Unleashed: Special Congrats To These Special Grads
June 6, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - One of the best days of Washington safety Greg Walker's 22 years on Earth wasn't necessarily playing in the Holiday Bowl in December 2010, the Huskies' first postseason game in eight years. It wasn't starting his first college game as a freshman in September 2009, against LSU on national television at Husky Stadium.
It was March 2, 2012. That day, Washington's special teams player of the year for 2010 and `11 got his letter of acceptance from the fiercely selective Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
"One of the happiest days of my entire life," Walker told me with pride over the phone Tuesday morning.
That was just before he administered his final test as a biology teaching assistant. Saturday, he will walk in graduation with his fellow UW seniors at CenturyLink Field.
Walker could have returned for a fifth, redshirt-senior season of football. Instead, on August 9 he will begin orientation in medical school and start his journey to be a orthopedist or neurologist.
"Working with nerves, nerve endings and the central nervous system, that is `tight,'" Walker says.
So is this: Brown's Alpert Medical School is one of the most selective medical schools in the country. It reportedly has an acceptance rate of 3.2 percent of all applicants, enrolling approximately 120 students per class.
And this Husky is one of them.
I asked the first-team Pac-12 all-academic selection if the Alpert School's admissions panel of Brown's doctors and senior medical students was impressed with his background as a football player in a big-time college program.
"Oh, it definitely came up," the son of an obstetrician and gynecologist from Bellflower, Calif., said. "During the interview process they were amazed how I was able to balance football while accomplishing what I did academically."
How amazed? The med school has given Walker $40,600 in scholarships. He is searching for more grant money to cover the remainder of his $51,000 annual tuition. His family is planning on helping him with living expenses in Providence, R.I., during the four years he expects to be studying there, before four years in residency.
"If I can go through undergraduate and medical school without debt, life would be perfect," he says, with the chuckle with a man that knows where he wants to go and exactly how he'll get there.
THE LIST GOES ON AND ON ...
Walker is one of many Huskies graduating Saturday with grand plans beyond the field and courts -- plans so great they obliterate the belief that academics and big-time college athletics can't mix.
At UW, they not only coexist. They thrive.
Robert Squires just stroked the Huskies' men's varsity-four crew to an IRA national championship in course-record time last week in New Jersey. Now he's headed into officer basic training in the Navy, with orders to report immediately after that onto a newly commissioned ship. Teammate Reiner Hershaw, the two seat on Washington's national-champion open-four boat last week, is being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines. So is a third UW rower, CJ Miller, a physiology major.
Three of the newest Husky national champions are perhaps headed to war among our nation's youngest leaders.
Denise Dy not only has been an ITA All-American and national Top-25 tennis player while at UW, she is graduating with a psychology degree. She would have also pursued an ROTC commission as a military officer had she not entered college with ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease related to Crohn's Disease. The 5-foot-6 dynamo continued to take ROTC classes on tactics. She particularly liked the one on charging bunkers.
Gymnast Amanda Cline, a Pac-12 honorable mention all-academic selection while a Husky, has earned a double major in communications and sociology. Anna Epps, a member of the National Honors Society at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, Wash., is earning degrees in communications and business. That's four degrees between two graduating teammates.
Adam Cimber, a side-arming baseball relief pitcher, is graduating with history degree -- in just three years. He is finishing with a grade-point average around 3.5, after being 3.96 in high school.
Softball's Taylor Smith is graduating with a degree in medical anthropology after interning in a dental office. Teammate Nikia Williams, who made the Women's College World Series all-tournament team as freshmen during Washington's run to the 2009 national title, was the 16th-overall selection of the USSSA Florida Pride. Williams ranks in UW's top 10 all-time in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. The departing senior from Mission Viejo, Calif., has earned a degree in disability studies. She wants to help run the Special Olympics.
Brendan Sherrer walked on to Lorenzo Romar's basketball team in 2010, after cheering on the team courtside at Alaska Airlines Arena inside the Dawg Pack student section as a freshman. Romar says no one he has coached in 17 years improved more while in his program than the 6-8 forward did over the last three seasons.
Sherrer went from fan to honorable mention all-academic Pac-10 to a starter on Senior Day for a huge conference game against Arizona in mid-February, the day Romar went with his heart over some others' colder logic. Sherrer blocked a shot on Arizona's first possession during my favorite moment in Huskies sports over the last year.
"The experiences I've had with this team will last stay with me for the rest of my life," he's said.
And he's far from finished. Sherrer is walking in Saturday's graduation while preparing for dental school. Sherrer is applying to several schools, including UW's, with deadlines beginning this month. If accepted, the "Human Victory Cigar" - so nicknamed for almost always entering late in Huskies' blowout wins -- will be starting dental school in the fall of 2013.
Women's basketball leading scorer and All-Pac-12 center Regina Rogers is also walking at graduation Saturday. She has aspirations to then play professional basketball, perhaps in Europe this fall. But the departing senior also wants to start a center for underprivileged kids in her native Rainier Beach area of Seattle.
"I grew up in south Seattle. There was not a Boys and Girls Club there," she says. "I want to go back into my community and give back."
A TEAM LIKE NO OTHER
Then there's Lesle Gallimore's Huskies women's soccer team. It's in a class by itself.
Not only did its graduating seniors get UW soccer back into the NCAA tournament and all the way to the Elite Eight in the country in 2010, they led team's grade-point average through the winter quarter to an unheard of 3.60. That's the highest anyone in the UW's Student Athlete Academic Services department can recall for one team here. Nineteen of the Gallimore's 21 players had a GPA over 3.0.
