Michael Wilbon: Seminoles' Rolle Puts the Student Before the Athlete

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, November 21, 2008

I'm dropping the pretense of having no rooting interest this week. I'm rooting for Myron Rolle as if he's a blood relative. I'm rooting for his flight from Birmingham, Ala., to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport to be on time. I'm rooting for him to make it to Byrd Stadium by halftime at the very latest, for him to get into uniform and play as many snaps as possible for Florida State. Most of all, I'm rooting for him to wow the panelists in his Rhodes Scholarship interview earlier in the day.

Texas Tech and Oklahoma will get the majority of the college football attention this weekend, but Rolle is the best story. He's not the first football player up for one of 32 Rhodes Scholarships. In fact, a Yale defensive back, Casey Gerald, will be in Houston today as one of 13 region finalists. But while Yale is as much a part of college football's history as Florida State, let nobody suggest that the football pressures in the Ivy League match those at a school such as Florida State, where Rolle's defensive coordinator once suggested the kid might be devoting too much time to academics and not enough to football.

Thankfully, Rolle has the good sense to match his academic prowess, which is obviously considerable. The safety said at the time he was mildly disappointed in the coach, Mickey Andrews, and kept on doing what he does: playing football, studying and finding ways to make himself indispensable to his school and the communities it serves. Not only did the kid graduate with a 3.75 grade-point average, but he created a project, Our Way to Health, that educates fifth-grade students at a Seminole Indian charter school in Okeechobee, Fla. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel published yesterday, Rolle said he rewrote his Rhodes application essay 17 or 18 times.

Rolle's accomplishments would be praiseworthy no matter where he played, but it's somewhat astonishing that Rolle did this at Florida State, which placed itself on probation because of an academic scandal in the athletic department. The university's president, T.K. Wetherell, told the New York Times on Monday: "He's almost carrying a university and a football team right now, from a public relations standpoint, on his back. That's a pretty heavy burden to lay on somebody."

Rolle responded by saying: "I have no problem holding the weight of that on my shoulders. I think it's more of a privilege and an honor than a burden."

At a time when USA Today is scrutinizing the majors some big-time athletes choose and why, Rolle has taken a biochemistry class and did so well he was awarded a research grant. It was startling but also refreshing to hear Rolle, during a recent interview, say there was no question that his research, interviewing for the Rhodes Scholar program and one day becoming a doctor are greater priorities than football, which of course rubbed some FSU fans the wrong way. Fortunately, he's had plenty of academic boosterism from professors and academicians.

And in a stunning and rare show of good sense . . . from the NCAA.

Often found on the wrong side of major issues, clinging to arcane rules and regulations, NCAA officials threw away the book and made major exceptions and accommodations for Rolle this weekend. They allowed Florida State officials to charter the plane that will take Rolle from Birmingham to BWI for the game in College Park. And then the NCAA and ESPN changed the time of the game to 7:45 so the kid hopefully can play, at least in the second half. His interview probably won't end until approximately 6 p.m.

Anybody in intercollegiate sports not inspired by Rolle's story should be kept away from students who also are athletes. Yale's Gerald has it slightly easier this weekend. Because his interview is today, one would think the Bulldogs would make every effort to get the senior defensive back to start his 30th consecutive game, especially because it's the season finale against rival Harvard. Gerald's story, in some ways, is even more poignant. He was raised by his grandmothers and sister because his parents were drug addicts. He already has decided he would use his year at Oxford to study impoverished nations and recently quoted Theodore Roosevelt in USA Today, saying, "If you fail, better to fail while daring greatly."

Far from failing, this seems to be a weekend when a couple of extraordinary college football players are not only daring to be great, but regardless of the outcome of their games or their interviews, they're succeeding.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company