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Inside Rolle's trip from Rhodes interview to Florida State game

Experiencing firsthand the spoils of the sale of 10 million Bloomin' Onions could almost make someone feel sorry for those three auto-industry executives who got thrashed in Congress for flying to Washington on their private jets. Aboard a seven-seat limousine with wings loaned by Outback Steakhouse co-founder Bob Basham -- with the NCAA's blessing, of course -- Florida State safety Myron Rolle sank into his leather seat. Saturday had begun with a 30-minute shower in Mountain Brook, Ala. It would end with a blowout win five states and one District of Columbia away. In between, Rolle took one giant stride toward a future of limitless opportunity.

But at that moment, traveling 550 mph through a cloudless sky on an IAI 1124 Westwind twin-jet, one of 32 freshly minted Rhodes Scholars needed to rest. Rolle grew quiet. The aspiring neurosurgeon fished his iPod from his pocket, popped in the ear buds, closed his eyes and disappeared into another world. Through the earbuds, Frank Sinatra crooned about a Very Good Year. Ice Cube rapped that "Today was like one of those fly dreams" and later summed up the proceedings nicely. "I've got to say it was a good day," the erstwhile O'Shea Jackson growled in Rolle's ear.

*****

Rolle's nerves kicked in Friday on the drive from Tallahassee, Fla., to Mountain Brook. He had the credentials -- a 3.75 grade point average, starter for a BCS-conference football team, his own stem-cell research project and a program he founded to teach Seminole tribe children how to live healthy lives -- but he also knew he would have only 20 minutes to convince a panel of judges that he deserved one of the world's most prestigious scholarships. Sally Karioth, an FSU nursing professor who has taught Rolle in seven different classes, gave him one piece of advice. Smile.

When Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the De Beers diamond company and former prime minister of South Africa, died in 1902, he bequeathed much of his fortune to England's Oxford University with the command that the school provide scholarships to dynamic students from around the world. Today, the U.S. Rhodes contingent is divided into 16 districts, with two scholars a year from each district. Friday in Mountain Brook, 13 of the nation's most accomplished students gathered for a cocktail party.

Michael Gilmore, the former Florida free safety who stood in Rolle's shoes 15 years ago this week, said the cocktail party felt like pregame warmups. But instead of looking across the 50-yard line and sizing up the opponents' receivers, he found himself comparing his accomplishments against those of violin virtuosos, budding scientists and future military leaders. "It's the same thing there," said Gilmore, a Florida orthopedic surgeon who didn't win a scholarship but did intercept two passes two days later in the 1993 SEC title game against Alabama. "You're sizing them up for what it is exactly you're up against."

Friday night, Rolle's nerves settled as he met his competition and the judges who would decide whether he would earn a two- to three-year scholarship. He mingled. He smiled. He swapped stories. Later, he returned to his hotel room -- and most assuredly, no Hampton Inn has ever hosted so much combined brain power as the Mountain Brook location did Friday -- and went about his usual night-before-game routine. Before he went to bed, he stretched for 30 minutes. Then he sank to his knees and prayed.

Saturday morning, Karioth, who stayed in an adjacent room, put her ear to the wall and realized she had no need to worry for her star pupil. The joyful noise floating through the wall came from Rolle. He was singing.

*****

Rolle begins every gameday with a 30-minute shower. As the Hampton Inn's water meter spun, Rolle closed his eyes and imagined that night's game against Maryland. He pictured himself crushing a receiver over the middle. He pictured himself intercepting quarterback Chris Turner. He even allowed his mind to drift ahead seven days and imagined picking off Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the defending Heisman Trophy winner.

Karioth called and asked if Rolle wanted breakfast. At first he declined, but upon further consideration, he realized he would need fuel for the mental gauntlet he was about to run. In the lobby, he devoured an egg biscuit, a blueberry muffin and a bowl of fruit. Stomach full, he mentally prepped for the noon interview. The night before, he had learned that several of his competitors had practiced for the day with one or two mock interviews. Rolle had done seven, and he had spent more than a year picking the brain of Garrett Johnson, the former star FSU shot-putter who won a Rhodes Scholarship in 2006. On top of that, Rolle's father, Whitney, had sent him a question a day for almost a month.

