Myron Rolle, dressed in a light blue plaid jacket and dark slacks, was ready for his close-up. Within the hour, his life would change. For the time being, though, he waited in line with his fellow medical students for class photos. “It’s just like a football picture,” he said. “I’m not going to smile. I’m going to give a mean look.”
Rolle’s mother, Beverly, kept wiping sweat from his head, but she could do nothing to calm his nerves. This was what medical students call Match Day, the much-anticipated unveiling of where the nation’s next class of doctors would spend their residencies. Rolle likened it to the NFL draft: He had no idea who might choose him to join their team.
Rolle, 30, was the only prospective neurosurgeon in Florida State‘s graduating class — and also the only former NFL player and the only Rhodes Scholar.
“I think I was less stressed honestly with the draft,” said Rolle, who spent parts of three seasons in the NFL before enrolling in medical school. “Back then I thought, as long as I go somewhere — just one of the 32 teams, anywhere. Here, it’s binding. You’re looking at seven years in one place. The training is different, the opportunities are different.”
Rolle and his family found their seats in the auditorium. He was given a sealed envelope, the contents of which would reveal his fate. Every student is matched with one hospital, but nationwide, no one knows his or her destination until Match Day. Rolle interviewed at 14 hospitals. He ranked his favorites: Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston was No. 1, followed by respected neurosurgery programs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Nashville and so on.
The envelope had his photo and name printed on the outside. He held it up to the light and squinted his eyes. “I don’t know what this is,” he said and later passed it to his mother.
Rolle had been interested in the brain since he was a child. So when his football career was finished, he knew which branch of medicine he wanted to focus on. As the football world asks more and more questions about what the sport does to the brain, Rolle is intent on finding the answers.
He looked at his watch.
“You’re anxious,” his brother McKinley said.
Fifteen minutes still remained.
“I am, bro. I am.”
It started with a fifth grade class project focused on the anatomy of the brain. Rolle’s older brother Marchant then gave him a book called “Gifted Hands” by Ben Carson, the groundbreaking neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The young boy was hooked. Soon his bedroom wall featured photos of two men: Deion Sanders (“my football guy”) and Carson (“my academics guy”).
“My parents wanted me to have these kind of black role models that looked like me, were men doing positive things,” he explained, “not necessarily just rapping or playing sports.”
Rolle distinguished himself on the football field and in the classroom. He never saw any reason to choose between the two.
“We encouraged all our children,” says his father, Whitney, “but I knew there’s a point in time when you have to make a decision about which path you want. Frankly, I told him, ‘Myron, you can’t play football and be a doctor.’ The timing, I didn’t think was possible. Myron told me, ‘Daddy, you watch me do it.'”
A defensive back, Rolle was named the nation’s top high school prospect by ESPN and had more than 80 scholarship offers. When he made official college visits, he asked to tour the medical schools, and he tried to be up front with his intentions. Before agreeing to attend Florida State, he told Coach Bobby Bowden how his college career would unfold: He’d turn pro after three years; he’d become a Rhodes scholar; and he’d attend medical school. No one doubted him.
“Listen, I can tell you this now,” says Mickey Andrews, the retired coach who was Florida State’s longtime defensive coordinator, “if he stays in the field of medicine, and he wants to spend his life as a neurosurgeon, he’ll be one of the best ever. That’s just the kind of person he is.”
Sure enough, Rolle wrapped up his bachelor’s degree in 2 1/2 years. He was a three-year starter for the Seminoles. And rather than return for a senior season, he was selected for the Rhodes and studied at Oxford, delaying his entry into the NFL by a full year. Juggling football and his studies wasn’t an issue at Florida State, so Rolle was taken aback when he started to realize how his academic interests hindered his stock leading into the 2010 NFL draft. He recalled interviewing with teams that asked whether he felt like he abandoned his college teammates by leaving a year early for Oxford.
Asked recently whether his academic pursuits hurt his football career, Rolle said, “Absolutely. Unequivocally.”
Once projected as a possible second-round pick, Rolle heard 206 names called before the Titans took him in the sixth round. He spent a year on Tennessee’s practice squad before he was released before the 2011 season. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed him but then cut him before the start of the 2012 season.
“Their sentiment was, ‘You play very well, but there’s other guys who will run through a wall for this, they need this,'” Rolle recalled. “‘We’re not worried about you — you could go be president of the United States. But they need this.’ I was like, how could you take this from me? They tell you all your life: be a student athlete, focus on your grades. So I do that, and because it gets attention, it becomes an issue?”