Midfielder Kelli Stewart is graduating with a degree in architecture - a first for the program and one of the few, if any, Husky athletes to earn that meticulous, math-heavy degree. She's already helped design her parents' new restaurant in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. She already has landed a job at a firm while coaching youth soccer.
Goalkeeper Jorde LaFontaine-Kussmann has applied to nursing school - after surviving cancer. Sarah Martinez is, along with UW football player Alvin Logan, beginning Washington's 12-month, Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership master's program this month. Alex Webber is planning to apply to veterinarian school. Kate Deines, a member of the national Under-23 team, is playing for the Seattle Sounders women's professional team while working at a law firm, taking the LSAT - and modeling.
Defender Faustine Dufka is walking in Saturday's commencement ceremony, though she is eligible for a fifth year in soccer after taking a redshirt season. She is an honors student in medical anthropology and global health.
"What interests me the most about medical anthropology is that it explores issues of health, medicine, and health care from a very broad perspective, taking into account the influence of socio-economic, political, historical, and cultural factors," Dufka says. "Discourses about the universality of biomedicine dominate the way people think and talk about health care and medicine in our society, and I've found that it's easy to focus on the biological science of medicine, overlooking important aspects of medicine as a social science.
"Medical anthropology has helped me become conscious of the social and cultural contexts that shape individual bodies and lives, and in turn, shape the way the notion of health is constructed and dealt with in our society."
Not exactly your stereotypical college student-athlete discussion, eh?
Like Walker, Dufka is seeking to trade her purple-and-gold uniform for pale-blue scrubs. She will be working in a neurology lab this summer at the world-class University of California-San Francisco Medical Center in her hometown. She is planning to apply to medical school that she hopes to begin in the fall of 2014.
Any wonder why Washington has such sterling athletic and academic reputations?
"The best academic class I have ever had," Coach Gallimore says of her soccer seniors, "by a long shot, I believe."
The younger Huskies football players initially didn't know what to make of their teammate that didn't go out much, that was always studying and often looking wiped out while on the field.
By this past season, they were calling him "Doctor Walker" in admiration.
"I don't think they truly understood how much work I was putting in. This year, when they realized I wasn't coming back for my fifth year to finish football (this coming fall), I think they started to see it," Walker says.
"I hope I was a role model to them in some ways."
It wasn't as if Walker freed more time to study by doing next to nothing in football. He played in all but one Huskies game over the last three seasons while getting that honor as UW's special teams player of the year the last two seasons.
He and his teammates would get up before dawn during the season to lift weights. Then Walker would head to upper campus for biology, math and more science classes. He had 15 minutes to be back down to Husky Stadium for pre-practice position meetings. After the two-plus hour practice, he ate - then studied some more, often until night became early morning.
"And I thought out-of-season time was worse," he said. "Because we had lifting and workouts throughout the offseason, and I'd have classes until 6 o'clock."
I asked him how he did it. How did he manage biology labs and head-spinning math classes while playing big-time college football, traveling up and down the West Coast and to bowl games in California and Texas?
He just laughed.
"You know, everyone asks me that," Walker said. "The only thing I can say is, I worked really, really hard. There really is no secret. It's all hard work.
"For me, there really was no Plan B. I had to get the work down. In my toughest times, when the work was hardest, that's what it was about, knowing I HAD to get it done."
After starting that first game as a redshirt freshman in 2009, Walker lost his starting job -- but became the primary ace on the many kickoff and punt plays that determined key field position in each game over his final three seasons.
I asked him if football hurt his academics, and if academics ever hindered his progress as a player.
"Definitely," he said candidly.
"A lot of times I was tired while out on the football field. A lot of time, it was `go time' on football and my courses had come up and gotten to me - and I just didn't have it."
Walker became an ace at prioritizing his time. In season, he would attack his biology coursework and his football responsibilities with equal gusto. If that left no time - or energy - for a class outside his pre-med major, so be it.
"Sometimes that English class would just have to take a hit," he says.
Of course, with Walker an academic "hit" is a relative term. He finished with a 3.38 GPA in biology while going into 300-level math classes and coming two courses within a minor in math.
His mother Justine is a nurse practicioner in Indiana. His father Gregory Walker Sr. is an obstetrician and gynecologist now teaching college biology in the Los Angeles area.
When his son was 4 - four! -- the older Dr. Walker put scrubs on his preschooler and had him in the operating room for a Cesarean-section baby delivery.
"I remember being in there and the husband fainted," the younger Walker says. "My Dad made fun of the guy about that afterward - `My 4-year-old boy was tougher than you were!'
"My Dad taught me how to read when I was 3. Then I grew up seeing how he cared for patients. I've wanted to be a doctor since I was 4. I just wanted to be like him."
THEIR ADVICE TO FUTURE HUSKIES
I asked these ultra-achieving Huskies what advice they would give future UW student-athletes who read their stories and think, "How can I do that?"
Walker says to follow your heart - on and off the field.
"My first advice is just don't be afraid to take the classes you are interested in, because football can get so consuming," Walker said. "If it is what you want to do, don't be afraid to do it because it might be too hard or you don't have the time.
"Don't give up. Don't be afraid."
Dufka, the medical anthropology soccer player and honors scholar, says to wear a good watch.
"The personality traits that have helped me succeed as a Division-I athlete have also helped me excel in the classroom. Learning how to properly prioritize my time was the most important lesson I learned freshman year, while I was still figuring out how to balance my commitments to both academics and athletics," she says.
"The advice I would give to future student-athletes is to be willing to make sacrifices for the things you are most invested in.
"In the end, you won't regret the experiences you may have missed out on, but you'll be proud of your accomplishments."
So will we.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.