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A New Kind of Rolle Model

In a brightly lit, windowless room inside the ad agency BBDO New York—the creative minds that put a mud-caked Betty White in a football huddle for the popular Snickers Super Bowl commercial—five executives began brainstorming about their visiting genius.

What's the elevator pitch for Myron Rolle? How to sum him up in 30 seconds? Dressed in a finely tailored navy suit, Rolle listened from his seat on a funky low-slung, oversized chair as the visionaries laid out his narrative: the third-team All-America safety at Florida State and surefire high draft pick in 2009 who graduated as a junior and put off the NFL for a year to study medical anthropology at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship; the socially conscious health advocate who helped set up a program to combat obesity in the Seminole tribe without altering those Native Americans' traditional diet; the future surgeon who wants to build a clinic in the Bahamas, his parents' homeland. Granted, this was just an exploratory meeting between Rolle and BBDO last week, but on the eve of last Thursday's NFL draft, there was excitement about a player who could change the current conversation about athletes from rogues to Rhodes.

Here was one exec: Imagine a feel-good spot with Myron for AT&T, akin to the commercial the telecommunications giant did with Toms Shoes entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, who travels the world giving a new pair of shoes to needy children for every pair sold. What if Myron were building a hospital in the Bahamas? He'd need worldwide coverage, right? Myron would be a good fit. (A bad fit? Coupling Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with AT&T's slogan "more bars in more places.") The ad world has grown weary of footage from Athletes Gone Wild—endorsement deals are down, as the folks at BBDO told Rolle—but there is room for a trusted messenger. "I wouldn't align with an advertisement I didn't believe in," Rolle told the executives. "I want to be able to say, 'This is not an act.' I don't drink alcohol, so I wouldn't do beer commercials." Later, in an elevator descending to the lobby, Rolle reflected, "It's interesting to hear all the possibilities."

Maybe that's the elevator pitch: Myron Rolle embodies the possible. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gets it. In a private meeting at his office on April 21, Goodell, just 24 hours before handing Roethlisberger a six-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy, told Rolle, "We need you, especially now." Sandy Levine gets it. The next day, just before Rolle was served matzo-ball soup for lunch at New York City's Carnegie Deli, Levine, the restaurant's colorful owner, told him, "Future surgeon, huh? Let me see your hands." Rolle extended a steady right. "You'll be something special," Levine said. Obviously, BBDO gets it. They believe in Rolle models.

The doubters were in the NFL draft war rooms. The G.M.'s, coaches and scouts had graded Rolle down not for the size of his body or breadth of his skills, but for the expanse of his intellect. How could you desert your college team to be a Rhodes scholar? one scout asked in a predraft interview. Another wondered, What happens if you don't start right away and leave us for med school? The questions kept coming: Are you Obama in shoulder pads? Are you worried about breaking a finger on your surgeon's hands? It was frustrating for Rolle to return from Oxford with a freshly sculpted 6'2", 218-pound frame, shine in the Senior Bowl, excel on his pro day and be confronted by obtuse questions about his commitment. Former Ravens coach turned NFL Network analyst Brian Billick went so far as to cite Rolle's IQ as a character issue, telling USA Today, "If you want to create hesitation on a guy, make him think."

Anyone quick with a Rubik's Cube seems to present a threat to the league's world order: Coaches are geniuses; players are lemmings. That dogma sent Rolle plunging in the draft. It wasn't until Saturday afternoon, a time slot only Mel Kiper's family could love, that the Titans selected Rolle with the last pick of the sixth round, four rounds below his projected draft position in '09 and almost two rounds under where most experts placed him this year. "I guess disillusioning may be a word that fits," Rolle said later when asked about the process. "It was different than I imagined, but I'm grateful to have a team."

Tennessee, freighted by the legacy of Pacman Jones, may well be the vehicle for sports' next "transformational athlete," a phrase often used by Reed Bergman, CEO of Playbook Inc., a marketing firm that represents Rolle. As Bergman told the BBDO execs that day, "I view Myron as a global figure." Soon, words like synergy and branding were swirling around the room almost like objects on a mobile. Rolle's head, however, didn't spin. He maintained the same perspective that would help him endure the stress of his free fall in the draft. He interrupted the campaign talk by saying, "I understand that before anything, I've got to do well. I have to handle my business on the field."

He has his priorities: football first. If Rolle's play speaks, his voice will travel—a message even tackling dummies might hear.

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NFL G.M.'s and coaches graded down the Florida State safety, not for the size of his body or breadth of his skills, but for the expanse of his intellect.