I. Passing Tests
In a small study room in the student lounge of the Florida State University College of Medicine, Myron Rolle slumps in his chair behind a school-issued laptop, relaxing between classes. His athletic frame and broad shoulders extend beyond the screen in an aggressive annexation of airspace, creating a commanding presence. He cannot be ignored.
It has often been this way. When Rolle was 3 years old, he moved with his parents and four brothers from the Bahamas to Galloway Township, N.J. His father worked for Citibank and Myron grew up in a solidly middle-class home in a family devoted to achievement, education and love. As a promising student and athlete, Rolle accepted a scholarship to attend The Hun School of Princeton, a prestigious preparatory school, where he stood out on several levels. "There were maybe seven or eight black kids in the whole school, and all of us were athletes," he tells me. His dad would pick him up from school in a Ford Taurus while the other students would climb into their parents' Bentleys. On weekends, Rolle would be invited to yacht parties or to sit in floor seats at Knicks games. "Honestly, that situation was a little weird, adjusting to kids who had a lot of money. I never really felt like I was around people who are like me."
He received scholarship offers almost daily, culminating in an astonishing 83 invitations to play Division I football.
Nevertheless, Rolle thrived at Hun. He had a 4.0 GPA and accumulated 21 Advanced Placement credits toward his college education. He played the saxophone and starred in the school's production of "Fiddler on the Roof." And in 2005, at the peak of college recruitment season, he received scholarship offers almost daily, culminating in an astonishing 83 invitations to play Division I football.
Unlike many top recruits, Rolle didn't choose his college based on which coach told him he'd be a first-round pick or other frivolities. Since he was a boy, he had always been fascinated with the nervous system, particularly the brain, awed by its power. Myron had already decided that after football he wanted to become a neurosurgeon and had to put himself in position to excel both academically and athletically. "I wanted to look for a school that I enjoyed watching [play football] first. But I wanted the school to accept all my AP credits. Also, do they have a medical school on campus?" When Rolle met Garrett Johnson, a Florida State University alum, champion shot putter and Rhodes Scholar, he found a school that demonstrated it had the capacity to allow him to do both. He graduated a semester early from Hun and started at Florida State in January of 2006.
During workouts the next summer for the Seminole football team, Rolle didn't fit in. Many of his teammates came from difficult backgrounds, where their families had to choose between buying food and keeping the lights on. Now, Rolle had to adjust from having teammates with yachts to those who as kids regularly ate bread and mayonnaise for lunch. Even while at FSU, some players sent portions of their scholarship money home to help support their families. Since the dining plan covered only a certain number of meals, sometimes players were left with not enough to eat at the end of the week. Looking back, Rolle realizes he had no idea how to conduct himself around them, tucking his shirt, wearing glasses and using, as he puts it, "proper speech."
His teammates didn't see a football player, they saw a nerd, a square. "They thought I was soft," Rolle recalls. "A lot of them thought I was this little goody two-shoes kind of dude." Reflecting on the social dynamic, Rolle believes he was a prime target for the same kind of bullying and hazing that Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins underwent in the NFL. Fortunately, FSU's strong leaders prevented such unchecked behavior.
But Rolle also recognizes that he had the responsibility to assert himself. As he wrote in a recent op-ed for The Guardian about the Martin incident, "I refused to have my self-worth depreciated." When asked Rolle how he earned his teammates' respect, he told a story that reminded me of something he said about the Martin situation. "If someone calls out your name ... then you need to check that."
At the conclusion of the workouts in the sweltering Florida heat, the coaches had players running 110-yard sprints. "We had got up to running thirty-two 110s," recalled Toddrick Verdell, Rolle's teammate at the time. Then, in a team building exercise, the coaches made a deal with the players. If two players agreed to box (while wearing proper safety equipment), the entire squad would run fewer 110s. As added motivation, whoever volunteered to box was allowed to select his opponent.
