Now, justice is his field Successful transition: Alan Page, a former star with the Minnesota Vikings, is equally accomplished off the field as a justice in Minnesota's Supreme Court.

January 14, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In his chambers at the Minnesota Judicial Center, Justice Alan C. Page is surrounded by mementoes.

A handwritten note from Ethel Kennedy. His prized collection of pressed-steel toy trucks. A half-dozen signs once displayed in places like Selma, Ala., and Augusta, Ga. One of the most disturbing reads, simply, "Colored Waiting Room."

Most striking about Mr. Page's chambers, though, is something that is missing: a souvenir of his illustrious, 14-year career in the National Football League.

Mr. Page, an NFL Hall of Famer, does not display so much as a ticket stub from his professional playing days. When reporters visit, he will tolerate questions about his career as a menacing defensive tackle, and member of the Minnesota Vikings' famed Purple People Eaters.

But it is the subject that seems to interest him least.

Football was a job, Mr. Page says, often a tedious one.

"There really isn't much to think about on a football field," said the 6-foot-5-inch Mr. Page, a striking figure in his trademark bow tie and charcoal gray suit.

"Playing the game requires physical ability and a tremendous emotional commitment. Intellectually, it doesn't require much. There are a finite number of things that can take place on a football field. After 10 years, you probably have done most of them. Football became repetitious and boring."

It has been 15 years since Mr. Page abandoned his NFL career. His transition to a second career is among the most successful of any professional athlete.

Since 1993, Mr. Page has served as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. He is the first African-American to sit on the state's highest court -- or on any Minnesota state appellate court.

That may be only part of Mr. Page's legacy. He also is founder and inspiration for "Page Scholars," a foundation that awards grants to minority students willing to work with disadvantaged children in their communities. Last year, about 315 students were chosen Page Scholars, and received awards from $750 to $2,500.

After sports, law

Mr. Page, 50, is the only former professional athlete to ascend to a supreme court. But he's not the only pro athlete turned lawyer.

A dozen or more former and present players have subjected themselves to the grind of law school. A few have launched thriving legal careers.

In Maryland, former Baltimore Colts linebacker Stan White earned a degree from the University of Baltimore Law School. He owns a downtown fitness club, and has negotiated contracts for several NFL players.

Len Elmore, a former National Basketball Association player and All-America at the University of Maryland, graduated from Harvard University Law School. He heads a Columbia-based sports management firm, and his clients include pro basketball players Joe Smith, Sam Cassell and Walt Williams.

Mr. Elmore said academics was one of several challenges in law school.

"I will admit another motivation was proving I was more than an athlete, more than the dumb-jock stereotype," said Mr. Elmore.

"Looking back, I was able to compete in an arena where being 6-feet-9-inches and being able to jump didn't matter. That was my greatest sense of accomplishment."

Not all ex-players build their practices on their sports fame.

Dick Ambrose, a Cleveland Browns linebacker from 1975-1983, is a private-practice litigator in Ohio. His practice is not sports-related.

Closing out the past

Mr. Page is a classic example of leaving the locker room behind.

In the pages of Minnesota newspapers, his name is more likely to appear in articles about key court decisions than about the Vikings. Since joining the high court, he has carved out a reputation for producing well-reasoned opinions.

"He's clearly doing a good job as a thoughtful, bright, independent jurist. He's a thinking judge up there," said David Herr, a private-practice lawyer in Minnesota who has argued several cases before Mr. Page.

Though it is too early for the court's newest member to have made a dramatic impact, Mr. Herr said Mr. Page stands apart in matters of both substance and style. "He probably asks fewer questions at oral argument than many judges," Mr. Herr said. "But when he does, they are thoughtful and well prepared."

Sensitivity

If Mr. Page has made one thing clear during his short tenure, it is that he is sensitive to the concerns of African-Americans and other minorities. A case decided last March contributed to Mr. Page's reputation among such groups.

The Supreme Court heard the case of a 16-year-old white boy from a Minneapolis suburb who was charged in the murder of another boy. At issue was whether the defendant would be tried as an adult or a juvenile.

Overwhelmingly, the court ruled for the boy, saying he should receive the more lenient treatment available to juveniles. Mr. Page, the only dissenter, wrote a stinging minority opinion.

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