiveness and discipline that I had as an athlete present as I grew into the profession,” Kunz said.

Pete Vuckovich, Jr. (L’08), a Relationship Manager with PNC Wealth Management and former catcher at Clarion University, grew up in a baseball-oriented life, as his father, Pete Vuckovich, Sr., was a major league pitcher who won the 1982 American League Cy Young Award. Vuckovich, Jr. stated that his athletic background helped him develop a competitive confidence that has been “invaluable” to the study and practice of law, as well as cultivating his ability to interact with others and respond to criticism in his profession.

“There’s always someone out there looking to knock you down a rung or two, and that person may well be your coach/professor/boss. And it’s usually an effort to make you better,” said Vuckovich, Jr., a 48th round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2004.

Mirroring Vuckovich, Jr.’s comments, Asra Hashmi (3E), a forward on the Steel City Sirens ice hockey team, believes that the ability to accept criticism is her paramount takeaway from playing hockey.

“The most valuable lesson that I have learned from my athletic background . . . is how to take criticism . . . It is definitely tough to hear from a coach, professor, interviewer, peer, etc. that something you thought to be your best effort could have been better. Through hockey, I learned how to take criticism with grace and utilize it as a learning tool to better myself,” Hashmi said.

Hashmi’s roots in pursuing a legal career might well have originated in middle school, when she petitioned her school to create a girls ice hockey team. Successful in this endeavor, Hashmi played prep-level hockey for Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh all throughout high school.

Through her time on the ice, Hashmi’s focus on the importance of preparation mimics that of other athletes-turned-lawyers. “[T]here is absolutely no substitute for preparation. I firmly believe that preparation beats skill nine times out of ten,” Hashmi said.

Competitiveness. Preparation. Building relationships. Time management. Confidence. All characteristics of successful athletes – all characteristics of successful attorneys.

While there might not be any way to truly recreate the ultimate competition an athlete experiences while playing a sport, the practice of law has proven to be a natural transition for many successful athletes following their playing days.


This is an expanded version of the story that originally appeared in the Juris Magazine Winter/Spring 2014 edition.  You can read through that edition HERE.

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