One day, as Rolle gasped for air, soaked in sweat, his legs limp as wet noodles after running about two dozen 110s, a coach yelled, "Anyone want to box?" Marcus Sims, a 233-pound, boulder-shaped halfback, volunteered to fight. When he called out "I want three," Rolle's number, everyone knew why. Sims wanted to find out what Rolle was made of.
So did the rest of the team, which responded en masse with a collective, playground-like "Ooooooooh," dramatizing the atmosphere of the showdown. As Verdell remembered "The upperclassmen are thinking he's this nerdy, prep-type smart guy, so they're thinking he's gonna get knocked out ‘cause Marcus is this strong, muscled big guy." It was a contest with almost mythic connotations: strong versus smart, big versus not-quite-as-big, the leader of the pack against the newcomer.
But Rolle had been anticipating this day and used his intelligence to design a plan. An inexperienced fighter, he prepared by watching clips of Muhammad Ali on YouTube, studying what made him an effective boxer. When Sims not only called out Myron's number, but said, directly, "I want to fight you," Myron was prepared. This was the day his teammates would learn that Myron Rolle, the Hun school grad with the tucked-in shirt and the heavy class load, was no nerd.
But Myron didn't just want to fit in with future NFL stars, he wanted to be one himself.
"He whooped his ass pretty good," Verdell chuckled.
"I killed him," Rolle matter-of-factly recalls. "That was like my testing, you know? My ritual. I had to pass a test." Rolle had first proven himself in a new country, then with the trust fund crowd and now a college locker room filled with future NFL players, demonstrating the ability to fit in with anyone. But Myron didn't just want to fit in with future NFL stars, he wanted to be one himself.
Throughout his college career, everything seemed on track for Rolle to achieve both of his career goals. As the Seminoles played their way into a bowl game every season, Rolle excelled academically, graduating from Florida State with a B.A. in exercise science in just two and a half years with a 3.75 GPA. Meanwhile, he was a three-year starter as a safety for the football team, and in 2008 was named a third-team All-American and second-team All-ACC. After the 2008 season, Scout.com projected Rolle as the 18th pick in the first round of the upcoming draft, and commented, "This might be way too low," calling him "a prototype NFL safety."
But with one year of eligibility remaining, Rolle, with the encouragement of university administrators and coaches, applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most prestigious academic opportunities in the world, providing full funding for a student to earn an advanced degree at the University of Oxford. Acceptance of the scholarship, however, would mean he would skip his final year of college football and delay the start of his NFL career. When he was named a Rhodes Scholar for the 2009-10 academic year, Rolle had a decision to make.
Coaches and academic mentors alike, aware of his NFL aspirations, had always insisted that Rolle develop a second career in case the NFL didn't work out. Turning down the Rhodes Scholarship would have been contrary both to that advice and to his own post-football career ambitions. Accepting the scholarship was, in effect, a "no-brainer." Yet while everyone else encouraged him to have a "Plan B," the NFL did not. In the NFL, what others saw as wisdom was seen as weakness.
II. A Choice
The Florida State University London Summer Program is often a soft landing spot for students to spend a few weeks shopping and seeing the sights in one of the greatest cities in the world. True to her expectations, these were primarily the students Dr. Sally Karioth, a professor in the school's College of Nursing, saw the first day of the program in 2006.
And then there was Myron Rolle.
And then there was a man roughly twice Rolle's age sitting next to him. His father had flown to London to ensure that his son was in good hands. He was the only parent to do so.
In London, Rolle took a class under Karioth about grief, loss and trauma, in which the professor attempted to give her students some perspective on how different cultures encounter these complex topics. As Karioth tells it, given Rolle's deep respect for his parents and religious background, this was a challenge for him.
"Every now and then you just kind of connect with a student."
"Every now and then you just kind of connect with a student," Karioth explained. "Myron tickled me because he's so serious." As Karioth described Rolle's demeanor, she moved both hands together to form a virtual box in front of her face, as if to offer a physical representation of the world Rolle lived in at the time.
One night, Karioth took Rolle to see "The Lion King" musical. Given that the story revolves around the consequences of a son disobeying his father while asserting his own individuality, this was not at all an accidental choice on Karioth's part. "What did you learn from that?" she asked Rolle as they walked out of the theater. Much to her frustration, he responded, "I learned that if he had just done what his father said, it would all have been OK."
Karioth resolved, then and there, "I'm going to make this damn kid think outside the box if it kills me." Ever since, she has been his academic mentor and friend, being there when the demands of his vast ambitions threaten to overwhelm him. She has helped him run health initiatives for Florida's Native American tribes, accompanying him on late-night trips to Okeechobee (a 10-hour round trip) squeezed between class and football practice. She tutored him during the Rhodes interview process and accompanied him to Alabama for the interview itself, even buying him cufflinks when she realized he didn't have any. When it came time to choose between the NFL and the Rhodes, she was there to help him, too.
Even then, Rolle sensed that accepting the Rhodes presented a risk to his NFL prospects. Once again, it set him apart, and underscored how he was different, a danger in a sport built around teamwork, where individualism is scorned. Perhaps it's with the benefit of hindsight, but when Rolle speaks today about his chances of succeeding in the NFL, he sounds as if he is reciting memorized factoids; his voice lacks the typical understated energy that comes from someone who is regularly in demand as an inspirational public speaker. Yet when he shifts the conversation to the opportunities afforded by the Rhodes Scholarship, his mannerisms become emphatic and he speaks rapidly as the words flow from his brain faster than his mouth can pronounce them, his sentences punctuated with possibilities. "I could go to Oxford, I could immerse myself in a new culture, I could develop my intellectual capital, I could expand my network, I can travel from country to country like it's state to state, and being in that fraternity of Rhodes Scholars was just a truly special demarcation."
Still the lure of the NFL was tempting. First-round money was not insignificant. "Everyone was pointing me toward getting two to three million dollars guaranteed, a signing bonus, playing right away."
"Your life is not your own. You're living a life of example for other people."
In retrospect, Rolle understands that advice. A guaranteed, seven-figure contract with a signing bonus could have paid Rolle's way through medical school and then some. "It took a lot of arm-twisting," to convince Rolle to accept the Rhodes, recalled Karioth. Talking over lunch at the University Club, which overlooks the FSU football field from six stories above, she spoke of Rolle in a familiar manner that underscored their relationship. When recalling his struggle with the Rhodes vs. draft decision, she makes a slapping motion, as if to say This is what I'd do to him if he didn't take that Rhodes scholarship.
Ultimately, the most important voices in the decision came from Rolle's parents. From the time Rolle's vast potential became obvious, they emphasized his responsibility to, as Karioth put it, "use his powers for good." Rolle remembers his parents telling him, "Your life is not your own. You're living a life of example for other people." With this in mind, Rolle accepted the Rhodes Scholarship and took a year off formal football activities while earning his master's in medical anthropology from Oxford, announcing that he intended to enter the NFL draft in 2010.
Of the 20,000 men who have played in the NFL, only two, Colorado running back Byron "Whizzer" White (later a Supreme Court Justice) and former USC quarterback Pat Haden, were also Rhodes Scholars. Myron Rolle wanted to be the next. But there are reasons, beyond raw talent and intelligence, there have been so few.
As the narrative went, a year away from organized athletic activities would hurt his raw athleticism, skill set, and dull his football instincts. More importantly, it made some NFL scouts and coaches doubt his dedication to the game. Rolle anticipated this, and did everything possible to counter this narrative.
More importantly, it made some NFL scouts and coaches doubt his dedication to the game.
He stayed fit while at Oxford, and when he returned he underscored his commitment by working out with Tom Shaw, a noted trainer whose client list includes 138 NFL first-round picks, with nine first overall selections. Shaw was impressed, and has described Rolle's abilities as "comparable to any defensive back that plays on Sundays. His athleticism, mental toughness and knowledge of professional defensive schemes will assure him to be a success at the next level of competition." Former Florida State assistant head coach Mickey Andrews, who retired with Bobby Bowden after 26 years as FSU's defensive coordinator, shared Shaw's optimism. "You never know for sure what the pros are gonna do," he said, "but I thought he'd have a chance to go high and felt he would fulfill those expectations."
