Chip Scoggins
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Marion Barber Jr. has cried every day for two weeks. Buckets of tears, he said. Different things cause his waterworks, like hearing a certain song or remembering the final conversation he shared with his dying stepfather 40 years ago.

“I can feel my face swelling up like, here it comes again,” Barber said.

These are prideful tears, the kind that flow when a person finally accomplishes a life goal after putting plans on hold for many years.

Barber promised his mother as a teenager that he would graduate from the University of Minnesota.

On Thursday, he will receive his diploma at age 57.

Barber, a former All-Big Ten running back, returned to school two years ago — 36 years after leaving for the NFL — and will participate in graduation ceremonies for the College of Education and Human Development. His degree is in youth studies.

“It’s been a thorn in my side for a lot of years,” he said. “In some regards, I felt like a hypocrite for promoting education with young people and not having the credentials to back what I say.”

Barber first visited campus on a recruiting trip in January 1977. The day before his trip he sat with his stepdad, Thomas, in the hospital. Thomas was dying of cancer. They talked about the importance and value of a Big Ten education.

That was their final conversation. Thomas died a few days later.

Barber set rushing records in a Gophers uniform before being drafted by the New York Jets in 1981. He left school without his degree and life became busy.

He got married and had three sons — all of whom followed his footsteps and played for the Gophers, including Marion III, who also was a star running back and NFL player.

The elder Barber retired from Sysco Foods in 2008 and now works as a special education assistant at Armstrong High, where he also serves as an assistant football coach. He’s a grandfather now, too.

The idea of returning to college always seemed so complicated, even as his wife, Karen, provided a “gentle push” over the years.

“I always found a reason not to do it,” he said.

Things changed once his middle son, Dom, returned to school after an NFL career and earned his degree in 2015 through the Gopher Graduation Program. The Gophers started that program in 2007, becoming one of the first athletic departments nationally to provide financial aid to former athletes as an incentive to complete degrees.

More than 50 former athletes have returned and graduated, and another two dozen are finishing course work.

Barber needed two years of credits to graduate. He earned all A’s except for two B’s and had perfect attendance. He came to campus two to three times per week for class.

“He’s so proud of the perfect attendance,” said Dom, who works on Gophers coach P.J. Fleck’s staff overseeing alumni relations.

Barber’s youngest son, Thomas, is a sophomore linebacker. Father and son took separate classes in the same building this semester, but they never bumped into each other. The elder Barber, however, did share a few classes with football players.

“His teammates usually give him an update [saying], ‘Man, your dad was singing in class, or your dad had another story to tell today,’ ” Barber said.

Dom Barber organized a meet-and-greet between Fleck and former players after Fleck’s hiring. Barber’s father sat in the front row and wore a collared shirt — just as Fleck requires of his current players. He informed Fleck that he wears a collared shirt every day to class because that’s the rule.

“I got a good kick out of that,” Dom said.

Barber jokes that he took a “36-year spring break,” but earning his diploma has left him overcome with emotion. His mother, Mary Ann, is 77 and living in Florida. She can’t attend graduation, but her son already sent her a picture of his cap and gown.

He made good on his promise.

“Coming to Minnesota was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life,” Barber said. “Now completing this degree adds to that list of greatest moments in my life.”

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com