Health

We Talked to the Ex-NFL Player Going to Harvard For Neurosurgery

Myron Rolle is a black athlete who will soon be a black surgeon—two realities that come with contrasting expectations.
March 21, 2017, 3:43pm

As an NFL Draft pick in 2010 and a neurology resident in 2017, duality has certainly been a part of Rolle's journey. Its strongest presence isn't in the fact that he's lived as both an athlete and a surgeon, though. It's in the fact that he's lived as a black athlete and a black surgeon—two realities that come with contrasting expectations.

Being young, black, and physically and intellectually gifted often comes with some cross-colored baggage. A brilliant black physician like Ben Carson can become your academic idol years before being labeled an "Uncle Tom," berated by an underrepresented community you both share. You can step onto a football field and be expected to run faster and jump higher, but then step into an operating room and be expected to perform lesser and adapt slower—both because of the color of your skin.

Advertisement

But Rolle is ready. He's always been driven—he got his BS in two and half years while playing football. It took me six (and I didn't have to tackle a single person). And now, having survived a game that's designed to injure the brain, Rolle will train to become an expert on it. Below, he tells us about how it all began, his thoughts on race and medicine, and his complicated relationship with Carson.

How long have you known you wanted to be a neurosurgeon?
I wanted to be a neurosurgeon since I read Ben Carson's book, Gifted Hands, when I was in the fifth grade. We're from the Bahamas, and my parents wanted to put black leaders in front of me so that I knew that, in this country, I can reach and ascend to a high level if I developed a firm foundation of education. If I stayed true to my Christian principles—if I was a good man, a good citizen, and a good leader—one day I could reach my goals and those things can come to fruition. So they put Ben Carson in front of me as an academic hero. I read his story and it resonated with me. I had him on my wall as my guy. He planted the seed of neurosurgery in my mind in fifth grade. That's even before I knew I wanted to play professional football.

How do you feel about Ben Carson now?
I still feel very strongly about him as an individual. He actually wrote a letter for me for my neurosurgery residency. I'm still in touch with him and Candy—his wife is amazing. She's always been so sweet to me. It was disappointing to see some of the vitriol he would receive for some of the comments that he's made or for some of the positions that he has…I know him as a person, and he is erudite, pensive, and caring—he's just a great soul when you meet him one-on-one and you really get to know him.

Advertisement

Honestly—and this is me being selfish—I did not want to see someone I looked up to for so long go into politics, because I know you get beat up in politics. No matter if you're on the right, or on the left, or in the center, there's always going to be somebody saying something bad about you. I don't want to see that for somebody I look up to.

Growing up in an immigrant household, was there added pressure to shine academically?Oh, no question. Unequivocally, there's pressure to perform well. My parents made the bold decision years ago to leave family and paradise and sunshine and beach and culture and money to start over in a new place. In New Jersey, our neighbors were Jewish and Italian and Pakistani, and nobody was Bahamian. They didn't eat the food we ate, they didn't listen to the music we listened to, they didn't share the same parts of life that we enjoyed. Understanding that sacrifice, my brothers and I made it a point to do our utmost in whatever it is we did. That was us repaying the debt for that sacrifice they made so many years ago.

Which takes more discipline, pro football or medicine?
That's difficult, actually. But I would say medicine. Football is something that came naturally to me. Thankfully, I had some god-given talent and some size, speed, and strength to perform well on the field—and, yes, it takes an immense amount of discipline to focus on the plays, to focus on that particular down, to stay locked in amidst 85,000 fans screaming and yelling.

But when you're operating on a person—especially on expensive real estate like the brain, or the spine—one false move, one mistake, one slip in focus could potentially harm that patient you pledged to do your best for. The stakes are raised when you're in the operating room, and I don't take that lightly.

Being accepted into a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital sort of feels like winning a ring with the Patriots, right?
Yes. I interviewed at 14 different institutions. I got offered about 26 or 27 interviews, but I declined some of them and only chose 14 to visit. Some of them were Yale, Hopkins, Penn, Vanderbilt, Miami…really strong programs. But I felt Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard…that place had the residents that I appealed to. I got along with several of them away from the hospital and off the clock. And that was strong for me because you're going to spend a lot of time with your residents, almost as if you're spending time with your teammates. It's like you're joining a new team and you have a new locker room.

Our chairman, Bob Carter, is young and he's a visionary and he wants to produce leaders in the field of neurosurgery, and I've always seen myself as a leader, so he spoke my language. The facility at Massachusetts General Hospital is top-ranked in the country, if not the world. And then the access to pediatric neurosurgery. That's the subspecialty that I want to do, and Boston Children's [Hospital] is right down the street. So everything seemed to line up right.