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The Rhodes not taken

Yale QB bypasses scholarship interview to test himself against Harvard

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / November 17, 2011

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NEW HAVEN - There will be no flight to Atlanta for Patrick Witt this week, no picking out the right interview suit, no agonizing over his answers, no attempt to impress a Rhodes Scholarship committee seeking out the best. Instead, Witt will remain in New Haven, doing what he has done most fall Saturdays of his college career.

He will play football.

Witt, a senior at Yale, was faced with a choice: Head to Georgia to interview as a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship or quarterback Yale against Harvard in the final game of his collegiate career. Both were scheduled for the same day. Neither could be moved. He had to pick.

It weighed on him in recent weeks, the burden noticeable. He thought it through, attempted to find a way to do both, to let down neither himself nor his teammates.

It wasn’t possible.

So, after last Saturday’s win over Princeton, Witt let his coaches and his teammates know what he had chosen, and later he let the public know, releasing a statement through Yale, saying, “I will be playing in the Yale-Harvard game this Saturday. I have withdrawn my application for the Rhodes Scholarship. My focus this week is solely on preparing for the Game alongside my teammates and coaches.’’

Really, though, they already knew what he would do. As Yale coach Tom Williams said, “I never really had a doubt that he would want to play in this game.’’ As senior free safety Geoff Dunham wrote in an e-mail, “I had a feeling he would choose to play in The Game. . . . I’m sure it would be hard for him to pass up one last opportunity to suit up alongside his brothers for the biggest game of the year.’’

The decision was, really, no decision at all.

“People who don’t understand this decision have never been part of a team, never been with a group of men, blood and sweat, going through some of the things that those guys go through with each other,’’ Williams said. “If you’ve ever been a part of that, you understand that decision. It’s an easy one.’’

No rescheduling

It’s right there in the criteria for consideration by the Rhodes Committee.

Listed among the criteria by which the Rhodes Scholars are to be selected are these words: “devotion to duty,’’ “unselfishness and fellowship,’’ and “moral force of character and instincts to lead.’’

So, really, how could Witt not make the decision he did?

“You can’t have it both ways,’’ said Williams. “And if he makes the decision to go to the interview, what does that say about him as a leader and a teammate?

“Would you like that? Really, you want to judge him on that? Because, to me, if I’m on the committee, I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ No question.’’

Applicants for the scholarships know the interview dates well in advance, as all of the Rhodes committees around the country meet on the same day to conduct interviews. They have been given on Fridays and Saturdays for at least 50 years, according to Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust.

“This is not a simple matter involving changing an interview time,’’ Gerson wrote in an e-mail. “The interview is central to our process, and is not at all like interviews for most other kinds of opportunities or awards or jobs, where rescheduling an interview would seem an easy matter, and usually is.

“This is not remotely a matter of deferring to one or even several other peoples’ convenience as interviewers, and it involves an intense and dynamic process over two days involving about 20 people each, and simultaneously in 16 committees across the country.’’

It would not have been possible for Witt to simply take an early interview slot, since candidates need to be available for potential second interviews later in the afternoon on Saturday, making a return to New Haven for the game impossible. That, in the end, was the real problem - a problem Gerson said was “sadly inevitable.’’

It’s something that has come up before, primarily with football players. It was just three years ago that Yale’s Casey Gerald faced the same decision, though he was able to make both his first-round interview (on a Friday night) and the Harvard game, skipping a few days of practice and a possible second interview. Florida State’s Myron Rolle famously chose to miss part of an important game against Maryland to make it to Birmingham, Ala., for his interview, also in 2008, flying back to make the second half.

Rolle won the game and the scholarship. Gerald lost both, with Yale falling, 10-0, to Harvard.

“But now I know what I won that day,’’ Gerald wrote in an opinion piece in the Yale Daily News this week. “I gained the peace of knowing that failure is the price we sometimes pay for daring greatly. I gained the faith to believe that the value of the people in our lives will far outstrip the value of the lines on our résumé.’’

Sense of relief

There are still possibilities for Witt. He can apply to be a Rhodes Scholar again after he graduates, his eligibility lasting until he’s 24. Of course, football might ultimately win out in Witt’s future, too. There have been NFL scouts around the Yale campus this fall, taking a look at the 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound quarterback, who became the school leader in career passing yards against Princeton.

So there may be more choices for Witt, ones that might rival the one he made this week. Though Witt has declined to talk to the media since making his decision, he told reporters last week that the process was “exciting and stressful.’’

“To be named a finalist is a huge honor and something I am excited about,’’ he said then. “At the same time, different people are weighing in on the issue and I don’t want to let anybody down, so it is a distraction, I wouldn’t say a welcome distraction.

“It is tough. I lean on people around me, I lean on my family, on Coach to help me make the decision, but it is difficult. There are people who will second-guess your decision and think you are wrong and that is fine. I will make the right decision for me, my team, and the university.’’

And that decision was football.

“My biggest point to him was follow your heart, do what you think is best for you,’’ Williams said. “Don’t worry about the rest of the world because everyone is weighing in on your decision.

“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to be comfortable with it. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror. You’ve got to sleep at night. As long as once you make that decision you can do those two things, it will be the right decision.’’

Making the decision has relaxed him. As Williams said, Witt appears “more at peace.’’ He knows where he will be and what he will be doing Saturday. He knows he will be playing in The Game, attempting to keep Harvard from an undefeated Ivy League season.

And though he is likely to think about the Rhodes and what he gave up, both his teammates and his coach believe that making the choice he did said more about him than winning the Rhodes would have - or at least as much.

As Dunham wrote, “The decision exemplifies his devotion and unselfishness and solidifies that Pat is the type of person worthy of the Rhodes Scholarship. When Saturday comes around, I’ll be proud to wear the ‘Y’ and battle alongside him.’’

“I applaud him for being the kind of man that he is,’’ Williams said. “But that’s the reason why the Rhodes people were interested in him in the first place. That’s the reason why they chose him as a finalist, because that’s who he is, he’s that kind of a guy.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.