In the Rolle family, everyone plays a role in any big event. Whitney, who left his native Bahamas in the mid-'80s with wife Beverly and sons Marchant, Marvis and Mordecai -- McKinley and Myron had yet to be born -- to take a job as a vice-president at CitiBank, makes sure of that. Even as Whitney peppered Myron with potential interview questions, the brothers thought of more, and the family huddled to make sure Myron's answers were perfect.

One question in particular inspired much debate. During one mock interview, a professor offered Myron a hypothetical scenario. He was a physician traveling in Africa. One day, on the side of the road, he came upon an HIV-positive man covered in his own blood and in obvious distress. Knowing that Rolle risked contracting the disease, would he stop to help the man?

"Myron's initial answer wasn't what my father wanted," said Marvis, who works for the State Department. "And so my father basically worked him into thinking more broadly."

Myron took a logical approach at first. He surmised that were he infected, he would have less opportunity to help others as his health declined. No, Whitney told his son. You help the man. If you are a doctor, you swore an oath. You help the man. "I never try to drive him in any particular way," Whitney said. "I try to shape and sharpen up the edges."

With Myron, Whitney has had plenty of raw material to shape. Whitney beamed when he discussed Myron's turn as Tevye in a drama club production of Fiddler on the Roof while a student at The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., but Whitney is just as proud of the original composition Myron and McKinley serenaded him with on his birthday more than 10 years ago.

Of course, by then the Rolles had long known that the youngest of five brothers was exceptional. "This didn't happen overnight," older brother Marchant said. The first major a-ha moment came when Myron was 2 and McKinley was 4. Marchand was teaching McKinley to read using phonics when he noticed something peculiar. Myron matched his older brother answer for answer. A few minutes later, Whitney's phone rang. "Dad," Marchand said, "you've got to hear this."

*****

None of the questions Rolle faced Saturday challenged the mind and soul like the bloody man stumper from the mock interview. Judges asked Rolle for book recommendations -- he gave them The Great Gatsby, The Bible and former FSU star WarrickDunn's Running for My Life -- and about his take on the recent presidential election. When Rolle cracked that the image of Anderson Cooper became his best friend during the past few months, the judges laughed. So did Rolle. He'd broken the ice. With that, Rolle overcame what Gilmore considered the toughest part of the interview.

"It's like going through the hardest test you can think of," Gilmore said, "and knowing you need an A to pass."

Rolle also proved his resourcefulness while answering a question about how to improve the U.S. healthcare system. Rolle advocated for universal healthcare, and he drove home his point with a story about a friend who injured himself while biking in Switzerland. Rolle described the friend's amazement at the care he received in a foreign country. The friend was Elliot Hawkes, a Harvard student from Tallahassee who was one of the 13 competing Saturday. Hawkes told Rolle the story at the Friday night cocktail party.

*****

Their interviews done, Rolle and his 12 fellow competitors gathered in a conference room to wait. Some listened to music. Some did homework. Others, like Rolle, watched Ole Miss stun LSU on a big-screen television. Every so often, the candidates heard a door open and close down the hall. Each time, everyone stiffened, sure the judges were about to stride in and announce the winners. Rolle kept watching the game. He tried to forget the deliberations taking place a few yards away. He felt calm enough until a nearby rustling jangled his nerves.

"The guy sitting next too me was super-nervous," Rolle said. "He was fidgeting. He was changing his position in his chair. He would act like he was reading The New York Times, put it up, act like he was reading it."

Finally, after two hours, the judges returned. Committee chairman Drayton Nabers Jr. told the candidates they were all winners for even reaching the interview stage. Then, Nabers called a name. Parker Goyer, a hometown girl from Mountain Brook who graduated from Duke in 2007 and now is a doctoral candidate at Harvard.

Rolle's heart thumped louder. The next three seconds passed slower than the previous two hours. Finally, Nabers spoke again.

"Myron Rolle."