Going into the 2010 draft, Rolle still impressed scouts with his size and strength for a safety (6'2, 215 pounds, 21 reps on the bench press at the combine.) A 40-yard dash time of just 4.76 seconds was worrisome, but his times in private workouts (as low as 4.54) were more representative of those from his college days. The official NFL.com scouting report maintained he could be a good fit for a two-deep zone coverage scheme and as a run supporter. Under "weaknesses" the report noted, "Rolle missed entire 2009 collegiate season studying in Oxford (Rhodes Scholarship), raising questions about his long-term desire to play football. Is only an average overall athlete for the position, who showed some hip stiffness in college but answered some questions in this area at the Senior Bowl."
Clearly, the NFL was already worried about Rolle's intellect. By the time of the 2010 draft, the former first-round prospect was listed as a likely third- or fourth-round pick. He then slipped all the way to the sixth round, drafted 207th overall, by the Tennessee Titans. He signed a four-year, non-guaranteed deal worth the league minimum salary.
Still, he was elated to be a on an NFL team, fulfilling one of his two lifelong dreams. And in training camp, Titan linebackers coach Dave McGinnis told Rolle that he not only had the talent, but the skill and the body to have a lengthy career. According to Rolle, this was a common sentiment from other coaches as well. (McGinnis, along with Rolle's former defensive coordinators, did not return repeated attempts to comment on this story.) At first, it seemed as if the only thing the Rhodes decision cost Rolle was money, a minor consideration for him. He would still catch on, have a career, and then go on to medical school. Everything was working out.
But Rolle soon realized his coaches were not treating him like other players. Instead of discussing football with him, they spoke to him as if he was some kind of a curious specimen rather than a football player. "The conversation wasn't ‘Hey Myron, I like the way you got on the hash mark, backpedaled, found the receiver in a Cover 2.' It was more like ‘Myron, so how do you know President Clinton?'" a reference to a trip he took to Africa with the former president and others as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. "The coaches and general managers, they wanted to ask me about how I felt about health care in the United States right now. Going for the Rhodes, it really put a label on me that was hard to shake, and frankly I don't think that I did shake it."
Up to this point, everything Rolle had done was with two careers in mind, one after the other. To him, there was nothing about an NFL career that would prohibit him from being a successful neurosurgeon, and vice versa. But once he arrived in the NFL, it became clear to him that his Oxford choice was not a false one. One could have either football, or a life without the game, not both.
Rolle retired from professional football without appearing in a regular-season game.
After spending a year on the practice squad, the Titans cut Rolle prior to the 2011 season. He was then picked up by the Steelers on a futures contract, and cut again before the start of the 2012 season. For all of his football instincts, near-flawless character traits, and a lifetime preparing to be the best athlete he can be, Rolle retired from professional football without appearing in a regular-season game. Karioth thought leaving the NFL affected Rolle in a way nothing else has. "It was the biggest disappointment of his life."
There are three possible explanations as to why Rolle couldn't sustain a career in the NFL. One is that he lacked the requisite talent, but in interviews former coaches and teammates reject this.
The second possibility is Rolle lacked the desire to succeed; that his other goals superseded his desire to play in the NFL, which translated to poor performance. This was the NFL's fear, so Rolle did all he could to quell those reservations, working overtime to maintain peak physical condition even as he completed a rigorous academic program. Had his heart not been in the NFL, he could have gone directly from Oxford to medical school. And after he returned from Oxford, Rolle often refused to talk about anything other than football, despite his coaches and GMs pushing him to do otherwise. "I wanted to be completely and totally entrenched, immersed in this football life, this culture all the way, so you don't even have a thought, an inkling, that my mind is somewhere else."
The notion that Rolle would do anything casually, without his full effort, runs counter to his biography. The same man who would nervously run his hands over his head when he feared not getting all his work done while studying abroad was being accused of lacking total focus on a sport he's played for most of his life. Andrews was unequivocal in Rolle's desire to have an NFL career: "Football had the utmost priority because he's a winner, he wants to be identified as a winner and success is important to him."
