March 1, 2005

Learning From Student Athletes of the Past

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Fall, 1938. Jerome “Brud” Holland ’39 is Cornell’s first black football player. That year, he will lead his team to one of the greatest seasons in school history. He will be named an All-American. The Associated Press, touting his many talents, will write, “He wrecked interference, blocked and tackled, snagged passes and carried the ball.”

He is just as talented as a student. He graduates with highest honors. He’ll become president of two universities, sit on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, and be named chairman of the American Red Cross. In 1985, Cornell’s International Living Center will be renamed in his honor.

When Holland was named an All-American, he became the first black athlete in over 20 years to receive that accolade.

Which African-American had earned the honor last? The legendary Paul Robeson.

Go back to the autumn of 1915. Robeson had just arrived at Rutgers. He is the lone black football player on the team, and only the third African-American to attend that college.

Yet, he will become the best athlete on campus. In 1917, he’ll be named an All-American, and, the year after, some journalists will call him the best football player in the nation. He’ll win varsity letters in baseball, basketball and track.

He’ll also be class valedictorian.

Robeson was one of the most incredible student-athletes of the twentieth century. And when you consider the racism of that era, Robeson’s academic achievements seem even more impressive that his athletic ones.

Today, Robeson’s college career has been overshadowed by the acting and singing career that made him world-famous during the 1930’s and 40’s. And Robeson’s story has also been obscured by his left-wing politics, which caused him trouble during the McCarthy era.

However, his many achievements are impossible to deny. His importance at Rutgers was hardly limited to the playing field. Indeed, the school named a library, an art gallery, and a cultural center after Robeson.

Now, cut to December, 2004 where Arizona State and Purdue are playing in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas. Some of the players on ASU wear a unique patch on the upper-right hand corner of their jerseys. It’s a drawing of an athlete, studying at a desk.

It’s the logo for ASU’s “Scholar Baller” program. It’s a new initiative that honors — and encourages — academic achievement.

In order to wear the patch, an athlete needs to earn a 3.0 GPA. Last season, almost 40 teammates were honored, up from a just a few in 2001. The average GPA of football players on scholarship has improved to its highest level in school history.

The program wants to build a culture of complete student-athletes — individuals that live up to the ideal we hear so much about. And, it encourages students to look to Paul Robeson as a role model.

“Robeson recognized that he was opening doors for others to follow,” said Dr. C. Keith Harrison, a prominent intellectual in the study of college athletics, and a co-founder of the Scholar-Baller program.

One man who benefited from Robeson’s pioneering efforts was his own son, Paul Robeson, Jr. ’48 — a Cornell graduate in electrical engineering.

On a spring day in 1945, Robeson, Jr. was at the Outdoor Heptagonal Games, competing in the high jump. The games were held in Annapolis, Maryland that year. There were only a few other African-Americans in town — after all, the Naval Academy did not have a black graduate until 1949.

But on that day, Robeson, Jr. would dash forward, over the bar, and into the record books. His Ivy League record jump of 6 foot, 3.88 inches — tying Joseph Conley of Dartmouth — would stand for ten years.

Robeson, Jr. was not only a track star. He was also an AP Honorable Mention football player. In 1998, he was inducted into the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame.

He graduated near the top of his class, and would go on to become a writer and a translator. Remarkably, the son of another black pioneer would also compete for Cornell — Joe Holland ’78. His father was Jerome, the All-American in the 1930’s.

The younger Holland was one of Cornell’s greatest football players in the 1970’s. Like his father, Joe was also a brilliant student-athlete. In 1991, he was inducted into the national Academic All-American Hall of Fame. He is one of only three Ivy Leaguers to have earned that honor. Holland is currently a trustee emeritus of Cornell.

Indeed, these Cornellians — along with Robeson, Sr. — remain great examples of what being a student-athlete is all about.

And they were not just pioneers for black athletes. They were pioneers for any athlete who wants to achieve both on, and off the field.

But too often, at schools across America, the ideal of the student-athlete is not realized. That’s where a program like Arizona State’s can help. It’s a program which tells student-athletes, of all races, that they should aspire to become complete individuals. The ideal — which was made reality by men like Jerome Holland — can still exist today.

Archived article by Ted Nyman
Sun Staff Writer