Lenehan's story is so much more than basketball

Storrs - Such stories aren't often reported with much verve, if at all, because let's face it: While all the idealists bemoan the tragically inflated importance of sports on college campuses, watching a kid decipher quadratic equations just doesn't move the needle as much as a 360 windmill.

Still, we should all pledge better storytelling, if for no other reason than to debunk the terminal cynics who mock the term "student-athlete." Fact: The overwhelming majority of college athletes take their studies seriously.

And so we introduce Pat Lenehan, who might be best known to his fellow classmates at UConn as a walk-on men's basketball player. What they might not know, though, is that young Mr. Lenehan's accomplishments offer evidence that college kids open a book or two at institutions beyond Harvard and Yale.

Lenehan missed a basketball game recently for the noblest of reasons: An interview for a Rhodes Scholarship. That's right. The oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world. Each year, 32 Rhodes Scholars are chosen in the United States. Lenehan was a finalist.

UConn's office of National Scholarships & Fellowships encouraged Lenehan to apply, Lenehan said Sunday after the UConn-Texas game. He wrote a 1,000-word personal statement why he wanted to apply to the Tumor Immunology Program at Oxford. Lenehan's name was nominated for the national competition. He was chosen as a finalist in the New York region.

"Most of the other finalists were Ivy League," Lenehan said Sunday from, not surprisingly, the study lounge at Gampel Pavilion, along with teammate and fellow pre-med major Nnamdi Amilo.

Lenehan, a Cheshire native, didn't win one of the 32 spots. Still, there is honor in the mention. It's like knowing the other guy just won the Rolls Royce, but you still get to drive home in a Porsche.

"My response was move on. I wasn't expecting to even get to the finalist stage," Lenehan said. "It was a good experience, though. The interview was pretty challenging and I really don't think I put my best foot forward. In the long run, there are certain advantages to going over there and doing research, but I think I'll be able to get done what I want to get done here."

Consider the words: Get it done here. At UConn. Lenehan's work is a triumph for all public universities. Other institutions accepting him: Columbia, Dartmouth, Boston College, Duke and Johns Hopkins. And he chose UConn, where he has excelled.

"I'm in the combined program in medicine with Nnamdi," Lenehan said, alluding to UConn's offering that allows students pursuing a career in medicine the opportunity to study liberal arts as well. "As long as we keep a certain grade point average and get a certain score on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), we're automatically admitted to the UConn Medical School.

"The other schools are great, no doubt," he said. "But there, I would be a regular pre-med student and have to apply to medical school. UConn offers me security."

Lenehan, as perhaps derived from his choice to study tumor immunology, would like to focus on cancer research. It was quite a coup the day Lenehan chose to pick UConn. Just as much as any big-time athlete. Lenehan is the kid president Susan Herbst could trumpet as an example of UConn's burgeoning academic reputation.

And is it such a perilous leap to suggest more Pat Lenehans lead to acceptance in the Association of American Universities, a research enclave that would help admission into the Big Ten?

"I hope becoming a finalist means things are changing," Lenehan said. "I know it's not a usual thing for us to get finalists for this scholarship. It speaks to what the professors are doing here in terms of their research that undergrads can get involved in. It speaks to the quality of students coming here."

It also speaks to the term "student-athlete."

"Academics have always been important to me," he said. "I don't know if it was necessary how much I did at Xavier (High School in Middletown) but I did a ton of schoolwork, probably more than I do now. But it sure got me ready for everything I've needed to do here."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

Twitter: @BCgenius

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