Now a first-year student at the Florida State University College of Medicine, Rolle still has access to the athletic facilities. Despite agreeing to an interview weeks in advance, he made clear his desire to get a workout in that day. Among Rolle's lengthy list of influential friends is Pierre Garcon, receiver for the Washington Redskins. When Rolle complained to Garcon that he was tired of his old workout regimen, Garcon sent him the Redskins official workout. He doesn't have to do it, but he does.
It was not Rolle who was uninterested in the NFL, but the NFL who was uninterested in him.
When I asked Rolle about the doubts surrounding his desire to play football, he rests his weights and intensely focuses on my eyes. "There was never a time where I didn't give my all, not subconsciously, not consciously, no way, no form or fashion. It was an absolute full-on dedication and commitment."
Yet there is a third explanation, one that is perhaps more likely and at the same time more difficult for him to accept. It was not Rolle who was uninterested in the NFL, but the NFL who was uninterested in him, or perhaps even scared to have him around. He never kept his desire to become a neurosurgeon a secret, and by 2010, the brain trauma issue in the NFL began to metastasize and enter public consciousness. Given Rolle's activism on health care-related issues while at Florida State and Oxford, it's easy to see teams imagining Rolle becoming an unofficial spokesperson on brain trauma, just as Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo took on similar roles concerning gay rights. Significantly, both were released in 2013. Perhaps the NFL wasn't scared of Rolle simply because of his intelligence, but because they were afraid of how he might use that intelligence.
IV. Culture Shock
"If you ruffle feathers, ruffle it in a way that the NFL can deal with, like getting a DUI, maybe beating your wife, maybe getting a drug charge."
With his background in medical anthropology, which involved studying different cultures and their attitudes toward medicine, Rolle has a perspective on the NFL that few others can articulate. He sees through cultural norms and analyzes how biases, through no individual's fault or intention, yield undesirable outcomes. To this end, I spoke to Rolle a few days after Chris Kluwe wrote an article for Deadspin accusing the Minnesota Vikings of cutting him because of his gay rights activism. Kluwe wrote, "I realize that in advocating noisily for social change I only made it easier for them to justify not having me around." Rolle admitted to some similarities between Kluwe's situation and his own, saying, "If you ruffle feathers, ruffle it in a way that the NFL can deal with, like getting a DUI, maybe beating your wife, maybe getting a drug charge. We (the NFL) can overcome that. If you're smart ... a little too much for us, you know? If it's close, they're gonna go with the other guy."
During Rolle's time in the NFL, he was, in some ways, shocked by the culture; not of the sport, but by the culture of the entitled professional athlete and the resulting power imbalance. Star players had their own reclining, lounging chairs in the film rooms and traveled to and from the practice field on golf carts. Other players sat in regular chairs and walked. Coaches, particularly recent hires, held little power over the tenured star athletes with big contracts, often overlooking their behavioral missteps and rule violations. In Tennessee, Coach Jeff Fisher even circumvented the locker room on his way to his office, going the long way around, giving his players control over their own space to govern as they saw fit. It was up to the veterans and stars to establish the rules, a potentially dangerous recipe if they were irresponsible and not up for the task.
After experiencing college football at FSU, where Coach Bobby Bowden was the unquestioned leader and where a "team first" attitude ruled, Rolle found the individualism of the NFL disconcerting. "You're playing more for yourself and your family than for your organization," he said. "In college, everything was garnet and gold. You bleed it. You're playing for your brother on the sideline, ‘cause you know he's gonna be there tomorrow. But in the NFL, you know you're not playing for the ‘T' on the side of the helmet. You're not playing for the color of the Steelers. You're playing more because they're paying you to play and you have a family to take care of. And when you don't have that loyalty, I think it makes the game a bit more individualized. What stats do I get? What incentives can I get that can help get me more money for a contract bonus or something like that? Can I get to the Pro Bowl?"
