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''I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.''
When Myron Rolle was cut from the Pittsburgh Steelers, he fell into a funk until his mother reminded him of his two childhood dreams: Play football, then become a neurosurgeon. It was time for Plan B.
By Elena Bergeron
“It’s Never Too Late” is a new series that tells the stories of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
It had been one month without football for Myron Rolle, an N.F.L. safety, and he was foundering. Mr. Rolle was just 25, and his pro football career looked grim: He was released in 2011 after three unremarkable seasons with the Tennessee Titans and had failed in his attempt to make the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster. Without the structure and rigor of a football career, he struggled to make sense of what would come next.
Mr. Rolle had always had a Plan B. He had been a hot-tempered kid, but at 11, his older brother, Marshawn, gave him a copy of “Gifted Hands,” Dr. Ben Carson’s popular 1990 memoir that detailed how Dr. Carson went from being an inner-city youth with poor grades to the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.
After reading it, Mr. Rolle stopped beating up classmates who called him racist slurs or made fun of his Bahamian immigrant parents and started chasing two dreams — being a pro football player and becoming a neurosurgeon like Dr. Carson.
He flourished playing as a defensive back for Florida State, where he was selected to be a Rhodes Scholar in 2009. Though he studied medical anthropology at Oxford as part of the program, Mr. Rolle said his neurosurgeon dream was “dormant” while he pursued football glory. In England, he trained for the N.F.L. draft and was selected by the Titans in 2010.
Showing him his grade school notebook, where he had written both goals, “she looked me straight in the eyes and pointed at the first one,” he recalled. “She said, ‘This one’s done.’ And she looked at the second one and said, ‘Now, we need to do this.’”
Today, he is Dr. Rolle, and at 35, he is in the sixth year of his neuroscience residency at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. “Those words of encouragement, her belief in me, her thoughtfulness, her disposition during that moment was just what I needed, just what I needed to move forward to the next chapter in my life,” he said.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
How much did you struggle with giving up your N.F.L. dream?
When I got released from the Pittsburgh Steelers, they flat out told me, “Your talent is there.” I said, “Well, OK, why are you about to release me?” They said: “Well, because there’s a guy that’s not as talented as you, but this is all he has. [A Steelers spokesperson declined to comment.] He needs football. You, I’m not worried about you. You can go be president one day, you can go be a doctor, you’re going to be great.” So it’s almost like if I didn’t have anything else to sort of fall back on, quote unquote, then I would be in a better position.
That was so frustrating. I mean, I can’t explain it enough how difficult it was to sort of reconcile those comments and then also reconcile what you’re seeing and how you’re performing around these players that are getting opportunities that you’re not. It was the most frustrated I’ve been in my life, the most disappointed I’ve been in my life, the most downtrodden I’ve been in my life. The time where I felt like I failed and I let people down.
How has creating this path changed you?
There’s the 2 percent philosophy that I picked up from my football coach at F.S.U., Mickey Andrews. Can you be 2 percent better than you were yesterday? You can if you take small steps every single day toward a larger goal. It helps me make more sense of the challenges, the tasks, responsibilities that I have.
Learning how to open up a craniotomy, learning how to put diapers on your newborn kids and be a better attentive husband, all these were tasks that I wanted to accomplish. Any goal, short or long term, doesn’t feel daunting or debilitating. They feel manageable. I appreciate and I pat myself on the back for the small gains, the small wins that I get every single day. It’s a rush of dopamine in my limbic lobe that says: “You’re doing right. This is a reward for doing well.”
What is the biggest challenge you face?
Right now the biggest challenge is finding the time to be attentive and, you know, fully sort of present for all the aspects of my life. You know, when I’m under a microscope and operating on a brain tumor, the patient has been seizing. They expect me to be the best neurosurgeon I possibly could be with the best skills, the best dexterity, with the great decision making.
And then when I’m done with that, I’m supposed to be the best mentor to these 12 or 13 young Black men that I mentor who are all pre-med or medical students interested in neurosurgery. We call it the Honor Rolle. And then what I’m doing now is just be the best father I need to be the most present for my four kids, Zanzi, Zafar, Zora and Zayed. And then the best attentive husband I can be. So it’s just putting all these things into their spaces so that I can just commit my life to them and myself to them because they deserve that. All of them deserve 100 percent.
What do you think propels you forward?
I believe that God placed me for such a time as this to be a beacon of hope, a light, a mentor and an advocate. I was on the front lines when Covid hit and got on TV to speak about Black and brown disparities in health care. I was placed here to be a father to my four children and a husband to my wife, Latoya.
There’s an idea that motivates me, too. There’s so many people that sacrificed for me — names that I know, names that I don’t know — to be where I am right now. That have given up their lives for me to be able to vote, to have an education, to attend certain schools, to have certain jobs, to be able to immigrate to America. It’s our job now to repay that debt with being the best we can be in everything that we do. I take that very, very seriously.
These are intense career and life pursuits. How do you find balance and how do you renew your energy?
It’s family. My children feel my beard and we sing the theme song from the cartoon “CoComelon.” I love to work out. Traveling with my wife. And then I have a core set of friends, and a really close knit group of people who make me laugh. They want to make sure that I’m happy, that I’m doing well. They can talk and pour life into me.
What would you tell people who feel like they’re stuck in their lives and still want to pursue a dream?
One: It’s never too late. Two: You’re needed. You’re still needed in this life. Your lane can be yours and it’s for you. What God has for you is going to be for you. Perfect it. Hone it. Be a master of it. Love it. Do it well. Impact people when you do it and help bring somebody up with you.
I’m in year six of seven of my neurosurgery residency, and I have to do another year of pediatric neurosurgical fellowship. My long-term goal is to practice neurosurgery in America for the majority of the year and then spend a portion of the year back home in the Caribbean developing neurosurgical services in the Bahamas and in all the member states of CARICOM, an organization of Caribbean countries.
What lessons can people learn from your experience?
Ifyou look at the outside, you will see my story as maybe something that is unattainable, right? I played in the N.F.L., Rhodes Scholar, now neurosurgery. But feeling doubts and uncertainty really permeated throughout my life. Feeling like an outcast. Handling issues with violence. Dealing with work-life balance issues or challenges in your workplace. And I just found ways to overcome or mitigate these challenges through the 2 percent process.
I don’t think success looks like any particular person. I do believe that every individual has something brilliant in them and has a responsibility and a purpose that they were placed here on this earth for such a time as this time.
Chasing Their Dreams, on Their Own Terms
The Times series “It’s Never Too Late” features people who challenged expectations and changed their life. Here are some of their stories: