TAMPA — Frankie Hernandez was not clad in robe and mortarboard. He did not hear his name called at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena during Marshall University's graduation ceremonies last week.
The former Largo High linebacker skipped the ritual of walking across the stage, in part because he was preparing for Thursday's Gasparilla Bowl against USF.
But Hernandez did receive his bachelor's degree in health science.
"It's one of the best feelings in the world," he said. "That's all that really matters, getting that degree."
Like other graduates, Hernandez had pride in achievement, joy at moving forward. He even shed a few tears for a diploma few thought was possible years ago.
Hernandez became a father during his senior year at Largo. He struggled to maintain his grades, barely staying eligible throughout his high school career. Rick Rodriguez, the Packers' coach at the time, suspended Hernandez for his final game.
"I had to put the hammer down," Rodriguez said.
Still, Hernandez was determined to go to college.
"We've all had a time when we're immature and still finding our way," Hernandez said. "I knew I had to go to school and do something with myself. I was bringing a son into this world. It was not just about myself anymore."
The offers from major programs, including one from USF, went away. Marshall was Hernandez's only option if he wanted to play football at the Div. I-A level.
Even that came with stipulations.
Hernandez arrived in Huntington, W.V., five years ago as a non-qualifier, meaning he had to spend his first year on campus strictly as a student, not an athlete, in order to become eligible to play.
"It was the worst," Hernandez said. "I would see the guys head out to practice, and I couldn't be there. I just went to class and study hall. I had to pass all my classes. It was hard, and I could have easily had a chip on my shoulder thinking I should have been playing in a bigger conference for a bigger school.
"But I was so thankful for the opportunity. If it was not for Marshall, I probably would have gone the junior-college route and who knows what would have happened then."
There was a support system in place. Hernandez's mother, Laticia, would come to Marshall for games. She even cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her son and his teammates at school this year.
"Frankie's goal all along was to play in the NFL," Laticia said. "That's still the case. But I wanted to make sure he had a backup plan, and he needed a degree for that. So I tried to help him out in any way possible. That degree was just as important to me as it is to him."
Once Hernandez became eligible, he improved steadily, rising from a special-teams player as a freshman to a starring role at linebacker as a redshirt senior.
This season has been his best, with 68 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries.
The leadership has shown off the field, too. Hernandez has become a mentor for others, particularly defensive back Brandon Drayton, a former standout at Largo. The two are next door neighbors on campus.
"I just try to give him and others advice based on my own experiences," Hernandez said.
Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday still marvels at the transformation Hernandez has made in five years, mentioning the growth of his standout linebacker to reporters two weeks ago.
"I guess the greatest thing for me, what he's meant to me is, he's gonna walk out of (Marshall) with a college degree," Holliday said. "Of course that's our goal for all our players, but just to see how far he's come, how he's grown up as a person and a player, and to walk out of there with a college degree, just means so much to me as a head football coach.
"The kid loves football, he loves to play, and I'm sure he's anxious to get back down here and play in front of his friends and family."
On Thursday, Hernandez's football career will come full circle with a bowl game at Raymond James Stadium in front of friends and family.
"It's going to be emotional," he said.
Soon, his official diploma will arrive at his mother's house. He is not sure where he wants it displayed.
"I'll have it framed," Hernandez said. "The happiest part is just knowing that I have it, and that it was something I earned."