Even the way players dressed for an away game was meaningful. Players would hound each other if they didn't look sharp enough or wear clothes from a top designer. Considering that Rolle had to be scolded by Karioth prior to the Rhodes Scholarship interview because a French-cuffed shirt could not have the sleeves rolled up, that aspect of locker room culture didn't appeal to him.
Although Rolle vociferously denied this culture clash had any effect on his desire to remain in the NFL, his unease was obvious as he explained his perception of an NFL locker room. As we talked, I felt his longing for the camaraderie and higher purpose he experienced at Florida State, his admiration for the meritocracy of the college locker room, where the best players play and best leaders are respected. Although Rolle is in favor of paying college athletes for the obvious economic reasons — in no small part because of his experience at FSU with less fortunate teammates who didn't have money to eat on weekends — he clearly appreciates how money doesn't influence players' motives on the field or poison the locker room's power structure. I sensed his disappointment in the NFL's limitless commercialization and his desire for structure, where the head coach's word is the end-all and nobody worries whether he will still be there tomorrow.
We spent hours talking about the NFL, but very little of that time was spent talking about football.
V. Moving On
It's two days after FSU's last-second National Championship win against Auburn, and most of the medical students are still wearing broad smiles, despite the 8 a.m. start time to a CPR training course. Naturally, several classmates approach Rolle to get his thoughts on the game. Although he's now a fan like everybody else, he's still involved with FSU athletics. When a recruit expresses interest in academics, the athletic department calls Rolle to talk to the parents, extolling FSU's virtues as a place where an aspiring athlete can also develop his or her intellectual capital. "This is a program that has really helped me, so I want to help them," Rolle explains. This deep attachment to the program means he watches the Seminoles too intensely to be around others. While the rest of the campus watched the championship game at bars or parties, Rolle viewed it at home, alone.
"This is a program that has really helped me, so I want to help them."
A tan, handsome student sits down next to Rolle in the large lecture room. They clearly know each other well, and after a brief exchange about the game, the conversation drifts to whether they believe they will die of boredom during the upcoming three-hour training course. Rolle turns to me and introduces the other student, Avi, the former undergraduate student body president, as "kind of a big deal."
After watching a few poorly produced instructional videos, it was time to start practicing CPR on some limbless dummies. Rolle and his friend pair off to take turns administering CPR to the stricken rubber corpse. Some of the other students encouraged their partner in a disingenuous, "You-go-girl" kind of way, or not at all. While Rolle doesn't say much except, "There you go" or "That's it" or "Ten more, you got it," his intonation is pitch-perfect, and conveys encouragement and reinforcement without being condescending. It seems silly to extrapolate someone's leadership potential based on how they encourage a friend to administer chest compressions to a mannequin, but it's hard not to when he does it so naturally.
Having just met Rolle for the first time less than an hour before, it would have been easy for him to ignore me during class. But that's not Rolle. He asks if I want to give it a go, which I initially decline but then relent at his insistence. As I try to save this dummy's life, Rolle offers me the same encouragement he gave Avi. I catch myself thinking that I don't want to let Rolle down, that I will save this dummy no matter what it takes.
I was relieved to notice I was not the only one who felt Rolle's spell. Later, as we entered the FSU athletic facility, a student with a medical boot on his foot was leaving. Rolle paused the conversation we were having to ask the kid if he's all right, and how the healing is coming. Although I assumed at the time Rolle knew him, it's also well within Rolle's behavior to offer that level of interest in someone he doesn't know. During the Rhodes Scholarship interview process, the handful of finalists were invited to a formal luncheon. One of the finalists was an Orthodox Jew who couldn't use the elevator because of the Sabbath. She informed the other finalists she would be taking the stairs. "I'll go with you," Rolle insisted. While Rolle and the girl descended the stairway, the rest of the group took the elevator.
After reassuring the injured athlete and entering the weight room, Rolle exchanged greetings with a female track athlete. "He's everything I want to be. He's my role model," she told me.
"I always kinda felt like I could be somebody who could transform a life and help open a door," Rolle explain to me later over dinner. "When I look at leaders, I look at people who get something out of a person who thought there was nothing left in them." He talks about the way FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews got him to do one more rep, one more backpedal, or one more cut when he thought he couldn't do anymore. He expounds on the interplay between belief and ability, and how one influences the other. "Extrapolating that from the football field and putting that into life, you know I'm thinking to myself, man, there are some people who think they can't get into college because they come from an impoverished home or their mom and dad isn't around or they're black or they come from a broken school system. No, no, if you think you can't, then you won't. But if you believe that you can, and you use the right resources, if you want to succeed as badly as you want to breathe, then it is possible."
Neurosurgery, Rolle's desired medical field, is about cause and effect. Identifying the cause is the first step toward treatment. At first, it was hard to reconcile Rolle's insistence that belief is the first step toward ability, since this overlooks the complexities of the way the brain interacts with external forces. This seemed, at the very least, unscientific. Rolle acknowledges as much, saying he knows it sounds "fantastical and quixotic." But thinking about it another way, it fits in perfectly with who Rolle is. He sees problems and believes he can be the agent of change, the inspiration of something positive.
In 2009, even before he was selected in the NFL draft, Rolle founded the Myron Rolle Foundation. He describes the mission of the nonprofit as "serving the underserved in areas of health, wellness and education domestically and in the Bahamas," where Rolle's parents were born and a place he feels a deep connection to, visiting often with his extended family. Among its current initiatives are an anti-obesity program for Native American children, building a health complex in Exuma, Bahamas (where his grandparents are from), and a leadership academy geared toward helping teenage foster children become leaders. Funded largely with government grants and partnerships, he brings inspirational figures such as Pierre Garcon, track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, Giants safety and Rolle's cousin Antrel Rolle, basketball star Rebecca Lobo, and Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard to talk to the kids about overcoming doubts and challenges.
Although Rolle started the foundation prior to his NFL career, I got the sense the rampant individualism he found there only reinforced his emphasis on the collective good and using his talents to help and inspire the less fortunate. Without the constant demands of an athletic career, even while in med school, Rolle now dedicates more time and effort to the foundation. He wants to enlarge its scope beyond just foster children, offering programs to "other underserved people who want to be encouraged and given some tools to help them move forward in their own personal journey." He wants to expand to other parts of the Caribbean, and even to Africa. He wants to see the foundation get a full-time staff and one day approach Bill Clinton's charitable efforts in terms of reach and credibility. As he continues to rattle off the things he hopes the Myron Rolle Foundation can accomplish, I get the feeling the only limits of this conversation are not his ambitions, but how long the restaurant where we are talking remains open.
* * *
Near the end of my visit, I ask Rolle how he wants people to describe him. "I want to be described as a Rhodes Scholar who played football at the highest level," he says, "but for the most part I want to be described as a leader, someone who was able to look at the lives of young people and positively impact it. And not just on a superficial level, but on a very profound level where they're actually moved to be greater than they ever thought they could be."
When Rolle was drafted by the Titans and then signed by the Steelers, he was so excited he would send Karioth pictures and insisted she come for the first games. "It's hard for a kid that's had nothing but success to find out that very occasionally it may not work out the way you want," she said. "For kids who have never had that happen, it's the biggest surprise in the world."
"A part of me is like, man, what would it have been like if I played eight or nine years in the league?"
It's easy to become preoccupied with Rolle's swift exit from a career he had spent most of his life dreaming about. Why didn't the NFL want him? "A part of me is like, man, what would it have been like if I played eight or nine years in the league?" he says. "What would it have been like if I would have been able to make a few Pro Bowls?"
I then utter a word I'm unsure Rolle has ever heard associated with his own name. I ask him if he considers his NFL career a "failure." As I say the word, he sits rigidly still, hands folded on the table in front of him with a locked but stern facial expression, almost using his face as a shield so the word doesn't permeate his brain. He then gives a diplomatic and flawless answer. "It's a pejorative word, no doubt about it. I hesitate toward that, because it opened up doors for me to do other things." Rolle pauses for a few seconds, and then he does something few people do when asked a tough, challenging question: He thanks me for asking it. I wonder if this is a sign Karioth accomplished her goal, and that Rolle has learned to enjoy being challenged to think outside his box.