"The first thing I did was put my head down and thank God for the opportunity and for the moment," Rolle said. "I know it wasn't just me in that room. I know it wasn't just me through this process. I had a lot of help and a lot of support."

Rolle will join a club whose members include former president Bill Clinton (1968), former U.S. senator and New York Knicks star Bill Bradley (1965), actor Kris Kristofferson (1958) and Ivan A. Getting (1933), the co-inventor of GPS technology. Rolle and former UCLA offensive lineman Chris Joseph -- who won one of the scholarships in District 16 on Saturday -- are believed to be the first BCS-conference starters to win the award since Stanford tight end Cory Booker in 1992. Booker now is the mayor of Newark, N.J., not far from Rolle's hometown of Galloway.

Those who achieve lifelong dreams usually take a few hours to celebrate. Not Rolle. He had a game to play.

*****

Not long before Rolle got the good news, BillShults' phone rang as he sat in the Hampton Inn lobby. Shults, the FSU athletic department's director of academic support, spoke a few words and ended the call. Then, he shook his head and flashed a cynic's grin. "Our local driver doesn't know how to find the Hampton Inn," Shults lamented. Scenes from Planes, Trains and Automobiles flashed through the minds of the passengers scheduled to travel with Rolle.

The driver found the hotel shortly before a group of Rhodes finalists arrived. As they walked in, an Alabama professor who had accompanied one of his students found Shults and Karioth.

"Congratulations," he said.

Karioth, a text-message tyro when the weekend began, whipped out her phone and pounded the keys, hoping for confirmation from Rolle. Finally, at 4:22 p.m. CST, a message came through. "I won!!" it read.

Karioth, whose office couch is one of Rolle's favorite hangouts, read the message again and again. Tears rolled.

Karioth and Shults left the hotel to pick up Rolle. When they arrived, after a bearhug between Karioth and Rolle, Karioth retrieved two envelopes. She handed one to Rolle. When he opened it, one-hit-wonder Tag Team chanted "Whoomp, there it is." The other card, which remained in its enveloped, played the old Band-Aid jingle. Karioth, who has done extensive research into grief and coping, figured the jingle would be best had Rolle not received the scholarship.

"She gave me the lose card and said, 'You might want to read it. It might be funny,'" Rolle said. "I don't think I want to read it."

Rolle texted his family to relay the good news. Marvis, driving from Philadelphia to Maryland when the message dinged in, nearly crashed. Meanwhile, FSU players texted to celebrate with their teammate. At least one, Rolle said, congratulated him on winning a "Roads Scholarship."

Rolle arrived back at the Hampton and, after another hug from Karioth, went inside to change from a suit to his FSU warmup. When he emerged, he climbed into a Ford Excursion. The University of Alabama-Birmingham police officer driving in front of the Expedition flicked on his lights, and the traveling party tore away down U.S. Highway 280.

*****

Under normal circumstances, Rolle and Shults likely would have flown alone to Maryland, but this has not been a normal year for FSU. The program desperately needs positive publicity after an academic scandal that involved 61 athletes -- including 25 football players. Athletes were given answers to a test in an Online music class, and the NCAA was not pleased. Jobs were lost, departments were shuffled, and the department still awaits the NCAA's final decision on its punishment. Rolle was not involved; he was too busy taking organic chemistry. He also played no part in the student union brawl on Nov. 12 between football players and fraternity members that left a bystander seriously injured when she was hit by a chair thrown by one of the combatants. Five wide receivers were suspended for FSU's loss to Boston College, and police and prosecutors continue to investigate the case.

In that desert of bad news, the idea of a player from a revenue sport reaching the pinnacle of academia is a refreshing oasis. So FSU said yes to requests from Sports Illustrated, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Tallahassee Democrat to allow reporters to ride with Rolle to the game. The Chronicle also hired freelance photographer Susana Raab, who provided a major assist to Rolle's game preparation.

