On Saturday, Patrick Witt ’12 led the Yale football team to a hard-fought victory over Columbia.
Forty-eight hours later, the senior quarterback received a phone call from Daniel Promislow, secretary of District 6 for the Rhodes Scholarship, who informed him that he had just been selected as a finalist for the award — which funds two or three years of study at the University of Oxford for about 80 scholars selected worldwide. The honor raises a great dilemma: Witt’s interview is scheduled for Nov. 19, the same day as The Game.
Since Witt applied from his home state of Georgia, his interview will take place at Emory University in Atlanta. Finalist interviews, which last about 30 minutes, are not scheduled to begin until 8:00 a.m. that day, and kickoff between Yale and Harvard is at noon. But the flight from Atlanta to New York City takes two hours.
While nothing has been set in stone yet, Witt faces the difficult possibility that he might have to give up The Game for his interview, or vice versa.
“It’s still very new, it’s still very fresh just finding out this information,” he said. “So I need to kind of reevaluate. If the Rhodes Committee is willing to work with me, in a perfect world, I can interview first thing in the morning and get on a flight to be back in time for the game on Saturday. But I don’t know if that will be possible.”
A history major with a 3.91 GPA, Witt transferred to Yale from the University of Nebraska, a national football powerhouse, two years ago. He has said in the past that he transferred in order to pursue his academic interests at Yale.
Witt was also a finalist for the Mitchell Scholarship, but gave up his candidacy on Monday in favor of the Rhodes. He was also named one of the National Football Foundation’s 16 scholar-athlete award winners five days ago.
“The description of the Rhodes Scholarship in itself is very much the model that I set for myself here as a student athlete,” Witt said. “It’s a huge honor. I realize what an incredible opportunity it would be and just flattered to have been selected as a finalist.”
The veteran quarterback has carried the Bulldogs’ offense for the past three seasons. Since joining the team as a sophomore, he has set the Yale record for career completions and thrown for the second-most career passing yards.
This season, Witt is third in the Ivy League in passing yards and touchdowns, and has played every game for the Bulldogs. His backup, John Whitelaw ’14, who has played sparingly in one Yale game, has made one completion on his three career attempts.
“If it comes to [Witt missing The Game], I would definitely do my best to be ready,” Whitelaw said. “I guess a Rhodes Scholarship might be more important in the long run, but hopefully for the team’s sake we’ll be able to work something out.”
Witt began working on his application for the Rhodes during the summer, and he secured an endorsement from Yale after a grueling interview with a faculty panel this fall.
Throughout the process, Witt has consulted with football head coach Tom Williams, who was a Rhodes candidate himself when he was a senior at Stanford in 1992, but turned down his chance for an interview in order to attend an NFL minicamp. Williams praised Witt’s ability to balance his academics and work load as the starting quarterback.
“I think it speaks volume about his character, not only as an athlete but as a student,” Williams said. “He transferred to here from Nebraska because he wanted to challenge himself academically. I think he’s shown that he’s not only capable but he can excel in this type of environment.”
Despite Witt’s balance of academics and athletics thus far at Yale, he may not be able to have it both ways come the weekend of The Game. But the Eli faithful need not despair just yet.
Three years ago, defensive back Casey Gerald ’09 was stuck in the same situation as Witt: his Rhodes interview was scheduled in Texas for the same weekend as The Game. He did not find out that he would be able to manage both until the week before, and he called the decision one of the most difficult of his life.
“I knew that without Yale football, I wouldn’t have been close to being a candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship,” Gerald said. “I was a finalist as much because of my teammates as for myself. I didn’t take it lightly the choice between either going to the interview, where the best outcome would only relate to me, or going to play in the last game of my athletic career.”
Torn between the choices, Gerald reached out to his friends, family and alumni for advice. But a conversation with athletic director Thomas Beckett finally convinced Gerald to go to the interview.
“[Beckett] said, ‘Casey, you have to go,’” Gerald said. “Your teammates will be there with you in Houston, this University will be there with you. You have to go.”
Gerald flew to Houston Thursday evening, interviewed Friday afternoon and then returned to Newark that same evening. Once he got off the plane, Yale Athletics drove Gerald to Cambridge, where he arrived at the team hotel just seven hours before kickoff. Although he won neither the scholarship nor The Game, he called those 48 hours “unforgettable.”
As Witt weighs his options over the next few weeks, teammates said that he has their full support.
“Pat is going to make the best decision possible,” captain Jordan Haynes ’12 said. “Whatever decision he has to make is going to be the best decision. I’m fully confident in him.”
If accepted by the Rhodes Committee, Witt said he intends to study international relations at Oxford.