For her part, Karioth is glad Rolle's NFL career was short-lived. "The world didn't need another pro football player. But they did need someone putting some care together for the poor in the Bahamas. They did need someone going to Africa with Bill Clinton to take care of fresh water. They did need someone to take foster children and give them a way to look at themselves that has meaning."
As soon as I ask Rolle the question about the NFL being a failure, I see where the failure truly lies. It is not with Rolle or what he was able to give the NFL. It's with the NFL. They may have squandered an opportunity, missing out on a player who not only could change perceptions, but through his foundation, also change lives and use his position for social good. And in era when people question the value of the game, the NFL may have also lost a spokesperson who could articulate the appeal and role of the sport even at a time when its physical risks become ever more apparent.
This is what makes the mystery of Rolle's NFL short career so agonizing. We can all share in Rolle's thankfulness that he never suffered a serious concussion, that he is healthy and can pursue his future endeavors with all of his insatiable desire and ingenious capacities. But we can also lament what might have been.
Rolle's case illuminates how archaic and dehumanizing the NFL's narrow conception of what makes a good player can be.
But it's even bigger than that. Rolle's case illuminates how archaic and dehumanizing the NFL's narrow conception of what makes a good player can be, how it forces unique people into rigid stereotypes and makes life-changing judgments about those who are different. To the NFL, people can only be athletic or smart, articulate or dumb, thuggish or timid. These false dichotomies confuse people when someone doesn't quite fit, when someone is both athletic and smart, or doesn't speak articulately but has very bright ideas, or is Richard Sherman. It doesn't make them worse football players, and often makes them better or more interesting human beings, but the NFL doesn't care about any of that. The league just wants guys who will play football, and play along.
In the weight room, Rolle reenacts a play: his first tackle for FSU. In a game against Clemson at home, running back C.J. Spiller, later a first-round draft pick and Rolle's friend, received a handoff. Rolle's assignment on the play was the B-gap, the space between the guard and tackle. True to form, as Spiller took the handoff, Rolle was there, reading the play and filling the hole as the tackle pushed the lineman away. As the pursuit closed in, Spiller tried to use his tremendous speed and agility to bounce to the outside, a move he now routinely utilizes to great effectiveness on Sundays, making even the most agile linebackers appear bolted to the ground.
It didn't work. Rolle was right where he should be. "I just shot, shot my gun, hit him for a loss," Rolle steps away from the bench press, conjures an invisible C.J. Spiller into the middle of the room, crouches, gets in a form tackling position, and lunges at the invisible Spiller, taking him down, once again feeling the emotional rush of a solid tackle.
"I got up, and the crowd was like ‘AAAAAH!' That tackle let me know I made it, but I also did it against a really good player, so I was like ‘I belong here.' I felt like I'm here man, I belong."
When Rolle rises from his reenactment, I can see the deep tunnels in his eyes connecting then to now. I peer into them, looking as hard as I can for the joy football once brought him, the sense of community and shared responsibility. If I focus intensely, staring deep into the recesses of his memory, beyond the golf carts, recliners and designer clothes, past the coaches who don't want to help him improve, speed right on by the doubtful scouts and the skeptical GMs, I can see it. I can see that he still misses football. Maybe just the best parts, maybe just the good times, maybe just the FSU days, maybe just certain aspects that are inextricably tied to the others. Caveats abound, but nevertheless, the only other time I see Rolle smile this wide is when he talks about his foundation, where he's using his powers for good, and the Bahamas, the only place he feels at home.
"I think my patients wouldn't want me reminiscing about my time playing football, so I gotta focus on what I'm doing," he says. "Medical school takes your mind off it quick."
Rolle gets serious now. More weight goes on the bar, and he drops onto the bench to do another set. "There's so much to do, you know?"