Forward Matt Townsend ’15 was recently named a Rhodes Scholar, one of just 32 Americans to be awarded the scholarship to Oxford — and the only Yale athlete.
The men’s basketball team has been in the news recently not only for its successes on the court, but also because of its players, who have epitomized the Yale student-athlete, pursuing interests on and off the court. At the end of last season, Brandon Sherrod’s ’16 departure to the Whiffenpoofs was highly publicized, as he decided to take a one-year leave from the team to travel around the world. More recently, Townsend, an Academic All-American selection last season and key starter for the Bulldogs, was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
“Going into that weekend, [the Rhodes Scholarship] certainly wasn’t something that I was expecting to win,” Townsend said. “Just being in a room with a bunch of amazingly smart people, who I know will change the world, was a really humbling experience. I still don’t think that I’ve fully processed that I was luckily chosen as one of the winners.”
Prior to applying for the scholarship, Townsend noted that the opportunity was not something that had been on his mind for most of college as something he could do. Conversations with his professors and advisers encouraged him to apply, as he saw that attending graduate school at Oxford could be an amazing opportunity, he said.
He received support not only from his professors and advisers, but also from his teammates.
“The biggest source of support and confidence in me during the [interview] weekend was all the texts and messages I got from a ton of people, but especially from my teammates,” Townsend said. “That really made a big difference for me, feeling their love as I was going through a stressful interview weekend.”
Townsend has successfully managed balancing academics, athletics and extracurricular activities throughout his college years. Conflicts have rarely occurred, but Townsend needed to make a decision when the interviews were held while the team was playing in Ohio during the Men Against Breast Cancer Classic.
Even though he was away for two games, Townsend was key in the team’s 66–59 win against Kent State on Nov. 23. In his return to the basketball court, Townsend went 5–5 from the field, finishing with 12 points, four rebounds and two assists. His last basket gave Yale the ultimate lead with just 46 seconds remaining in the game.
“Coach [James] Jones and the whole basketball staff and team have been extremely supportive with me missing these two games for the Rhodes interviews,” Townsend said. “It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, basketball-wise, to be honest, choosing to be away from the team for those two games … It was also great flying in to be there and help the team win the last game and close out that tournament 3–0.”
Townsend and Sherrod are not the only members of the team who have interests off the court.
Many members of the team noted that Yale fosters an environment that allows players to pursue varied interests. Swingman Armani Cotton ’15 noted that everyone on the team has a passion for basketball, but at a school like Yale, players are also talented across other disciplines.
“AJ [Edwards ’17] started a student investment club, Brandon is a singer, Matt is a Rhodes scholar and Brandon and Javier [Duren ’15] started their own Christian fraternity,” forward Justin Sears ’16 said. “Everyone on this team does something special and everyone is supportive of each other.”
Guard Duren added that it is amazing to be around players who are talented off the court, and that the team celebrates those accomplishments as well.
Teammates did note, however, that it is a challenge when athletes have to miss time, because everyone plays a key role on the court.
“All we can do is continue to support them and hope that they hurry back to the basketball team as well because we need them in that respect too,” Cotton said. “They’re your brothers, so you feel like your family has really accomplished a huge feat. We’re nothing but proud of them, and we’re thankful that any brief time away from the team, they’ve got something to show for it … We all want to see each other succeed in whatever it is that we’re passionate about.”
Though players have received accolades for accomplishments off the court, members of the squad are dedicated to basketball.
“At the same time, I think that for all of us on the basketball team, basketball is our number one passion, and there’s nothing we would rather be doing than be in the gym all day, playing everyday,” Townsend said.
The Bulldogs continue their quest for a postseason bid with a game against Bryant tonight at 7:30 in Smithfield, Rhode Island.