Do scholar-athletes exist? Meet Joe

"he's the most intense human being I've ever seen, and he's the most intelligent human being I've ever seen. He's so smart, it's scary. Nobody has any business being that smart."

- Fred Casotti, longtime sports information director at the University of Colorado, on Joe Romig

Joe Romig is apologizing profusely for having been so, well, dumb as not to call ahead and make sure the restaurant he had in mind to eat at was open. It isn't. He flails himself: "Why didn't I do that? I'm sorry. It would have been so simple."

This vignette is just another non sequitur in the life of Romig, who if you are seeking - within one human being - the brightest and the best college football player in the 129-year history of the game, may be it.

Among his chief rivals for smartest-ever football player would be another University of Colorado graduate, former United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, and former University of Southern California quarterback Pat Haden, most recently a TV commentator. They, too, were Rhodes scholarship recipients, among the privileged few invited to study at Oxford University in England.

Fred Casotti, an athletic historian and former University of Colorado sports information director, says the reason it's so hard to get a great player and great mind inside a single body is "there are not many great minds."

Another friend of Romig, Boulder attorney Glenn Porzak, marvels, "Nothing takes Joe's mind away from what has to be done. He has total focus. And he always makes you think."

Porzak, who himself has eight Himalayan climbs to his credit and reached the summit of Mt. Everest once, sighs, "He's in a whole different league."

It was 41 football seasons ago that Romig, a too-small 5 ft. 10 in., 200-pound player ("Two hundred pounds, based on mass, momentum, energy, and speed, is enough to knock anybody down," he says) showed up on the Colorado campus. He remembers coach Sonny Grandelius saying, "You can't eat a football, so you better get your education." With Romig, Grandelius was preaching to the choir.

When Romig was a child, his mother, Lucille (who died when he was 15), "always gave me books to read on the great figures in history.... You begin to fantasize yourself as the head of legions."

Despite his size, he twice was an All-America (at guard and linebacker) and team captain. In 1962, he was selected as a Rhodes scholar, the most coveted academic honor available to college students.

Since the Rhodes began in 1902, just 2,854 Americans have been selected. The Rhodes Scholarship Trust says it doesn't know how many have been All-America football players, but in a statement says: "Sadly, success in major varsity sports at large colleges and universities has often required a virtually semi-professional time commitment in the US, making it very difficult, although not impossible, for such athletes to develop the other criteria we look for."

Romig had what the New York Giants were looking for - there's a wide body of thought that Romig was one of the toughest collegiate players ever - but he never considered the pro game: "The decision on whether to play in the pros is a decision on what your ultimate career will be. I was going to be a scientist, so I needed to get on to graduate school."

As the 1999 college football season nears, there will be talk anew of whether big-time academics and big-time athletics can coexist. Romig answers yes - hesitatingly.

Of 100 college football players, how many does he think would be in college were it not for football? Romig charitably estimates 50 percent. Then he smiles, awkwardly. He knows his number is way too high. Casotti figures maybe 20 percent. Other experts are less optimistic.

Pushed as to whether most football players are really students, Romig concedes, "Most probably aren't. If you look at great athletes, chances are they'd probably be average students." And vice versa.

Recent NCAA figures show that 50 percent of scholarship football players graduate, compared with 56 percent of the general student body. Duke leads overall, graduating 93 percent of its scholarship athletes, San Jose State just 21 percent.

But the larger truth is that the quality of the degrees handed to football players at many institutions is suspect, at best.

Beyond this, of course, is the paltry number who are both Romig good and Romig bright. "All we're asking players to do," Romig says, "is go to class, do the homework assignments, take the tests. Then go out and play."

Ask Tom Hancock, Romig's coach at Lakewood (Colo.) High School, when he first discovered Romig was better than everyone else. Hancock says, "He was always better than everybody else, at everything." Twice, despite being too small, Romig was state high school heavyweight wrestling champ. Later he earned his undergraduate degree in physics, a master's in plasma physics (at Oxford), and a doctorate in astrogeophysics.

Today, Romig's an expert on people detection using quasistatic electric fields and has spoken on "New Developments in Synchrotron Theory with Suggested Applications to Jupiter Radio Physics." He has a patent for glass-article coating. Shrugs Romig: "As you go downstream in life, there are all sorts of awards that accrue as long as you don't commit a felony."

He's a partner in a company that investigates fires and explosions, including the Oklahoma City blast. ("It's applying physics and engineering to grass-roots phenomenon.") But he laments, "I only wish I had more time to spend on esoteric things: theoretical physics, astrophysics." Abruptly he is off on a riff about quantum mechanics.

He teaches astronomy at the University of Colorado, giving "detailed lectures that only will interest the best students." This causes many to drop the class, some even to leave in the middle of a class.

That doesn't bother Romig: "How much astronomy can one person take in a night?" When he gets talking about physics and astronomy, it can result in mind-numbing discombobulation.

Yet, here sits Romig in his backyard on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, celebrating a wedding anniversary with his wife, Barbara, eating strawberries, and laughing and telling stories - just like a real person.

"I seem like an ordinary guy," Romig says, "and I think I am."

He's a man for all reasons and all seasons. "What matters most to Romig," Casotti says, "is whatever he's working on.

"Basically, he has a one-track mind, but his mind has many tracks."

What advice does Romig have for excelling academically?

"Listen to the still, small voice within and act on it. Always try to understand things from the first principles. Test the hypothesis with crucial experiments, designs that either confirm or deny. Dream. Read the masters. Go see what Newton or Einstein actually said rather than reading about what somebody thinks they said."

And how about excelling athletically?

"Lift weights, eat a proper diet, relax, meditate, practice hard.

"And dream. Dream of great achievements. The biggest benefit is the mental and physical preparation. It's flesh and blood. That's good. Mind is the builder. You fantasize doing great things, and maybe you end up doing them.

"But if you fail, you tried."

Back on this planet, Romig still is bothered about his failure in planning for the restaurant lunch. "We'll go another time," he says. "I'll call first."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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