Myron Rolle -- a sports hero worth cheering

Oct 27, 2009 6:30 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

I have a new sports hero this week, and he is not in the World Series or hoping to make the Super Bowl.

He is a very unusual combination: a star athlete and a brilliant student, destined for a career as a neurosurgeon.

The athlete is Myron Rolle. You know the name if you are a Florida State fan, for he was a star safety on the rockem, sockem teams of Bobby Bowden, winding that up last year. Or you may have read about him in Time, Sports Illustrated or the New York Times. He is not only a special athlete and scholar, but a very special human being. Not many college football players spend time helping teach health habits to Seminole Indian kids, as Rolle did.

What made Myron really different from the others at Florida State was that he was the first football player in the school’s rough and tough history to win a Rhodes scholarship. And the first to put it before a likely career in the National Football League, where he was expected to be a high draft choice this year.

An NFL career can mean millions to a 22-year-old, literally and figuratively. But Myron Rolle was raised a bit differently than most college or pro players. His parents – his father is a financial manager at Princeton, his mother a secretary at a Trump hotel -- came here from the Bahamas, and while proud of his stardom as a three-letter man in football, basketball and baseball at the prestigious Hun prep school in New Jersey, they put more significance on grades. "When I’d score touchdowns, hit home runs, score 25 points in a basketball game, I’d get maybe a slushie," Rolle remembers. "But if I came home with straight A’s, I was getting two pizza pies from my favorite Italian restaurant."

The fact that he chose Florida State rather than an Ivy league school was an intentional choice to mix top level athletics with a pre-medical degree. He finished the degree in two and one-half years, and impressed the university president, T. K. Wetherell, who told Sports Illustrated, "Myron’s special, there’s no doubt about that. To listen to him talk about everything from football to organic chemistry, you think you’re talking to a faculty member."

His Florida State teammates, most not known for academic accomplishment, treated him with awe. Before he left to go to Birmingham, Alabama, where after final interviews he was notified that he had won a Rhodes, they all put hands on him in a huddle and prayed for his chances. "I know for a fact," he told Time’s Alex Altman, they didn’t know what the Rhodes Scholarship is. They don’t have any idea where you study or what you study. In e-mails, they even spelled Rhodes wrong; they spelled it Roads. It’s not a bad thing; they’ve never been exposed to it." The most important thing, Rolle said, was their enthusiastic support.

The Birmingham interview for the Rhodes came on a bad day, It was Nov. 22 of last year, the Saturday of a crucial Atlantic Coast Conference game, Florida State at Maryland. Rolle was told in Birmingham around 5 p.m. that he was a Rhodes winner. A police escort took him to the airport, where a private plane flew him from Alabama to College Park. He missed the first quarter of the game, made it before halftime, and enjoyed his role in the Seminoles’ 37-3 win.

Those who know Bobby Bowden and his total immersion in the game of football may be surprised he would give a star player a day off on the day of a key big game. "A no-brainer," Bowden said. "I know academics come first. Bowden coached in six decades without ever having a Rhodes scholar, so it was a special day for him as well.

Most young kids have impressionable moments, when they get inspiration for the future. Myron Rolle got his in the seventh grade, when he was chosen for a 10-day National Youth Leadership Forum on medicine in New Orleans. Practicing doctors were the teachers, and recently diagnosed patients were among the subjects. Rolle said in his SI interview that "I sort of fell in love with the profession, and set my mind that I wanted to do pre-med while still playing football."

Now, in his first year at Oxford, where Rhodes winners like his hero, former senator Bill Bradley of Princeton and New York Knicks fame, and president Bill Clinton, preceded him, he has even more specific goals. After becoming a neurosurgeon, he plans on establishing clinics in impoverished nations to help build vaccination programs. "I think in many poor countries, vaccination programs and mental health programs are wrongly pushed aside," he says.

There aren’t too many defensive safeties in football who dwell on subjects like that. Jamie Purcell, the director of Florida State’s Office of National Fellowships, who mentored Rolle in his pursuit of a Rhodes, said, "I don’t think there’s going to be another candidate like Myron Rolle in the near future."

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein