Scoggins: U's Wilhite is cure for cynicism about college sports

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2011 - 10:00 AM

Fans of college sports dismayed by scandals should meet the U's D.L. Wilhite, who embraces studying, volunteer work and football with equal fervor.

Gophers junior defensive end D.L. Wilhite has more than football in his future. He’s taking Arabic, planning to study in Egypt in 2013 and hopes to one day become a college professor with a Ph.D in history.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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A search of this paper's archives reveals dozens of stories chronicling the Gophers' poor track record in graduation rates, particularly among black student-athletes.

The headlines rarely seem to change, only the dates. These are important issues in a complex debate that has no cut-and-dried answers. But that discussion is for another day. Today is for something else.

Too often we become so focused on one part of the equation that we forget about the other side, the success stories. We don't notice D.L. Wilhite pass right in front of us, a young man quietly determined to squeeze every ounce out of his opportunity.

Wilhite is a junior defensive end for the Gophers football team. He's also a double major who dreams of becoming a college professor, plans to do his postgraduate studies in Egypt and is nominated for a national award based on his involvement in community service projects.

Wilhite was good enough to start eight games as a sophomore, but he knows the odds of him becoming a professional football player are minuscule, so he isn't going to squander a free education and the platform he's afforded as a college athlete.

"I can go out and blow my knee out the first day of camp and be done for the rest of my career," he said recently. "But you can never take away the stuff I've learned. I'm just trying to make sure I'm setting myself up for success the rest of my life."

That outlook is a product of his humble upbringing in Lexington, Ky., as the youngest of three kids in a family that was short on money but rich in love. His mother works at a hospital, his father is an associate pastor at a Baptist church.

Their finances always were tight, so the Wilhites never once went on a family vacation. Anything Pam and Donald had, they invested in their kids. D.L. didn't take his first airplane flight until he came to Minnesota for his recruiting visit as a high school senior.

"We didn't put a lot of time and effort into having worldly things," Donald said. "We spent all of our resources to make sure our kids grew up to be good citizens."

Donald had certain rules for his son. No dreadlocks, tattoos, earrings or baggy pants. Answer with "yes sir" and "no sir." Carry yourself in a dignified manner.

"His father instilled him as a child that he's a prince and that he is somebody," Pam said. "He taught him at an early age that he's a man."

They cut the cord on Father's Day 2008, when Donald dropped his son off on campus. D.L. was 17 and a long way from his Kentucky home. He wasn't the first in his family to attend college, but no one in his immediate family attended long enough to earn a degree.

Wilhite didn't allow that set of circumstances to become a crutch, though. He thrived in the classroom -- he has a cumulative 3.1 grade-point average -- and volunteered in his adoptive community in hospitals, schools and north Minneapolis after the May 22 tornado hit.

He fell in love with history in school, particularly Middle Eastern studies. He added a global studies curriculum so that he can pursue a double major with the hope of earning his Ph.D in history. He's taking an Arabic class this semester and plans to study in Cairo in the spring of 2013.

This summer, Wilhite applied for and was accepted to the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program, a federal TRIO initiative that honors McNair, the former astronaut who died in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

The program's goal is to help undergraduates prepare for doctoral studies through research projects. Wilhite qualified for the program by meeting two of three criteria: low income and underrepresented ethnic group.

Wilhite, with the help of faculty mentor Michael Goldman, analyzed the 2011 Egyptian revolution and what role financial institutions played in the country's unrest. Wilhite spent up to 30 hours each week researching and studying documents for his presentation, which he called "Global City Making in Cairo: The Roots and Routes of a New Urban Politics."

He presented his research during a program at Coffman Memorial Union earlier this month. As people milled about the ballroom, Wilhite stood in front of a giant poster board that outlined his research and explained his project to anyone who stopped and inquired.

One such visitor was Gophers football coach Jerry Kill, who asked Wilhite to discuss his findings with him, director of football operations Dan O'Brien and myself.

Without hesitation, Wilhite talked authoritatively about Egypt's politics, the influence of international finance institutions on policies and something called structural adjustment.

After he was finished, Kill praised Wilhite for a job well done and for embodying the true meaning of the term student- athlete.

"I'm proud of you," Kill said, putting his arm around Wilhite's shoulders.

At that moment, all the cynicism and scandal that has engulfed college athletics in recent months got pushed to the background. You're reminded that success stories such as D.L. Wilhite also exist. We shouldn't lose sight of that.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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