Miles above broad streets and endless pines, white-hot lightning crawls from cloud to cloud in the vast Texas night. The dim homes and rolling hills are hushed, save for the splatter of rain and those drumbeats in the sky. Ninety-nine minutes before the sun dares to peek through the mist, the town of Tyler, Texas, sleeps through the squall.
But Daniel deRozario is wide awake.
An alarm rouses him at 5:45, 15 minutes before he and six of his teammates on the Division III University of Texas at Tyler golf squad begin sweating and straining through one of their regular morning workouts.
The headlights on the senior team captain’s red Toyota pickup cut through the dark and illuminate the rain as he pulls into the parking lot in front of the Herrington Patriot Center three minutes early. At the gym’s glass-walled entrance, deRozario greets the teammates who amble in after him with the measured amount of enthusiasm warranted on a stormy Tuesday morning in March.
Not one of them has to be there.
The golfers are neither bound by scholarship nor financial reward. DeRozario’s climb to the stage on graduation day, and the career in federal law enforcement that he hopes will await when he steps off it, don’t hinge on sweating through that predawn rainstorm.
But he does – without complaint or hesitation.
And on that day, so do many more of the nation’s 170,000 Division III student-athletes, none of whom is compensated for sweat and sacrifice, early morning wakeups, or social time that is devoured by exhaustion and the road. They’ll show up for practices, film sessions, games and conditioning. They’ll be in classes, study halls, labs and libraries. They’ll participate in choirs, dramas and debates. They’ll study abroad, yet carve time to serve their own communities as well. And they’ll manage to make it all work at some of the nation’s most academically challenging institutions.
Few will have the opportunity to earn a living – or any money whatsoever – playing their sport. Their grades, their internships and their test scores – not their performances on courts, fields and golf courses – will dictate the direction of their professional lives. So why devote so much to sports, which saps valuable time and energy, seemingly hindering their ability to flourish in college and beyond? Why endure so much physical anguish for the reward of playing in front of a smattering of family and fellow students?
Because Division III student-athletes can’t fathom living – or thriving – without their sport. Many insist that those innumerable hours spent methodically forging muscle memory and hardening their bodies also have sharpened their minds. Without sports, the athletes say, they’d be lost to the world of procrastination and laziness inhabited by so many of their peers; they’d have a gaping hole that couldn’t be filled by the frivolities of youth.
“The point,” says deRozario after the workout but before the sunrise, “is that it gives you something to belong to, something to work toward. It’s a lot of extra time commitment, but it keeps you motivated.”
“I don’t know what I would do if I stopped swimming,” says University of Chicago senior Tara Levens, who won her conference title in the 100-yard backstroke during her sophomore year and holds eight school records. “I really like it. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.”
“It’s not like I came to Division III so that I could score more points,” says Sharwil Bell, a senior on the Rhodes basketball team who transferred from Division I Elon – and gave up a full athletics scholarship – after her freshman year. “I just wanted to enjoy basketball more, and that’s happening.”
“I couldn’t see myself not doing it,” says junior Mark Kahan, who played on the Amherst tennis team that won the 2011 national championship. “It has been such a huge part of my life. When people say, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘Bio major, pre-med and tennis.’ It’s a part of me.”
It’s a part of all of them.
A month after the morning storm in east Texas, the sun beats down on Kahan, his baseball cap doing little to keep the heat at bay. His immune system had yielded the week before and he is sick for the first time in his two-and-a-half years at Amherst. The sun doesn’t let him forget it.
After the self-proclaimed “science nerd” coughed and sniffled through his presentation on protein mutations in yeast and routinely cleared his throat during a subsequent statistics lab, he joined his teammates at the 20 tennis courts that glimmer in a valley below the Amherst campus. The concrete seduces the heat, making the day feel far warmer than an alleged 78 degrees. For two-and-a-half hours, Kahan stalks tennis balls, runs sprints and endures drills in the thick air.
After bounding over the day’s final white line, Kahan stands in the sun, battling the weight of the nagging illness and the upcoming organic chemistry test. His hands tug hard on the bottom of his black shorts and his face points down at the green concrete below, now stained by the drops of the salty fluid that tumble off his brow and the tip of his nose.
When he returns to his dorm, he’ll shower to wash away the residue of hard work. Then he’ll go directly from the dorm to the library and work harder – until 1 a.m. – poring over a semester’s worth of organic chemistry in preparation for a test two days later. The biology major can’t afford to let one of the science department’s tougher classes pull down his 3.3 GPA if he hopes to get into medical school.
“I’m going to sleep well tonight, that’s for sure,” Kahan says.
Kahan will repeat days like this five to seven times a week until he’s struck his final ball in a purple and white Amherst uniform.
Though he toils in an NCAA division that doesn’t command multimillion-dollar TV deals or feed the professional ranks with future stars, Kahan is highly skilled. He can knock cones over during serving drills and was courted by Division I programs like Boston College. Ultimately, he garnered no scholarship offers.
That’s not always the case for Division III athletes, however. Some are gifted enough to have earned a full ride but opt to shun the spotlight and the myriad obligations that come with it.
Bell, of Rhodes, long sought to play on the biggest of collegiate stages. She wanted her smooth midrange stroke, not her mother, to pay for her education. She was a standout guard at Memphis’ Lausanne Collegiate School, guiding the team to a 30-3 record her senior year. Her ability to play, and defend nearly every position on the court earned her the Division I scholarship she’d long desired when she signed at Elon in 2008.
That free education, however, came with a price. Bell was forced to sit through mandatory study halls rather than be allowed the freedom to study in the quiet solitude to which she’d grown accustomed in high school. The unrelenting and rigid schedule inherent in playing Division I basketball hindered her pursuit of any other extracurricular activities and stifled her ability to focus in the classroom. Soon after setting foot on campus, she realized that the scholarship she’d yearned for wasn’t worth the strings attached.
“My main goal going into college was to get a degree,” she says. “That wasn’t the way I was approaching school in that first year when I was trying to stay awake during class or make it through practice. Basketball was getting in the way of that goal.”
When Bell transferred to Rhodes, her ability to navigate the complexities of cell structure, not her stifling perimeter defense, would pay for her education. She pieced together enough merit aid – grants, Tennessee’s HOPE Scholarship and a Rhodes College scholarship reserved for the top incoming student of color – to fund her education at the $34,800-per-year school.
Bell is one of the roughly 75 percent of Division III athletes who receive some form of merit aid, says Louise McCleary, NCAA director of Division III. The athletes don’t receive any special consideration for merit scholarships because of their athletics abilities and are placed in a pool with all other accepted students. The division is so adamant that schools not use merit aid to circumvent the long-held ideal of not awarding athletics scholarships that it established an audit process several years ago that is conducted by the Financial Aid Committee to ensure compliance.
“Institutions understand that’s not part of our philosophy,” McCleary says.
Bell averaged more than 15 points per game during her senior season. That impressive figure is eclipsed, however, by the biology major’s 3.94 GPA, which earned her Capital One Academic All-America honors. She balances basketball and her biology major with her job helping minority freshman and transfer students acclimate to life on campus. She also spent more than 100 hours of her junior and senior years shadowing physical therapists in preparation for her career in the field.
“Division III athletes are still allowed to pursue other things that are interesting or important to them,” says Stuart Robinson, director of athletics at SUNY New Paltz. “They don’t feel that, ‘I’m only an athlete.’ They can still be the musician, they can still be the actor, they can still be involved in student government. They can do other things.”
During the spring semester of 2012 – her final before graduating from Rhodes – a typical day for Bell begins at 9 a.m. in a neuroendocrinology class, where she gazes upon digital slides in a dimly lit amphitheater. Professor David Kabelik’s presentation highlights the complexities of “alternative reproductive strategies and tactics.” Bell fills her notebook with facts about frogs and fish changing gender depending on environment and social hierarchy and answers questions about vasotocin levels in the frogs’ cells.
After class, she approaches Kabelik, informing him that she’ll be missing that Friday’s class – her fourth of the still-young semester – because of the weekend’s trip to Birmingham for the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament. His head drops and shoulders sag when she tells him. Still, he agrees to give her notes and lets her take Friday’s quiz on Monday as she’s done the three times before when basketball pre-empted school.
“He wishes they wouldn’t schedule so much travel during class,” she says.
Fifteen minutes after breaking the news to Kabelik, there’s an organic chemistry test in front of her with questions like, “What is the term used to justify the stabilization of carbocations?” and “When calculating the Gibbs Free Energy of Activation, what two concepts on the reaction coordinate diagram are being compared?” She breezes through the 13 questions in 45 minutes as FedEx jets departing from a nearby hub routinely shatter the silence.
Organic chemistry is generally considered a weed-out class for aspiring med school students because of the course’s unrelenting complexity and pace. Bell’s professor, Valerie Smith, isn’t as perturbed as Kabelik about the basketball standout missing class, but she has seen repeated absences harm other student-athletes.
“Organic is very fast-paced, so you miss a lot if you miss one day,” Smith says. “It doesn’t affect Sharwil because she catches up so quickly. But generally you see a decline (among athletes forced to miss classes). They work hard to catch up, but you can tell they struggle on the material from days they missed.”
Some professors aren’t as accommodating as Smith. To avoid conflict, Chris Garner, Amherst men’s tennis coach, goes out of his way to ensure his players will miss the least amount of class possible. In the 2011-12 academic year, for instance, Amherst tennis players missed only one Friday in the fall semester and none in the spring.
“You have ‘friendlies’ on campus and you have ‘unfriendlies,’ ” says Transylvania Faculty Athletics Representative Dan Fulks. “There are plenty of faculty who’d assume athletics not exist. Most faculty are appreciative and understanding. We do our best to mitigate the tension.”
DeRozario is keenly aware of that tension. He’s missed three days of school during the spring semester. Some of his teammates, he says, have had professors who wouldn’t allow them to make up the work, despite a school policy to the contrary. Barbara Wooldridge, professor of deRozario’s international marketing class, isn’t irked by students missing classes for their sports. If her student-athletes happen to skip classes for reasons unrelated to athletics, however, she takes issue.
“Every student suffers from missing classes,” Wooldridge says. “If they didn’t, then why do you need me? But I also believe sports are an incredible part of their college experience. It’s not just what you learn in the classroom, it’s what you learn about life.”
There are very few times when most or all of Texas-Tyler head golf coach King Campbell’s golfers don’t have a class or a lab or a meeting with peers or advisors. To avoid conflicts with faculty, he schedules those dreaded 6 a.m. workouts.
Though deRozario is a senior and a captain, he’s played only in a handful of events in his three semesters at Tyler despite being one of the better players on his junior college team in New Mexico and garnering interest from Division I and II schools.
He came to Tyler knowing he might not regularly crack Campbell’s lineup, but he yearned to have a chance to be part of a team that would compete for a national championship and attend a school that met his academic needs. Even though his chances of competing regularly are slim, he keeps showing up in the dark whenever Campbell asks, three minutes before 6 a.m.
“The first thing in my mind (when the alarm goes off) is I really don’t want to get up,” deRozario says. “The second thought is that you’re the team captain; you’re the last one that can’t show up. I’ve got to be here, and I’ve got to be here on time.”
DeRozario’s shirt is a shade darker by 7 a.m., still 24 minutes before the first sunlight chases off the morning dark. The predawn rust has been shaken loose from his and his teammates’ joints and minds by sprinting laps around a track and doing a half-hour of core work and stretching. As the thunder rattles the windows around them, abdominal muscles tighten, veins protrude from foreheads and fingernails dig into the thin, blue foam mats below.
He’ll finish his day 14 hours later – 87 minutes after the sun has settled behind those Texas pines. There is no intermittent sleep – only the morning workout, a management test, two other classes, a study hall with teammates, a team meeting and a Bible study group. He works 20 hours a week as a ranch hand near campus to make ends meet.
“A lot of friends tell me I have too much on my plate,” deRozario says. “They say, ‘You are way too busy to be 22 years old.’ I agree with them, but I work better in that situation.”
The unrelenting schedule may push him to excel in classrooms and on golf courses, but it makes his world smaller.
“It doesn’t leave much time for a social life,” he admits. “You wake up (to play or work out) and your friends are all sleeping and you’re up at 7 on a Saturday and haven’t slept this week.”
That notion rings true among all four athletes. Each has a GPA over 3.0 at a difficult academic institution. They each are among the best athletes on their teams. Doing just one of those requires effort. Doing both simultaneously requires levels of dedication, willpower and organization that outpace that of a typical college student.
Kahan won the match that clinched Amherst’s 2011 national championship. He studies biology at U.S. News & World Report’s second-ranked liberal arts college. He lends time to a campus group that manages sexual harassment cases. He works on the student government budgetary committee.
So it’s little surprise that he looks forward to Thursday nights more than anything else. It’s the one evening he can spend with friends, unburdened by responsibility for a few short hours. Though he turned 21 in March, he has yet to venture out to a bar to celebrate – there’s simply been no time with the national championships fast approaching and biology, chemistry and statistics tests looming seemingly every week.
“You have to sacrifice a lot of weekends that maybe you don’t want to,” he says. “I can’t socialize as much as I like to, but it’s worth it.”
