April 4, 2001

More Than Just an Athlete

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During the course of this week’s Final Four, an inordinate amount of praise was showered upon Duke’s All-World forward Shane Battier.

And deservedly so. Battier’s 18 point, 11 rebound performance against Arizona in Monday night’s championship game only solidified his status as the nation’s best player. And if that wasn’t enough, Battier sports the academic credentials (he’s an Academic All-American) and sunny disposition that make him worthy of the description “student-athlete.”

But well below the shadow cast by Battier’s accolades lies another player who’s earned the very same moniker, just by very different means. Sitting on the opposite sideline from Battier on Monday night, absorbing Arizona’s 82-72 loss, was Wildcats’ fifth-year senior forward Eugene Edgerson.

Unlike Battier, he hasn’t brought home a handful of awards that prove his worth on the court. He’s not the flashiest nor the most talented player on the court. He shoulders Arizona’s grunt work, leaving the Cats’ stylish, razz-a-ma-tazz play to the Reggie Jeffersons and Gilbert Arenas. And unless you count his unmistakable ‘fro and trademark knee-high socks, Edgerson certainly hasn’t garnered national fame and publicity.

In fact, going by the stat sheet alone, he can’t even claim to draw the most attention on his own team. After all, he only averaged 4.7 points and four rebounds a game this season.

And yet, in every right, Edgerson has bridged the ever-widening gap between the self-consumed, arrogant college hoops celebrity and the consciously minded, well-rounded “student-athlete.”

Forget about what Edgerson does on the hardwood. After all, that’s what he did all of last year. Rather than conclude his fourth year with the ‘Cats, Edgerson red-shirted for the noblest of reasons — he taught kindergartners.

An education major at Arizona, Edgerson had his mind set on graduating in four years, even though that meant skipping out on the ‘Cats’ entire season last year so that he could complete a program in student teaching.

Sources tell the Sun that Edgerson risked his reputation with his teammates, offending the rest of the ‘Cats with the year-long hiatus.

“He had to make that decision,” says his high school coach Bernard Griffith. “Student teaching requires so much time.

“He wanted to get his degree in four years.”

With so many athletes leaping straight to the pros before even considering finishing their degrees these days, Edgerson stands alone in his single-minded determination to maximize his education. Even now, when stars like Battier and Michigan State’s Charlie Bell will rake in tons of dough in the NBA next year, Edgerson is carving his own path. If he’s able, he wants to play in a profession league overseas for a couple of years before returning to the States to pursue a life-long career as a kindergarten teacher.

“He decided he wanted teach little kids,” explains Griffith, who sees Edgerson every summer. “He believes those are the formidable years.”

It was in high school in New Orleans that Edgerson first displayed the maturity and dedication that characterize his persona now. Coming from a poor, inner-city neighborhood, he sought refuge both in the classrooms and the basketball courts at St. Augustine’s High School. Not only was he a top-50 recruit coming out of high school (having led his team to the national championship his junior year), but Edgerson also maintained 3.8 GPA. It would probably not be a stretch to claim that Arizona head coach Lute Olson didn’t have to sell the university’s admission’s committee on him.

“He’s an honors student. He always want to excel at positive things,” Griffith says, adding, “He’s just a good person.”

Of course, anything written about Edgerson can’t be complete without a mention of his now famous afro. Though the ‘fro has become iconic in basketball circles, Edgerson initially grew it out of reverence to the old-school African-American basketball players who preceded him. The knee-high socks and the tennis shoes arise from the same reason as well.

Griffith, who describes as Edgerson as a blue collar player, adds that the ‘fro serves to honor the players who “opened the door” for the Edgersons of the world.

Though his basketball days at Arizona have come to a close, Edgerson hasn’t stopped thinking about the future —