In the beginning, the people in the admissions office at Johns Hopkins weren't sure. Tom Dretler was a B student with board scores 200 points below the school average. There were better candidates. Dretler got in because a couple of alumni lobbied, and because he was a good football player.
In the beginning, he wasn't sure he could measure up in the classroom. He was confident he would make a mark in football -- "It was my identity," he said, "the only thing I was good at" -- but he got so nervous during his first test that his nose started to bleed.
Looking back, now that he is up for a Rhodes Scholarship, all that seems funny, almost the story of a different person. "It's me, though," Dretler said the other day in the Hopkins football office. "It's the same person, but with different priorities."
His playing days are almost over now, and he hasn't done as well as he'd hoped, but now he has other matters on his mind that are more important. "I'm not sure at what point I realized I was more than a football player," he said, "but it happenned."
Indeed. He is a stocky, muscular political science major with a wide smile and a modest manner, a short crop of dirty blond hair and a 3.66 grade-point average. His is the story of a kid who goes off to college and grows up, a story told in thousands of fashions every year. Not often, however, is the ending so worthy of trumpet.
"Out of the 1,900 students I've taught, I rank Tom first, easily," said Dr. Barry Whitman, who teaches business and management courses. "I think this kid is not going to be just another achiever, but a real leader. It tickles me that there still are achievers of this kind."
Dretler smiles at the compliment. "I guess I made an impression on him," he said.
To understand fully what he has accomplished, go back to his first day on campus. The son of a Harvard doctor, he was aware of the importance of school. He considered himself a football player first, though; an all-conference running back, he was good enough to have considered playing in the Ivy League.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and play for the Dallas Cowboys, but, as I got older, I figured I'd just follow my two brothers and quit playing after high school," he said. "Then I made all-conference my junior year. Then I set the school rushing record as a senior and got recruited."
He decided against the Ivy League because he felt the combination of football and scholarship would be too taxing. At Hopkins, he figured he would play plenty, maybe sit on the bench as a freshman, but after that, no problem. He was sure of it. He had always had only success.
But he hurt his shoulder when he finally got to play, and, anyway, already he was coming to a conclusion. "I was only 18, but I realized that it was time to hit the books," he said. "I'd always put football first and been satisfied with B's. It just never occurred to me that I could be a top student."
He could. "I just took off," he said. "Everything fell into place academically. I'm a competitive person, and the academic atmosphere here is very stimulating. Plus, like any kid in college, I was finally getting to take courses I liked."
He hasn't had many B's since his first semester -- "maybe one" -- and he spent last spring studying law at King's College in London. He has a track mapped out.
"International politics," he said. "I've always loved politics, but, until I went to Europe, I just hadn't stopped to think about views other than ours in this country. I traveled all over and talked to people and found myself debating all the time. It hit me that the world was getting smaller and smaller, and it was all so fascinating."
In England, he also thought about the shreds of his football career. Hopkins had suffered two straight 1-9 seasons "that weren't much fun," Dretler said. But a coaching change was made, 30-year-old Jim Margraff coming in, and Dretler, realizing this was his last year, began training hard.
"He sent me a letter saying he was going to come back in great shape," Margrath said, "and he was. Frankly, I didn't have him in my plans, but he worked himself into them."
He has split time at fullback, and although he has mostly blocked, he did catch the winning touchdown late in one game. But he has missed the past two with a back injury and grows melancholy on the sidelines as his last football days slip away. "I have played every year for 15 years," he said. "I don't want it to end like this."
He is already headlong into another game, though: the Rhodes, a famous scholarship recognizing well-roundedness. Hopkins hasn't had a football player win one in 17 years, and only 32 are awarded every year from thousands of candidates. But Dretler is hopeful. "You never know, but it looks like I've got a good shot," he said. "I base that on what some other winners have told me after I interviewed with them."
Even if he doesn't win, he is thinking about the Kennedy School of Government in Boston, about a White House Fellowship, about a career in politics. Just when you thought it was too late to walk into a college locker room . . .
"I want responsibility," he said. "I want to contribute. I really am interested in making the world work somehow."