Levens, of Chicago, empathizes. She, too, is no stranger to the 6 a.m. workouts. Her alarm goes off at 5:38 before regular morning practices because “5:35 was too early; 5:40 was too late.” The night before those early wakeups, the mathematics and political science double major is in bed by 9:30 after a day surviving complex classes, an on-campus job, a CrossFit training regimen and a few miles in the pool. When her friends are readying to go out for a night, “I’m usually the one staying home and going to sleep,” she says.
As thick snowflakes clot the evening sky in early February, Levens’ career advisor, Dillan Siegler, throws a party for her advisees in an on-campus watering hole appropriately named The Pub. While others toss back free beers, Levens munches on the lonely, forgotten vegetable plate. The conference championship meet is less than a week away, and she fears that even a sip of alcohol could shave precious hundredths of seconds off her backstroke.
She doesn’t touch cocktails during the season, and the sacrifice has paid off – her name is written in white letters eight times on the massive burgundy school records board hanging above the pool. Every day before the water envelops her, she sees those eight bold reminders of why she sacrifices, why she walks through the unyielding Chicago snow just after 5:38 a.m.
Levens says the worst part of her week comes during the moment when she stands on the platform at the pool’s edge on Monday mornings. It’s in those few seconds – before her powerful legs push her off into the air and into furious water churned by dozens of teammates – when she wishes she were anywhere else.
“I pass the point of no return,” she says. “I’m in the air about to hit the water, that’s the worst second because the water is really cold and I’m still in a daze.”
She spends those mornings inside Chicago’s glimmering Ratner Athletics Center, built in 2003. Glass walls encase the school’s pool and new athletics equipment can be found at every turn. Student-athletes at most Division III schools, however, aren’t used to training amid such luxury.
A few private schools like Chicago have larger endowments and wealthier donors to draw from for new construction, but not all privates have the resources to build state-of-the-art athletics facilities. Some Division III public schools, meanwhile, can rely on state funds and often have nicer amenities than their private counterparts. Tyler, for instance, is home to a basketball arena with a four-sided pro-style scoreboard suspended over the court, its own putting and chipping green and a track suspended above a well-equipped weight room. Many student-athletes at private schools aren't so lucky.
“The athletics department is budgeted like the history department, like the chemistry department, like the biology department,” says Jack Ohle, president of the private Gustavus Adolphus College and vice chair of the Division III Presidents Council. “We try to keep a balance between how many beakers we’re buying for the chemists, how many test tubes for the biologists, as well as how many uniforms for the softball team.”
Amherst, also private, does have an impressive array of tennis courts – 20 in all, six of which are clay – but there are no restrooms outside the massive green cage. The lone water fountain is at the far end of the courts, requiring players to jog about 50 yards to quench their thirst on warm afternoons. The school is also unable to provide Kahan and his teammates with the requisite equipment for his sport. He has to purchase tennis strings himself, which have to be constantly replaced, adding to the cost of the $42,898-per-year institution. He gets a discount on school athletics clothing but has to purchase it nonetheless. The only thing he’s given is his uniform.
“Especially since I’m Division III, and not a whole lot is coming from this, it feels like a financial burden on my parents and myself,” he says.
The few rows of plastic pullout bleachers are rarely full when Rhodes hosts basketball games, especially on Sunday afternoons when many of Bell’s fellow students are still battling the effects of Saturday night.
“We’re playing for each other on those days,” she says.
But Kahan and Bell still play – they can’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s part of who they are,” Fulks says. “It makes them who they are.”
Levens’ nails, owing to her meticulous nature, are shimmering pink with darker pink dots carefully painted on them. But that intricate pattern and the diligence it took to create them go to waste. When she’s not taking notes in a student government meeting, she’s gnawing at those nails. When she meets with Siegler to review and edit a statement of purpose she’d written as part of her application to work with the California court system, she gazes at her advisor’s computer screen. Intensity flickers in her eyes and the muscles in her face are drawn tight by focus as she whittles her nails down. Her day is a carefully choreographed dance from one corner of the campus to another and her fingernails keep growing shorter, increasingly jagged.
Two hours after that meeting, she emerges from the pool, legs flushed from propelling her through 9,000 feet of water.
It’s merely a light workout, she says.
Water and sweat dripping from her dark hair, she sits on a metal bleacher under the records board that bears her name. She stares out at the pool and the diminishing ripples – echoes of the energy she’d expended moments before.
For the first time that day, her hands are still.
Those pink fingernails rest calmly, interwoven in her lap. She is tranquil, her gaze serene, the myriad thoughts once present in her eyes have been flushed away in the flurry of chlorine and sweat.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.