Florida State safety Myron Rolle couldn't help but be taken aback by the exchange he had on the Boston College sideline during last weekend's game in Tallahassee.
"Good luck. I hope you get it," said an excited Eagles coach, Jeff Jagodzinski, who had rushed up to him and grabbed him.
"Thank you, sir," Rolle said, smiling. "I appreciate it."
It wasn't your typical scene, but then Rolle is not your typical player.
He's a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship and will be in Birmingham, Ala., today interviewing for the chance to attend Oxford. After the announcement, he'll rush to the airport for a chartered flight to College Park, Md., so he can join his teammates for tonight's key ACC game against the Terrapins.
"He exemplifies really what college football is about," Jagodzinski said.
Rolle, in his third season, is playing his best ball (he's up for numerous national awards) and, despite few big plays, is viewed as a solid NFL prospect. He continues to excel off the field, earning his bachelor's degree in exercise science in August after just 2 ½ years with a 3.75 GPA and now is up for the biggest of all awards.
"We've had Heisman Trophy winners. We've had Thorpe winners and Butkus winners and Unitas winners, but I really don't know of anything higher to have than a player who would be a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship," coach Bobby Bowden said. "That'd just be a great thrill for me. I know for him, but it'd be a thrill for me."
For more than a year, FSU has been rocked by an academic misconduct scandal that involved 61 student-athletes in 10 sports — most football players — and three former university employees. FSU self-reported violations, imposed sanctions and is expecting word within a few weeks whether it will receive additional penalties from the NCAA.
But Rolle offers a far different face of the FSU student-athlete.
He's not taken aback by it.
"I'm elated that this story has become as popular as it has and I'm also elated that Christian Ponder, another great student-athlete, has gotten his name out and been recognized, not only for being a great passer but for being a remarkable student as well," said Rolle, referring to his teammate and classmate.
"In the midst of the troubles that have gone on here at Florida State academically, there's still some student-athletes doing the right thing and if we can continue that trend, possibly we can move that perception from being a school that's just focused on parties and athletics to a school that really fosters and creates strong students and strong individuals in the classroom."
Anything but easy
If Rolle wins, he'll be the fourth Rhodes scholar in FSU history and the second student-athlete: Garrett Johnson, from Tampa Baptist, an All-American in track and field, won in 2005. (The other two FSU winners are Caroline Alexander in 1976 and Joe O'Shea, a Dunedin native, last year.) Rolle, from Galloway, N.J., spent time with Johnson in England and unabashedly tells you that he's more than a friend and fellow Seminole.
"He's been an inspiration and a role model for me," he said. "Hopefully I can be that way for another person coming along."
But the road to a Rhodes is anything but easy.
Rolle, 22, had to be endorsed by FSU and, once he made the cut, he had to write a 1,000-word personal statement that would wow the reader. After 17 revisions, he submitted the story of his family's journey from the Bahamas to the United States and his ambition to become a doctor and, one day, to practice in impoverished countries.
He learned he was a finalist for one of 32 U.S. spots on Nov. 2, the day after a loss at Georgia Tech. Recently he's gone through seven mock interviews with FSU faculty, honing his ability to think on his feet, to articulate his thoughts and to maintain eye contact while doing so. He has also stayed abreast of current events by reading the New York Times, watching CNN and visiting several Web sites devoted to health care issues. He has also picked the brain of Johnson.
"The best advice he gave me was to be myself, be Myron. Don't try to be someone else. Be natural, smile, laugh and just enjoy the process," Rolle said.
"You only have 20 minutes and in those 20 minutes, you have to paint a picture of who you are, what you've done and why you deserve this opportunity," Johnson said. "A lot of people perceive the scholarship as a trophy, a golden prize. The panel wants to make sure the applicants aren't just going after the golden prize, but that their choice of study, their reason for wanting to go to Oxford truly does fit into their master plan."
Has handled pressure
Rolle expects to be as nervously excited today as when he played his first college game — against Miami at the Orange Bowl. On national television.
Having that experience should benefit him.
After his interview, he could be called back in to field additional questions, but he knows he'll have hours to sit around, during which he'll watch football and text message teammates, many of whom have good-naturedly ribbed him about how smart he is.
"Everyone wants this for him," Ponder added.
After Rolle learns the result, by 6 p.m., he'll rush to an FSU-chartered plane (the school asked and received the NCAA's blessing) and redirect his energies toward a game that kicks off about 7:45. His dream day would play out with him feeling he did his best in the interview, winning the Rhodes, then contributing a game-changing play for another big win.
"This is the face you'd like to present all the time, but you don't get many Myron Rolles," FSU president T.K. Wetherell said, mentioning other prominent student-athletes who have become ambassadors. "We're proud of Myron and, clearly under all the circumstances, anybody would be. … I just hope it works out. But no matter what happens, when he runs out on the field, a lot of people are going to be proud."