Students studying outside the library
Voices: Liberal arts colleges, athletics, and Captain America

By Parke Muth
Only Connect blog
Published December 3, 2012



In a previous entry, I interviewed Superman. Today, I get to let a friend of many years, and a great writer, educator, and mentor, John Lane, introduce you to someone who might be right for the title of Captain America.  

I am grateful to John for contributing his words and letting us learn about a student who has powers far beyond those of most mortals.. In addition, he also lets us in to a world that not enough people know enough about: small liberal arts schools that change lives and give opportunities not possible elsewhere.   
I have written on the obsession with athletics here before. So I am glad to have John’s words to deepen and broaden the issue. His words serve as a demonstration that there are few abstractions that should be taken as accurate when it comes to students and education. Some people have written smirkingly of the ‘student athlete’ as an oxymoron. John lets us know they should not be so proud of their assumed status as an ‘educational expert’. In fact, this latter term might, at times, be subject to same kind of ironic scrutiny.  



 Three Yards and a Cloud of Knowing 

This weekend Wofford College’s football team advanced in the Division I-AA playoffs against New Hampshire. One of our outstanding players is a fifth year senior fullback, Eric Breitenstein, named last week as one of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award for the best offensive player in the nation in Division I-AA/FCS. Eric gained 247 yards in the victory.

In the run-up to this week’s game, one New England newspaper made a joke that Eric has rushed for more yards this season (1,900) than Wofford has students (1,600). A local sports writer has named him “the Beastenstein.” As the local legend grows, much has been made of Eric’s record single game Southern Conference rushing total (321 yards vs Elon University), and his career total yardage (5,595), and his 123 yards rushing against The University of South Carolina in his final regular season game.



Eric (right) and two other ES students on lab in Lawson's Fork Creek 

None of the hype has mentioned that Eric majors in environmental studies (which I teach), and that he’s our department’s most recent winner of the John Harrington Award for our outstanding student. Last spring he participated in the college’s prestigious Presidential Seminar where he even had a speaking role in the class’s production of Antigone. Eric’s also finished several internships with environmental nonprofits and, with another outstanding student athlete and ES major, point guard Rachel Brittenham, instigated a tailgate recycling program for the stadium where he runs wild on Saturdays.

So the point is one that hasn’t been made in any of the articles about Eric’s success: he’s had a record-setting academic career at our small liberal arts college almost as impressive as what he’s done on the athletic field. He may well be the only player in the NFL draft who will have written essays on David Gessner’s MY GREEN MANIFESTO, Terry Tempest Williams’ REFUGE, and Michael Pollan’s THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA, and sharpened his technique with a Vernier velocimeter to collect steam flow data for stream discharge calculations.


Eric (right) walking with John Lane, another student, and environmental writer Barry Lopez at Wofford's Goodall
Environmental Studies Center 

It would be easy to dismiss Eric as an anomaly in this world of disparaged semi-pro college athletics, but at Wofford he’s not. Athletes here don’t live in segregated dorms. They don’t get breaks on their entering SAT scores, and they don’t often skip labs or classes for practice or games. Many are pre-med, but many major in the liberal arts like English and history. Last year’s starting quarterback was not only an expert at the triple option, he was a triple threat academically, with a major in physics and minors in mathematics and computer science. Our starting point guard in two recent trips to the Big Dance was a first team academic all-American. A couple of weeks ago one of our volleyball players, Rachel Woodlee, a double major in Chinese and Business Economics, was named a Rhodes Scholar.

Besides Eric, the environmental studies program has a defensive end finishing up a capstone project on the chemistry of sediments trapped behind dams and a defensive tackle working on a cycle of hunting stories in the vein of Faulkner’s “The Bear"; our cross country runner worked over the summer for an organic farm in Ohio and made a 25-minute video about the experience, and our golfer wants to complete her capstone on the greening of golf courses.

As Eric rumbled this weekend from end zone to end zone against New Hampshire, I sat in the stands and took pride in the fact that he’s a scholar athlete, a fine writer, and that I directed his capstone thesis, a cycle of eight personal essays about his home territory of Valle Crucis, North Carolina. The essays reflect on wildness with wit and a keen eye for the natural world. As he saunters across campus he almost always carries a small notebook with him just in case a line or metaphor occurs to him. His writing is clearly grounded in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey. The only essay in Eric’s collection that deals with football is a clever piece where the bearded fullback circumambulates the football stadium with a renowned regional birder looking at the intersection of college property and good bird habitat.

This is our last week of class and Eric will not only spend time in the training room soothing his battered body after a brutal pounding. He’ll also have to decipher my Xs and Os on his manuscript pages, make suitable changes to his narrative flow, and even audible on one or two of his essay titles.


Eric on the Pacolet River 

In spite of the victory against New Hampshire Eric will be spending the last week of the semester just like all our students, going to classes and studying, and then he'll travel with his teammates to Fargo, North Dakota, to play the #1 team in the nation in our division. Then he'll come home for exams like everyone else.

Eric will do all this with his usual even temperament and, as we all know, without looking for special treatment. If, on December 17th, he wins the Walter Payton Award, as he deserves, he'll accept it with humility and gratitude. If not, the world will go on. Either way Eric will have his essays about our relationship with the natural world and I’ll have the memory of reading and working with his good prose.

I wish to thank Mark Olencki for his beautiful photographs of Wofford, Eric, and the fieldwork from the environmental studies program.