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The curious case of Myron Rolle: Too clever for the NFL?

A young man who has already been dubbed ‘the future of black America’ has created a dilemma that the NFL is unsure how to deal with…

Young man with a big future: Myron Rolle (right) has attracted a lot of attention for his intelligence and athleticism

From a distance, Myron Rolle looks just like any number of the hundreds of finely tuned athletes running through exercises this week in Indianopolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium. At 6 foot 2 and 215 pounds (15 st 4lbs), Rolle possesses the same unlikely blend of prodigious physical gifts that has long made him and his peers impressive American football players, and consequently attracted the attention of scouts from all 32 NFL teams who are looking for fresh blood in the forthcoming NFL Draft.

Rolle has the same primary ambition as many of the players he shares the field with — to convince one of those teams to make him a first round choice in that draft — but that is where the similarity ends.

Because, beyond the physical likeness, Rolle is quite different from most of his fellow players. For a start, the 23-year-old is the only one of his auditioning group who can list Oxford University on his academic resume.

Not content with being one of the finest young sportsmen in his country, Rolle is also among the most intelligent. Burnley defender Clarke Carlisle may have earned headlines last week with his exploits on Countdown, but Rolle is working on a different plane entirely.

While the U.S. collegiate system requires athletes to be students as well as sport stars, not all graduate with degrees and experiences that will give them options after they’ve played their last down. Many take less taxing courses that help them to fulfil the minimum educational requirements needed to take the field at weekends. Rolle is at the opposite end of the spectrum, having been one of only 32 students throughout the country last year to be awarded the coveted Rhodes scholarship. Bestowed upon the most academically and personally gifted young men and women from around the world, it permits them all a place to study a Masters course of their choice at Oxford University.

Many of his peers dream about the prizes on offer in professional football — the Super Bowl rings, the money, the fame and everything else that comes with it. Rolle has some of those same dreams, but many more to boot. After all, past Rhodes scholars include prominent politicians, rights activists, philosophers, inventors and even, in Bill Clinton, a U.S. President.

For his part, Rolle has never hidden his desire to retire from the game after 10 years’ service and become a neurosurgeon. That’s why, after completing a degree in Exercise Science at Florida State (with all preliminary medical requirements completed), he opted to take an Msc. in medical anthropology at Oxford, staying in St Edmund Hall.

Unusual surroundings: Rolle is not your usual student athlete

There is a further yearning to return to his family’s hometown of Exuma, Bahamas (Myron was the only one of his four brothers to be born on American soil, in Houston, Texas) and make a difference to peoples’ lives. A hospital in the city has been mooted. He has already set up his own charity, The Myron L. Rolle Foundation, promoting the importance of fitness, well-being and education among children and families.

That is before Rolle even considers what others already have planned from him. Because he is black, intelligent and athletic, the attention and expectation from others in a post-Obama national landscape has been intense:

“The thing that really has been my biggest enemy in this world has been pressure,” Rolle admitted in a recent ESPN profile with journalist Wright Thompson.

“And people. People who I love. People who look at me differently. The pressure is tough, man. I’m not gonna lie. It’s the hardest part. Easily.”

Such words are not said in self-pity, but as a simple statement of fact. While Rolle was in Washington D.C. for President Obama’s inauguration last year, Princeton professor and renowned African-American leader Cornel West spotted him on the street and bowed before him, telling him, “You are the future of black America.” Jesse Jackson, arguably the most prominent African-American activist alive today, even told Rolle that, were he around, Martin Luther King would be very proud of him.

Despite so much being expected of him — both by himself and others — Rolle is still like any other 23-year-old in many ways. Jay-Z’s newest album was the soundtrack to his workouts while at Oxford, workouts that often took place in a dingy gym beneath a rugby field. Like many young students he checks his Facebook regularly, but unlike many of his contemporaries a picture on the social networking site of him posing with two pretty young ladies can be a cause for embarrassment and concern as much as confidence.

“A part of me wants to take it down because that’s not a good look if a young person sees it,” Rolle says, already aware the role model he is and the special attention that attracts.

“But a part of me wants to leave it up because I still got it.”

Magic number: Rolle had great success at Florida State

Just as Rolle’s special example has brought many supporters, it has also brought the inevitable attention of those who are eagerly waiting for him to fail. That includes some within the NFL, where outside interests can be anathema to many football coaches whose careers live and die on the focused pursuit of inches and yards.

“The impression I get from people around the NFL – not necessarily in it, but around it – is that the NFL wants players for whom football is their No. 1 priority, their No. 2 priority and their No. 3 priority,” Rolle said.

Today (Tuesday) coaches will get a first-hand opportunity to see exactly where “America’s game” ranks on Rolle’s list of goals. Rolle will complete his positional drills — the bench press, 40-yard dash, vertical leap — but the Combine will see his mental aptitude tested too. All candidates undergo individual interviews with any team that wishes to, and all have to sit a Wonderlic test (basically, a modified IQ test) that measures their intellectual ability and influences teams more than you might think.

Poor scores (the test is out of 50, where 10 is considered ‘literate’ and 20 is the average score) have caused many a candidate’s stock to plummet in the past. But to many observers’ incredulity, too high a score (not a common problem) might have a similarly negative effect. Rolle’s father hopes his son will record the first ever perfect Wonderlic score, but some in the game already worry that such a result will suggest he is more likely to study text-books than the all-important playbook.

“We’ll have to find out how committed he is,” one NFL assistant coach confirmed to Yahoo! Sports last week.

“When the guys asking the questions aren’t as smart as the guy answering them you’ve got a problem,” Michael Lombardi, son of Hall of Fame coach Vince, said last week, echoing the thoughts of many who wonder if Rolle is too analytical and thoughtful for a game that requires players to follow their coach’s every command.

Indeed, Rolle has already faced some difficult questions. Last month a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff caused controversy after asking him what it had been like to desert his Florida State teammates when he opted to take his place at Oxford:

“I hadn’t heard that one before,” Rolle said at the time.

“My initial reaction was a bit of confusion. It never was anger, but I was more bothered by the question because if anyone knew my involvement with my teammates, how much they care about me and how much I care about them.”

The questions are only likely to get more invasive and awkward as the draft, from April 22-24, draws nearer.  Journalists have already asked why he even wants to be a football player, when he has the desire and obvious ability to be a highly-skilled doctor in a society that can never have too many of them (by Rolle’s reckoning, it will take him 12 years to become a practicing surgeon. If he plays until he is 33, that could mean he won’t wield a scalpel in theatre until he is 45).

Many will also openly wonder how he can reconcile that eventual desire to be a surgeon with a career in a sport that is currently asking itself serious questions about the long-term mental effects it has on its players.

Opposing ideas: How will Rolle's long-term career plans collide with his desire to play professional football?

A recent study, publicised by Malcolm Gladwell in a piece for the New Yorker, demonstrated how a worrying proportion of ex-NFL players showed high incidences of mental problems and brain degradation later in life due to the number of ‘hits’ with opponents they took during the course of their career. It was shown that during some college training sessions — despite wearing helmets — players’ brains were rattled against the skull after such impacts with a force that, repeated over time, was highly likely to do serious damage.

As a safety (a versatile defensive player primarily responsible for covering and tackling receivers and on-rushing running backs) Rolle will have to dish out, and receive, his fair share of bone-shaking hits. Considering such circumstances, coaches — rightly or wrongly — have begun to wonder whether he will be fully committed to a sport that is never going to define him in the way it does many of his peers.

“If something were to happen and a doctor was to say I can’t walk anymore or if I had another concussion and I wasn’t able to think properly then that’s something to consider strongly as far as my future career,” Rolle acknowledged.

“But when I’m on the field, I don’t think about injuries, I don’t think about being a doctor. I think about how I’m going to knock this player out or how I’m going to get an interception.”

For someone used to answering the philosophical probing of Oxford professors, Rolle seems well prepared for the examination he will face from team generals looking just as closely for reasons not to draft him as reasons to take him on.

And the interview section has often proved to be the most important for many draft prospects. Back in 1999, the Indianapolis Colts had the first selection of the draft and were torn between two highly regarded quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. One question — “If we make you the first overall pick in the draft, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?”— helped make up their mind. Manning told them he would ask for a copy of the Colts’ playbook so he could be prepared to contribute to the team straight away.

Leaf said, “Oh man, I’d call up all my buddies and then we’re going to Vegas!”

The Colts, unsurprising, went with Manning.

Rolle accepts he might never have the particular focus of Manning, but believes he can bring other, equally positive, assets to any team:

“For me, I’ve never been someone with a singular talent. I have other abilities and interests and I think I would be doing a disservice to me, my team, my family, everyone who has invested stock in me if I was just so isolated in one thing,” he said.

“The thing I always try to present to people in the NFL as far as my commitment is that my academics and my concerns at Oxford or as an outside philanthropist can help my football abilities. It can help me be someone more disciplined on the field; help me be someone more balanced and knowledgeable. It can help the other guys if they want to get involved in the foundation or the community rather than going out and partying or getting in trouble somehow.”

Stiff hips: Rolle has still to convince NFL scouts he is as a good a player as he is a scholar

Such words will undoubtedly impress many, but there is some dispute as to Rolle’s football pedigree, the single quality teams covet above all. One NFL representative told a journalist he thought Rolle “wasn’t even worth drafting”, while Rolle’s college statistics (the faithful companion of every team scout) don’t help him stand out, Scout reports praise his ‘durability’ and ‘intelligence’, but have questions about his ‘hip stiffness’ and ‘long-term desire to play football’. NFL.com’s highly regarded draft expert, Gil Brandt, reckons Rolle could fall to the fourth or fifth round, where not every selection survives beyond their side’s first training camp.

After being regarded as a solid prospect last year before he opted to study in England, the fact he did not pad-up for a single game in 2009 will count against Rolle. Some columnists have already openly criticized him for wanting to be, at best, a reasonable professional player when he quite clearly has the potential to become an outstanding asset to society. But a number of teams — notably those that put a premium on intelligence — have already shown serious interest in getting Rolle into their organization, even if that means making him their first-round choice.

Peyton Manning, despite his defeat in last month’s Super Bowl XLIV is now regarded as one of the finest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Ryan Leaf, taken second by the San Diego Chargers in 1999, left the league in 2002 and is one of the game’s most memorable ‘busts’.

Like every other player declared for this year’s draft, Rolle is hoping that, if and when his name is called, he follows in Manning’s footsteps rather than Leaf’s. But his situation is different to almost any player that has come before him, and as a result no-one quite knows how the NFL will react.

When and by whom he is eventually picked towards the end of April will give many an early answer. That will be, in part if not in whole, decided by how he performs in Indianapolis today. But that will just be the start for a young man with huge potential and the ambitions to match.

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March 3, 2010 - Posted by | Comment, NFL, Sport | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I coveered a few work outs and saw some good things from a few prospects. Great blog like the concept

    Comment by gjmcrae | April 8, 2010 | Reply


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