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He takes Rhodes detour

Times Staff Writer

Chris Joseph’s career is wandering down a road less traveled by other football players.

Several of his former UCLA teammates are wringing their hands this weekend, hoping their names are called during the NFL draft. If not, their quest to land a free-agent contract will begin.

But Joseph, a starting offensive lineman for three-plus seasons, is training to make the final cut for an even more exclusive goal -- a Rhodes scholarship.

So while Trey Brown, the Bruins standout cornerback, hopes to be yakking at NFL receivers this fall, Joseph is hoping to be a Yank at Oxford.

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“I felt like it was my time to hang ‘em up,” Joseph said. “I still love football, but I didn’t want it to consume my life anymore. . . . It was time for me to do other things.”

And the Rhodes scholarship was the shiniest academic bauble out there for the 21-year-old geography major.

“I wasn’t 100% sure what the scholarship was,” Joseph said. “I knew it was a prestigious honor. When they told me what it would mean, it was very impressive. They will pay for post-grad education in a foreign country at the finest university in the world.”

Besides, Joseph joked, “It’s a chance to see the world on someone else’s dime.”

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Earning that dime will involve as much, if not more dedication, than football.

Rhodes scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of Cecil Rhodes, a British-born South African businessman. Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes.

Only 32 students from the United States receive scholarships each fall. The selection process is done by 16 regional districts, raising the odds for a student from California, where more colleges mean more applicants.

“The numbers are really against you,” said college football analyst and former USC quarterback Pat Haden, who was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1975. “Everybody thinks the Rhodes scholarship is an athletic award, but it is less athletically orientated than when I went through it. Athletics fulfills only one requirement that Cecil Rhodes set down in his will, pursuing manly pursuits, and that is very broadly defined. What it involves is having a really, really stellar academic career.”

UCLA and USC have each had four Rhodes scholars, the most recent being Reed Doucette, a Trojans basketball player, who received the scholarship last fall.

Haden said there are “100 or so” applicants in California each year, 10 of whom are invited to San Francisco for interviews. Two will be among 14 students to advance to the regional competition for seven Western states, with four earning scholarships, Haden said.

Said Joseph: “I’m still trying to get a handle on all this at the moment. But I decided I wanted to go to school abroad. I have been working on it since October.”

At that time, though, it took a back seat to UCLA’s rapidly unraveling football season. The Bruins wobbled throughout 2007, finishing 6-7. Joseph, though, was solid, and finished his career by starting in his final 26 games.

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Joseph, an NFL long shot, hoped to impress NFL scouts during a workout for Bruins seniors at UCLA in March.

But about a month before the workout, Joseph decided to redirect his efforts.

“Nothing really slapped me across the face,” said Joseph, who has dropped 28 pounds from his playing weight of 280. “I was thinking about [it] since the season ended and talked with my family and people whose opinions I value.”

Don Morrison, UCLA’s faculty athletic representative, was one such person. He had introduced Joseph to Annette Salmeen, a former UCLA swimmer who had earned a Rhodes scholarship in 1997.

“She told me all about Oxford and the scholarship,” Joseph said.

His reaction? “Wow,” he said.

Morrison suggested Joseph give it a try.

“I told Chris that I knew he would work hard and someone might offer him a contract,” said Morrison. “But why would you do that to be cannon fodder in training camp?”

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Joseph has a 3.95 grade-point average at UCLA, though grades alone won’t be enough.

Joseph is wading through the scholarship application process, filling out lengthy forms, securing letters of appraisals and an institutional endorsement, as well as polishing up his resume. While former teammate Bruce Davis is sweating it out in training camp, trying to prove he is not too small to be an NFL defensive end, Joseph will be logging time as a national park ranger, trying to prove his worth beyond academic achievement.

Haden, who spent four years on the California selection committee and was its chairman the last two, said, “Every applicant has great grades. But if a professor says, ‘In my 40 years of teaching at Princeton, this is the finest mathematics student I have seen,’ that is going to resonate with the committee.”

Morrison said glowing recommendations would not be difficult to attain.

“Anyone 3.5 [GPA] and up was on upper Director’s Honor Roll,” Morrison said. “If there is an asterisk next to the name, it meant the student has a 4.0. I kept seeing asterisk after asterisk next to Chris’ name. So I arranged a meeting. . . .

“I told Chris it is somewhat of a long shot. But even going through the process, the Rolodex he’ll build up meeting various people will be good for him.”

Getting a scholarship can mean even more, as Haden can attest.

“I made friends from Germany, Scotland, Africa, England,” Haden said of his experience. “I was an American taking American politics from a South African. That is a unique experience.”

One that Joseph said “seems so impressive, yet so daunting.”

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chris.foster@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Smart squad

Athletes from USC and UCLA who have earned a Rhodes scholarship:

USC

* James O’Toole, track and field, 1966

* Pat Haden, football, 1975

* Desmond Koh, swimmer, 1995

* Reed Doucette, basketball, 2007

UCLA

* John Olmsted, tennis, 1925

* William Zeltonoga, wrestling, 1962

* Harold Griffin, football, 1969

* Annette Salmeen, swimming, 1997

Source: USC and UCLA sports information departments


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