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.

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).

These dismal numbers come in spite of the NCAA minimum standards for student-athlete eligibility. They are, to be charitable, laughably low. Students are given six years to graduate from a four-year program. They must also maintain a C-minus average in six credit hours related to their major.

Never mind that many jocks are given answers to tests, are coddled by cowed professors and are allowed to major in such rigorous disciplines as Principles of Football Theory. Even such curb-high expectations can seem too much. Late last year, Clyde Surrell, a star safety for the CU Buffs football squad, was disallowed from playing in the Alamo Bowl because he couldn't hack the classroom stuff.

Earlier this month, Colorado State University announced that veteran linebacker Adam Wade had fallen so far behind in his credit hours that, even if he were to ace summer school, his transcript would come up short. "He didn't do what he had to do academically," coach Sonny Lubick noted dryly.

It's understood that extraordinary men can -- or could -- win at both sports and academics. Former Senator Bill Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar before he starred for the New York Knicks. Colorado's own Byron "Whizzer" White won All-American honors in football at CU and later, an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. But for everyone else the implication is clear: College students can be great athletes, or they can be great scholars. They just can't be both.

Well, why not?

"It really wasn't all that hard," admits Preissing. "I just had to learn how to manage my time." While finishing his thesis, he took a laptop on the road with him, spending time before and after hockey games writing chapters and doing analysis. He also worked hard over spring break during his senior year to finish the paper.

"I suppose it was challenging," adds Dayton, who between October and February attended eight swimming practices a week, not including meets. "Between swimming and school and the military, I had to do a lot of planning ahead. But I've always believed you can learn to do well at anything."

Indeed, it was the opportunity -- not the burden -- that led Dayton to choose the Air Force Academy over a full-ride athletic scholarship to the University of Tennessee. "Getting to fly, a great education and the opportunity to serve my country -- it just all clicked for me my senior year in high school," he says.

Same with Preissing. When he applied to colleges, "I knew hockey would be a factor," says Preissing. After all, he had already played a year as a pro. But while both of the Minnesota native's parents supported his hockey, they were teachers, too. For Preissing, going to college meant the chance to play hockey. Yet the choice meant actually going to classes, as well.

In addition to CC, Preissing applied to the NCAA Division I hockey powerhouses: Minnesota, Denver, North Dakota. When he was accepted at Colorado, he didn't commit right away. "But I knew," he says. "Hockey was a factor. But I also wanted a good school; I didn't want to sacrifice my education just to play." According to the NCAA's most recent stats, 100 percent of CC's student athletes graduated.

Preissing chose economics as a major because he knew that, no matter how big a man he was on the rink, someday the applause would stop. "I wanted to study business, because that's what I figured I'd be doing eventually in life." Post-athletic realities are the reason that both he and Dayton say they intend to continue their studies in graduate school.

Getting signed by a professional hockey team last month was thrilling. "It's better than having a real job," Preissing points out. "But if I'm going to do anything in life, I'll need the extra course work."

Maybe so. But he's already miles ahead of most college athletes.

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