While Hakim Weatherspoon is on sabbatical from Cornell, he has taken up a visiting professorship in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, his undergraduate alma mater (B.S. in Computer Engineering, 1999). Weatherspoon—who is currently Professor of Computer Science in the Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science; Associate Director of the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture (CIDA); Associate Director of the Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS); and Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of the startup Exotanium, Inc.—also played football on the Washington Huskies football team. So it is that Sports Illustrated took an interest in Weatherspoon's expansive postgraduate career. Dan Raley writes:
When he steps outside his fourth-floor office on the University of Washington campus, Hakim Weatherspoon can look to his right and see Husky Stadium in the distance.
Yet if he closes his eyes almost anywhere, he can envision the place up close, down to the last goal post and yard line.
Weatherspoon is a visiting professor teaching at the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, uniquely qualified to share his range of college experiences with the next generation.
With great authority, he can tell his impressionable audience how he figured out a way to stuff a lot of computing and storage into the cloud at a bare fraction of today’s cost.
Catch him in a nostalgic moment, and Weatherspoon will provide detail on what it feels like to put the great Corey Dillon on his backside in football practice.
Weatherspoon, 44, is a former Husky walk-on safety turned fully-tenured Ivy League educator.
"I wore two different hats," he said of his long-ago student life. "I had two completely different universes."
While plenty of UW football players have gone on to most demanding post-graduate occupations, such as CEOs, actors, doctors and even a Secret Service agent, Weatherspoon might be the only one who has exchanged his helmet and pads to remain in the classroom at the highest level of academia and has returned to his alma mater on a year-long sabbatical.
Known as "Spoon" throughout his time as a Husky football player, he enrolled at the UW in 1995 without a scholarship. He joined a Jim Lambright program serving out probation for post-national championship misdeeds, which meant fewer players could receive financial aid. So the school had to get extra creative and pursue a lot of walk-ons it felt could contribute more than usual.
Weatherspoon, from Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Washington, was one of them.
As the son of a teacher, he was as talented in the classroom as he was in football, if not more so. UW professors, in spotting his academic potential, even encouraged to give up the game. Yet he was determined to do both. He played in the secondary and on special teams, and this 6-foot, 185-pounder impressed everyone in the weight room as the defensive back who could bench-press 350 pounds.
Husky teammates used to tease him about his scholastic prowess by holding up a football and asking, "What trajectory and speed do I throw this with?"
Weatherspoon played against Nebraska, Michigan State, BYU and all of the Pac-10 schools, lettering as a senior. He backed up Nigel Burton, now a Pac-12 Networks football analyst. He played for four bowl teams and a league champion. As a sophomore, he even introduced himself to that great Corey Dillon in practice one day.
"Somehow he had come around [the corner] and he had got loose and I was playing safety at the time, or rover, and I came up on him to make the tackle," Weatherspoon said. "I don't know if he slipped or if it was a beautiful tackle — I laid him out."
He graduated from the UW with a 3.68 GPA, made the then-Pac-10 football all-academic team and applied to graduate schools everywhere. He was a Rhodes scholar candidate. The University of California at Berkeley normally didn't accept anyone with lower than a 3.9, but it took Weatherspoon, strongly factoring in his full-time football commitment. No one did what he did.
"By combining the two, I had a good argument that I was as good if not better to be a grad student," he said.
While attending school in the Bay Area, Weatherspoon had the good fortune to be at Cal when Google was founded, the dot.com bubble was in full swing and a lot of computer-era influencers interacted with him. He wrote his thesis on "how to store the world's information forever," a cloud concept that all of the big tech companies eventually adopted and one that would be cited years later with a most-influential paper award.
Weatherspoon, whose reading level was below average when he was a teen before he became a voracious reader, joined the faculty at Cornell 15 years ago and he became a professor with full tenure in 2015. He still wears two hats.
He currently serves as the associate director for Cornell Institute of Digital Agriculture (CIDA) and he's the chief executive officer and co-founder of Exotanium, a start-up company working on cloud solutions and employing 25 people that recently received $5 million in capital funding.
Meantime, this father of four is spending the school year at the UW in order to pass along his vast computer knowledge to others while allowing himself a moment or two to reminisce about his college football career, which is all information that should be kept forever in cloud storage.
"I did well enough," Weatherspoon said with a satisfied look, "to play with the big Dawgs."
This story originally appeared in Sports Illustrated by Dan Raley.
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