Though the jet is owned by the man responsible for the Bloomin' Onion, not a scrap of Alice Springs chicken, Walkabout soup or No Rules pasta made it on board. The jet was well-stocked with potato chips, almonds and pretzels, but none of that seemed suitable for a pregame meal, and Rolle had to leave Birmingham in such a rush that he didn't have time to eat. So Raab gave her Greek chicken wrap and fruit cup to Rolle, who wolfed down the wrap as the plane crossed from Alabama into Georgia.

*****

Rolle awoke from his nap a different person. He gazed straight ahead, almost as if he was reading a quarterback's eyes. He broke the spell for a few minutes, explaining how he fell in love with '80s-vintage Whitney Houston songs and wondering aloud how anyone would "Fear the Turtle," as Maryland backers often warn their foes to do.

But when the plane thudded across a Baltimore International Airport runway, Rolle slipped back into game mode. The flight had lasted 94 minutes, and the Seminoles and Terrapins had just kicked off.

There were two problems, though. Rolle's University of Maryland police escort hadn't arrived, and neither had the videographer who had been assigned to document Rolle's arrival for Seminoles.com, FSU's official athletic department Web site. That meant Rolle would have to re-enact his exit from the plane.

A few minutes later, Rolle walked back on the Tarmac, stepped into the plane, turned around and stepped off. He then hustled back through the small, private terminal and climbed into a pickup truck owned by the Maryland police department.

When Rolle arrived at Byrd Stadium, the 'Noles led by a touchdown. By the time he got taped, they led 14-0. Rolle, who had been greeted with hugs by his parents upon arrival, emerged from the locker room late in the second quarter to a standing ovation from the FSU fans who had made the trip. At the 1:30 mark, with FSU leading 21-0, he finally took the field.

The 'Noles probably didn't need Rolle -- or any of their defensive backs, for that matter -- on Saturday. FSU's line harassed Maryland's Turner all night, sacking him six times. On Rolle's third play, Everette Brown pasted Turner, forcing the Terrapins to call timeout. During the timeout, back judge Tommy Pace walked to Rolle and shook his hand.

Rolle finished Saturday's 37-3 win with two solo tackles. The victory kept FSU alive in the ACC's Atlantic Division race; should Maryland beat Boston College next week, FSU will play for the conference title in Tampa, Fla., on Dec. 6. As the clock wound down, several Seminoles players gave Rolle a Gatorade bath. With temperatures in the low 20s, Rolle celebrated the win with chattering teeth. "I'm very, very cold right now," he said with a smile.

After the clock struck zero, Rolle saluted the FSU fans. One held a sign that read, "All Rhodes lead to Rolle." On the field, a television reporter jammed a microphone in the face of 6-foot-5 freshman quarterback E.J. Manuel, who, like the 6-foot-2 Rolle, wears No. 3. In his postgame news conference, legendary Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden bursted with pride over his team and his Rhodes scholar. "It was like two wins, to be honest with you," Bowden said.

*****

So what happens now? Rolle, while probably not a first-round pick, has an NFL future. Does he accept the Rhodes scholarship and go to Oxford in May, or does he chase his pro football dream? He isn't sure yet. But as they did with the bloody man question, the Rolles will answer the NFL question as a family.

"The Rhodes -- where the future's going with that -- I want to make that decision with my family," he said. "I only told them that I won, and we really haven't talked about the future yet. So that's the question that I'd like to stay away from [Saturday]."

Should he choose the Rhodes, his mentor Johnson said, he can expect to meet the most interesting, accomplished, motivated people his peer group has to offer. Rolle may someday, like Johnson, befriend Roger Bannister, who captured the world's imagination by running the first sub four-minute mile and then followed up by becoming a world-renowned neurologist. "You really never know," Johnson said, "what the people around you will go on to achieve."

One thing is certain, Johnson said. If Rolle goes to Oxford, he can choose his destiny with no limitations. "It definitely doesn't hurt to have Rhodes Scholar on your C.V.," Johnson said. "The possibilities are endless."

As FSU's buses idled outside Byrd Stadium early Sunday morning, Rolle hugged his mother. He hugged his brothers. He hugged his father. Then he turned and walked up the ramp to join his teammates. The day was indeed like one of those fly dreams, only this time, the dream came true.

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