CLEMSON - Lying on his bed one day during his high school years, C.J. Spiller jotted down his life goals on a sheet of paper:
Own a business. Be considered the best football player during both his prep and college years. Make it to the NFL. Have a great family.
On Thursday, Spiller scratched an additional item off his list - one that seemed just as ambitious when he signed to play running back at Clemson for a presumed three years, after which he was expected to go to the NFL.
The senior from Lake Butler, Fla., graduated from college, becoming the first person in his family to receive a four-year college diploma.
"This is the No. 1 reason I came back," Spiller said with a grin Thursday.
Eleven months ago, Spiller shocked many - including his mother - by announcing he would return for his senior season despite being projected as a first-round NFL pick.
It was another instance of Spiller going against the grain, a trait that the university's top officials paid homage to during the graduation ceremony.
It came as no shock that Spiller's name drew the loudest applause as he stepped to the stage to shake president James Barker's hand.
But the university's board of trustees spontaneously rose to give Spiller an ovation - a first for any student, according to a few longtime observers, giving the dynamic player an unofficial 32nd school record.
More than half of the 1,080 graduates and a good portion of the 10,000 in attendance at Littlejohn Coliseum followed suit
"As a member of the December class of 2009, I can proudly tell my grandchildren - as well as you can tell yours - that I was a classmate of C.J. Spiller," Judge Joseph Anderson, awarded an honorary doctorate of laws, said during his commencement speech.
A cast of those who have influenced Spiller traveled from Florida to witness him get his sociology degree.
About a dozen members of Victory Christian Center, Spiller's hometown church, made the trip and waved a banner in his support. His once-distant father, Clifford Sr., who lives in Miami and attended his first Clemson game this season, was on hand. Plus, there was his immediate family of older brother, younger sister, stepfather and mother.
Spiller's mom, Patricia Watkins, was one of the main people urging him a year ago to fulfill his NFL dream.
"I always knew he would get his degree," Watkins said. "But I never thought he'd do it in three and a half years. C.J. prayed, and God put it in his heart to stay at Clemson. I'm glad he decided to come back."
Spiller was one of six Tigers to graduate, joining close friend and receiver Jacoby Ford, linebacker Kavell Conner, reserve offensive linemen Jamarcus Grant and Cory Lambert and walk-on running back Ronald Watson.
Now that he has achieved a family first, Spiller hopes he has set a powerful example for his sister, LaShey Mitchell, who is a high school junior intending to go to college.
"A lot of guys have the opportunity to leave for the NFL, and some try to go back to finish their degree, some don't," Spiller said. "I was so close, I wanted to go ahead and finish out.
"Just walking across that stage with the degree in my hand, I remembered all the hard work I put in. And it paid off."