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Packers' Ha Ha Clinton-Dix pursues degree with hope of finding 'peace and justice'

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is pursuing his degree in hopes of being part of the solution to the issues facing society. Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- He has so many reasons to finish. For his mother, who sacrificed so much for him. For his college coach, who kept pushing him to do so, even after his departure for the NFL. And for the kids in his hometown of Eatonville, Florida, who dream of being him one day.

But then Ha Ha Clinton-Dix turns on his TV. And there he sees reminder after reminder of the most important reason he continues to pursue his degree in criminal justice from the University of Alabama.

Ferguson. Baltimore. Dallas. Milwaukee. Tulsa. Charlotte. The cities change. The violence, the frustration, do not.

Clinton-Dix has seen the distrust, the disdain before. The anxiety, the anger before. But not like this. Never like this. He understands it. He does. But he also wants to someday do something about it.

“I understand what’s going on in this world,” the Green Bay Packers third-year safety said. “But cops have to go home at the end of the day. They have a family. They have to go home, too.

“Growing up where I’m from, some people are afraid of cops. They don’t really like cops. And what a lot of people don’t realize is, they’re really not the bad guys. They’re really on our side, they’re really trying to help us out. And sometimes, we don’t understand that.”

Born Ha'Sean Treshon Clinton-Dix and nicknamed “Ha Ha” by his grandmother when he was an oft-giggling toddler, Clinton-Dix grew up in Eatonville, a town of 2,200 steeped in African-American history -- it became one of the first incorporated black cities in the country in 1887 following the Emancipation Proclamation -- just seven miles north of Orlando.

He wasn’t exactly a late bloomer athletically, but it took time for him to find his place in football, so Clinton-Dix didn’t dream solely about playing in the NFL. That thought didn’t become realistic to him until his junior year of high school, when he switched Orlando schools (from Edgewater High School to Dr. Phillips High School) and positions (from running back to safety).

Instead, Clinton-Dix aspired to a career in law enforcement while watching all too many kids go the other way and seeing what happened to them. His strong-willed mother, Nicole, certainly influenced him, but with a quiet, contemplative, introspective personality, so did his surroundings.

“Growing up as a little kid, you’re always told, ‘If you see the police, tell us.’ So you’re like, ‘Whoa, are they the bad people, or not?’ It makes you think,” Clinton-Dix said. “I just want to be a mentor, be able to give back and show people that it’s not a bad thing to be in criminal justice or be a cop, if that’s what you want to do.”

Back to school

To that end, Clinton-Dix re-enrolled at Alabama in January while the Packers were still in the playoffs. Having left school early for the draft with 26 credit hours remaining for a diploma, he took four online classes during that spring session. He then took about a month before starting a Criminal Justice 250 class (“Judicial Process”) during June and July that carried into training camp.

"I just want to be a mentor, be able to give back and show people that it's not a bad thing to be in criminal justice or be a cop, if that's what you want to do."

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Although Clinton-Dix was in Tuscaloosa during the summer for his offseason workouts, the class didn’t end until the first week of August, meaning that while his teammates enjoyed their free evenings after film sessions at camp, Clinton-Dix was in his dorm room at St. Norbert College watching lectures, taking online quizzes and exams and finishing his assignments for the week.

“You have homework due at 11:59 p.m. every Friday,” Clinton-Dix said, quickly -- and proudly -- adding that he never took assignments up to the midnight hour. “Then I’d go straight to sleep.”

Although he has his eye on graduating in Fall 2017, Clinton-Dix, who turns 24 in December, said he decided not to take any classes this semester, choosing instead to focus on football.

“I was thinking about it, but I’m not going to put that pressure on myself,” he explained.

Instead, with a resurgent defense to lead and Pro Bowl potential to deliver upon, Clinton-Dix attacked the Packers’ defensive playbook and his responsibilities in the secondary with the same focus. After playing a team-high 1,048 snaps (99.7 percent) last season, Clinton-Dix has not missed a snap through three games (198 snaps, the only defender to do so) while registering 15 tackles, breaking up two passes and forcing a fumble. (He also had what would have been a victory-clinching interception in the Packers’ Sept. 11 season-opening win at Jacksonville wiped out by a teammate’s penalty.)

“Ha works about as hard as anybody we’ve got, and we’ve asked him to do a lot for us in his first couple of years. And that won’t change [during] his third year,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “The attitude and the work ethic are something that you like. Ha can be as good as he wants to be, [but] there’s still work to be done.

“Obviously with the number of snaps he’s played in his early career here, you get exposed to a lot. He certainly had his share of mistakes, but the arrow is pointing up. And the thing about Ha Ha -- he’s all business. When we’re in the classroom and the meeting room, he’s about as serious as you can get.”

‘Exactly like you wanted’

That serious countenance has become Clinton-Dix’s calling card in Green Bay -- while he can still be a cut-up with teammates, he can also exude a quiet intimidation -- and that dates back to his time at Alabama, where head coach Nick Saban viewed him as a leader, even as a young player.

“Ha Ha was a great, hard-working guy who did everything exactly like you wanted as a coach. He really set a good example for other players,” Saban recalled. “I really don’t ever remember him being in my office for doing the wrong thing.”

And now, he’s doing the right thing again by pursuing his degree. Saban said he encourages all of his NFL-bound players to come back to school, and while he realizes not all of them will, Clinton-Dix’s commitment in no way surprised him.

“If you have a degree, you will have a lot more options and opportunities. [And] I think getting that education has always been important to Ha Ha and his mom,” Saban said. “I really appreciate that and I am really proud of him.

“I kind of make all the guys that come out early for the draft promise that they will come back and finish their degree. I know they won’t all come back and finish, but we really talk a lot to the players here about the fact you can’t play football forever. If you can play until you are 30 years old, you still have 50 years of life where you have an opportunity to do something else and have a purpose.”

For Clinton-Dix, that purpose is clear. While he understands the resentment and animosity, he wants to help find a peaceful solution.

“I went into criminal justice because I want to learn more about the law, about what’s going on in this world, and be a mentor to kids from where I’m from," Clinton-Dix explained. "To [help them] understand that the law isn’t against you, it’s actually for you.

“You have to put yourself in people’s shoes in certain situations because you don’t know what people really think or what they’re really going through. I feel for the cops, I feel for us as a society as a whole, period. I just hope we can find peace and justice and get back to getting better in this world. That’s how it was going. We were getting better. And I just hope it goes back to that way.”