The year was 1966, and I thought I was one smart guy. I had just transferred at the beginning of my junior year to Stanford University from Wabash College, a small but academically rigorous school in Crawfordsville, Ind. At Wabash I had earned a 3.5 GPA and straight A's in physics, my major. Stanford was supposed to be tough, but I figured I could handle it.
On the first day of classes, I walked into Physics 120—Intermediate Electricity and Magnetism. Off in the corner, as conspicuous among the bespectacled nerds as a water buffalo in a flock of egrets, sat a huge burly fellow with no neck. "Who's that?" I whispered to the guy next to me.
"You don't know?" he whispered back. "That's Blaine Nye. Defensive tackle. Six-four, 250. Probably all-conference [Athletic Association of Western Universities] this year. Dates a former pom-pom girl." A lineman in a physics class? Maybe Stanford wasn't so tough after all.
I quickly discovered, however, that Physics 120 was not exactly Volts for Dolts. My grasp of mass, acceleration and kinetic energy somehow crumbled before the more abstract concepts of electromagnetic radiation and vector fields. That first lecture was a bit over my head, and I never caught up. After a while, I stopped asking questions in class, out of embarrassment. As the final exam approached, I felt an empathy with the hulking Nye, who had not said a word the entire semester. Would we be the only two in the class to flunk?
November 19, 1990
Despite much hard work, I failed the final. The day our graded test papers were returned by the professor, I walked past Nye's desk and, hoping for a bit of solace, glanced at my fellow dunce's paper. Across the top of it was scrawled an A.
The professor, out of pity, gave me a passing grade for the course. When I learned that Advanced Electricity and Magnetism was required for physics majors, I developed a sudden interest in journalism. Nye had a somewhat more successful fall term: He got his A in Physics 120, made All-AAWU Honorable Mention and married the former pom-pom girl. He subsequently graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.
Nye anchored Dallas's offensive line for nearly a decade, playing in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. But more remarkable than his performance between the lines was his off-season career. After his rookie year, Nye and his wife, Annabelle, moved to Seattle, where he earned a master's degree in physics at the University of Washington. "He was a good student," recalls professor David Bodansky, Nye's academic adviser at UW. "I have no doubt he could have gone on to get a Ph.D. and become a fine physicist." Nye still savors the A—he got at Washington in advanced quantum mechanics, a notoriously difficult course. "That shook a few people up," he recalls.
But with the Cowboys making the playoffs every year (remember those days?), scheduling the long-term research project necessary for a Ph.D. became problematic. And Nye thought his job opportunities in physics were limited. So during the 1971 off-season, he went back to Stanford and started taking graduate courses in business administration. In 1974—his first Pro Bowl season—Nye completed his M.B.A.
How did his teammates react to a man in their midst with two master's degrees? "I think it's fair to say that no one gave a bleep," Nye says. "There were some other highly educated guys on the team, Calvin Hill from Yale and several others from Stanford. I was considered just another one of the subhumans on the offensive line."
Nye concedes that he was never able to use his knowledge of physics to, say, triangulate optimum blocking angles or enhance momentum transfers to onrushing linebackers. But, he says with a smile, "once, I helped Thomas Henderson, Charlie Waters and D.D. Lewis figure out the diameter of a tree from a string they'd wrapped around it."
Nye's business skills proved more beneficial to his football career. Disdaining agents after his rookie year, he prepared for salary negotiations by constructing graphs of Cowboy salary patterns. He shrewdly outbluffed Cowboy executive Gil Brandt by threatening to sign with Portland of the World Football League. "I told him, 'This is the deal, or I sign with Portland,' and hung up. But then I remembered I had better make plane reservations to Portland, because Brandt would check on that. I got a very good contract that year."
After retiring from football in 1976, Nye returned to Stanford Business School, where he earned a Ph.D. in finance in 1981. His dissertation was titled "Demand and Pricing for Health Care and Guaranteed Insurability." By then, he and Annabelle were living in Menlo Park, Calif., with their children: Melissa, now 22; Blaine Jr., 20; Zack, 11; and Matt, 9. That same year, Nye started Stanford Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in economic research and provides expert opinions in business litigation.
"Every once in a while, I run into people with preconceptions about ex-jocks," says Nye. "In meetings, I'll say something, and the client will look at one of my partners as if to say, 'Is he really right?' And sometimes when I testify as an expert witness, I can tell the opposing lawyer is thinking, My god, they hired a football player, I guess they couldn't find anyone else."
In one civil case in which the amount of the financial award was being determined, the opposing lawyer, stung by Nye's convincing expert testimony, was moved to tell the jury, "The witness testified the way he played football—wildly and recklessly." As Nye enjoys recalling, the outcome was satisfactory to his client.
With his financial acumen, in-the-trenches football experience and proven negotiating skills, Nye would probably make a superb player's agent or financial adviser. But he professes no interest. "I don't think today's players would like my advice very much," he says. "Their attitude is, I've got 50 thousand, get me a million. Young people these days want to do something racy, to make a lot of money real quick. I'd probably tell them to just stick it in the bank."
For all his business success, though, Nye still has a soft spot for physics, particularly in regard to electricity and magnetism. "I just seemed to have a natural ability for that part of physics," he recalls fondly. "I like the rigor of it, the way you couldn't b.s. your way through. And it wasn't one of those things you could break your back on and eventually figure out. It was a conceptual leap. You either got it or you didn't."
Tell me about it, Dr. Nye.
Dave Noland is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to SI.