Brains and Brawn

Academic All-Americans make the grade while breaking a sweat.

There's a moment in his college career that senior Tom Preissing won't forget. "It was one of the better feelings I've had in my life," explains the captain of Colorado College's highly ranked hockey team. "I can look back and say, 'I did that.'"

So, did this moment come when the Tigers won their conference championship, eventually ending the season with a 30-7-5 record? Or was it as Preissing, a defenseman, scored his seventeenth and final power-play goal, a number that tied him for best in the country last year? Maybe the significant instant came while he was honored with the Colorado Springs school's Rodman Award for sportsmanship and leadership? Could the thrill have been when he signed a one-year deal with the NHL's San Jose Sharks last month?

Nope. Preissing prefers to remember the day that he handed in his senior thesis, a 95-page piece of original thought required for his degree in economics. "I called my mom, and then I just sat down and thought about what I'd done," Preissing says.

Mike Gorman

What he had done -- hold on to your hats! -- was study hard in college. While excelling at a sport, too. Imagine! "He did it the old-fashioned way," says Aju Fenn, Preissing's thesis advisor. "He just did his work and came back with results. He applied an economic model and came up with original research."

"I still remember Tom's performance as a student, even though the last class he took with me was probably around 2000 -- that is how strong the impression he left is," says Chetan Ghate, another Colorado College economics professor. "Tom brought the same no-nonsense attitude to excellence in academics that he brought to sport."

How about you, John Dayton? What do you remember most about your college career at the U.S. Air Force Academy? Winning the Mountain West Conference 400-meter medley relay last year? Or was it breaking the Air Force Academy record for the 200- and 400-meter medley swim? Maybe you're proudest of posting the fourth-best 50-meter freestyle, the second-best 100-meter breaststroke and the third-best 200-meter breaststroke times in AFA history?

Nah. That's just getting your body from one end of the pool to the other. "I worked on this one cutting-edge lab course," Dayton says. "Fluid dynamics. We were trying to figure out how water flows around a cylinder in a particular way. It was kind of painful to go through -- a lot of late nights and many, many afternoons." But talk about on-the-field results: "It's amazing how much we learned. And now our data is going to be used for an aerospace project."

Other big moments for the 6'3" senior from Hendersonville, Tennessee: Learning Russian and completing his senior design project. "We were given the assignment of improving the performance of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft," he explains. Using a new wing prototype, his team conceived and built a scale remote-control model to demonstrate how the aircraft could reduce drag and improve the "loiter time" over a target.

"To see four years of study paying off as the plane took shape -- that was pretty amazing," Dayton recalls. His team's findings touch on only one tiny part of the airplane's redesign. Still, administrators reviewing the plane's performance decided they wanted to take a look at Dayton's work. "So that's pretty awesome," he says.

A couple of weeks ago, Preissing and Dayton were identified by university sports-information directors nationwide as Academic All-Americans: students who, in the past four years, have distinguished themselves both on the field of play and in the classroom. In May, Preissing finished his economics major at Colorado College with a 3.47 grade point average while demonstrating that he was one of the best young hockey players in the country.

Dayton majored in aeronautical engineering. He finished with a 3.79 GPA at the equally demanding U.S. Air Force Academy, all the while setting new standards of performance in the swimming pool.

Why is this so unusual?

Because common wisdom these days is that big-time university athletes simply cannot perform as well academically as students who spend their out-of-classroom hours in the library instead of dunking a basketball or tackling a running back. The annual release of NCAA graduation rates has become a regular part of the news cycle. Every year, there is a new batch of statistics demonstrating that, at any given university, the number of student athletes in major sports who graduate is almost always lower than the number of other students. Outrage ensues. Calls for reform are heard; others argue that college athletes should simply quit the student business and get paid for their sweaty labor.

The gulf between the performances of athletes and ordinary students has become more than accepted; it's anticipated. With the exception of a few highly unusual programs (Duke, Stanford and Penn State stand out), most people shrug off what has become an inverse relationship between a school's performance on the playing field and its students' grades. Men's college basketball is a prime example.

The top four seeds in this year's "March Madness" men's NCAA basketball tournament, Arizona, Kentucky, Texas and Oklahoma, all boasted team graduation rates of precisely zero. Eight of the "Sweet Sixteen" quarter-final teams had graduation rates of less than 38 percent among their players. Of those, the school with the lowest rate -- a whopping 25 percent -- was Syracuse University, which went on to win the national championship. (One freshman dropout, with the university's usefulness to him over after only a year, is poised to become a millionaire, probably courtesy of the Denver Nuggets).

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