How a Yale senior/former McDonald's A-A nominee won Rhodes Scholarship

How a Yale senior/former McDonald's A-A nominee won Rhodes Scholarship

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

Yale senior forward Matt Townsend has achieved a coveted Rhodes Scholarship. (USATSI)

It's been a standout 2014 for Yale basketball in multiple facets, though that's because some of the team's biggest accomplishments are not directly tied to hoops. On the court, the Bulldogs have won 19 games two of the past three years, are off to a 4-1 start this season and considered the likeliest team to challenge mighty Harvard for the Ivy League's automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

But two unusual stories have put Yale into the national sports headlines in the past six months. The first one came in May, when Yale forward Brandon Sherrod announced he was taking a year off from basketball to pursue an opportunity singing in an elite a cappella group that will tour the world.

You read that right.

And now one of Yale's players has earned a distinguished Rhodes Scholarship. There are only 32 of these cherished endowments handed out each year to college students across the United States. Though it's not unheard of, it is rare when a college athlete at the basketball level gets selected. The scholarship is directly tied to Oxford University (in Oxford, England) and Yale's Matt Townsend, a former McDonald's All-American nominee, will be going there in 2015 to continue his studies.

If you're wondering what a Yale basketball player from Chappaqua, N.Y., has been studying that earned him the educational opportunity of a lifetime, strap in. Townsend, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major, is working toward becoming a doctor. But he'll seek to do more than treat patients. His interests lie in "where fat comes from," and he's currently working on "population studies" that seek to learn why certain people encounter obesity issues, while others don't, and what science can do to try and make the world a healthier place at the genetic level.

"Not just genes and biology, but what is it about society and culture that predisposes us to be healthy or sick?" Townsend said by phone Monday evening. "Ultimately I'm most interested in obesity-related disease and things like diabetes."

He's also got a nice hook shot.

Townsend has plans to be an influence in Washington, D.C., 10 to 15 years from now as well. He hopes to educate and guide the leaders on Capitol Hill about health policies and studies of human genetics that can lead to legislation which could change the way the United States feeds and treats its citizens.

“I feel I could make the most difference not only treating patients, but having a policy-advising role and creating change through Washington,” Townsend, the eighth player Yale basketball history to get Academic All-America honors, said.

The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Bulldogs power forward learned he got the Rhodes Scholarship on Saturday evening. It's turned out beautifully for a man who was once a 7-year-old kid that swore off basketball.

"I told my mom I hated it and didn't want to play anymore," Townsend said.

That didn't last. The young boy grew and soon quickly adapted to hoops, catching on with AAU and drawing attention from D-I teams by the time he was a sophomore. He graduated from Horace Greeley as that high school's all-time leading scorer (1,516) and rebounder (1,021), in addition to being its valedictorian. Though he was recruited by a number of prestigious schools for basketball, Yale was the first one to aggressively pursue him. In the end, James Jones and his staff earned Townsend's loyalty.

"They were first in the lead and I never really looked back," he said. Townsend committed to Yale the day after Thanksgiving in 2009, which was his junior year of high school. During his senior year, he was announced as a McDonald's All-American nominee.

Turns out Towsend's a turncoat, though. His grandfather and two uncles played sports at Harvard. Makes for fun family rivalry.

With the Bulldogs, Townsend's earned a starting role and is a hustle monster. Playing at the 4, he's averaging 8.5 points, is second on the team in rebounds (5.0 per game) and second in assists (3.0). His story is interesting because he's not an end-of-the-bench player who's buried in books and hardly ever on the court. This guy's a cog to the Bulldogs' hopes this season.

He just happens to also to set up to make real change in the world. Ivy players, man.

"I came to Yale thinking I wanted to be a doctor, maybe orthopedic surgery and getting to work with athletes in the sports world," Townsend said. "But through taking a bunch of Yale classes and having a bunch of amazing professors on the way, I went from being a good student who didn't love to learn to loving what I was learning and getting engaged with the material."

Townsend's plan is to study in Oxford for two years, return to the States for medical school (Stanford, Harvard, Duke and Columbia, are just four of at least 10 places he's applied to) and then begin residency. The road to Rhodes started in early 2014, in the middle of Yale's season, when a few of Townsend's professors and advisors said he should apply. Over the summer he updated his resume, got eight letters of recommendation (including one from James Jones) and wrote myriad drafts of his 1,000-word personal essay as part of the application.

“That was by far the most difficult thing to write," he said. "You're writing where you come from, where you are and where you hope to go. The difference you hope to make in the world. In a thousand words.”

This from a 21-year-old who's already been co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project's B.R.E.D. program, an organization that feeds those in need. From someone who's already interented and volunteered at New York-Presbyterian and Yale-New Haven's hospitals, helping children along the way.

Townsend is no bookworm that barely plays. He's a vital piece for the Bulldogs this season. (USATSI)

His application was sent to the Rhodes committee in September. Earlier this month, he learned he was a finalist. As Townsend spent the weekend in New York, he was overjoyed and overwhelmed, but said by no means did he think he had any shot of winning the grant. It was humble thinking; after all, Townsend was already previously awarded one of only eight spots in his class at Yale for the nation's oldest academic honors society, Phi Beta Kappa.

While his team flew out to Ohio for a three-games-in-three-nights sprint, Townsend hobnobbed in a debonair SoHo apartment Friday night, talking to fellow finalists and getting to know the eight judges who would decide his fate.

“It was one of those places where the elevator opens right into the apartment," he said.

That sounds awesome.

“I was a little bit nervous going into it just because I don't attend high-end cocktail parties on a day-to-day basis, you know.”

The finalists drew from a hat to determine when they'd be interviewed. The earliest slot was 8 a.m. Townsend pulled the comfortably placed 11:20 interrogation. And after the schmoozing was over, most of the finalists -- poised future leaders of the world -- peeled off to a nearby Chipotle and gorged on dinner. Townsend was back in his bed and passed out by 10 p.m.

"I gave a quick call to my family and slept surprisingly well," he said. "I don't know whether it was nerves or excitement or just being tired, I knocked out pretty quick.”

On Saturday morning, Townsend and 31 other hopefuls -- including UConn basketball player Pat Lenehan -- bided time in a bland waiting room in a mid-town Manhattan high-rise, a sleek, nondescript structure amid dozens of other sleek, nondescript structures. Stress and nerves running high. With Harvard and Yale's football team playing The Game up in Massachusetts, and six of the finalists coming from one of those two schools, Townsend and others playfully trash-talked and followed their teams via their phones. Townsend also brought playing cards, and the finalists were able to watch Jeopardy! episodes before/after being subjected to their interview process.

“All of them were smarter than me answering those Jeopardy! questions super fast," he said. "It was a really fun experience.”

Townsend was eventually called into a slick room, his back to the windows that overlooked beautiful Central Park. The questions were varied, some regarding his studies and others off the wall. They included:

-- You have a gun. Will you kill the man standing in front of you if you know by doing so you'll prevent the death a whole bunch of people. Would you sacrifice that one man's life to save others you don't know?

-- If you were Edward Snowden, working for the NSA, would you have done what he did in leaking secret, classified information?

-- What's your favorite amino acid, and why?

Townsend's answer: tryptophan, because it's the amino acid that's "most fun to draw."

His answers clearly good enough, Townsend made it to the second round of interviews. Another bout of cross-examination, some more down time and checking in on his team's ongoing game vs. Southern Illinois, and by 6:30 Townsend became the fourth basketball player in Yale history -- and the first since 1976 -- to earn a Rhodes Scholarship.

"My first reaction was shock, my second reaction was it felt like a team win -- with everyone on the basketball team, all my professors and friends who had been texting me the night before," Townsend said.

He walked out of the building, buzzed his dad, and the two quickly got their stuff out of the hotel and were off to Newark's airport. They'd planned on leaving that night no matter what, because there was a Sunday game against Kent State to be played. Townsend and his dad barely made the 9 p.m. flight, only having time to scarf a sandwich once getting to the airport.

How was the big fella received by his teammates upon arriving at the team hotel? He wasn't. It was 12:45 a.m., and when he entered his room, teammate Anthony Dallier was passed out and sawing wood.

Townsend followed up the his huge Saturday by performing well and creating one of the best weekend's of his life, if not the best. He hit the go-ahead bucket with 46 seconds remaining, helping get the Bulldogs a 66-59 road win against Kent State. Townsend came off the bench and finished with 12 points and four rebounds.

“I think I was more excited to see them and be back with the team,” he said. "The whole weekend was an adrenaline high. I don't think the shock had worn off by game time, and I'm not sure it's all totally sunken in yet."

Townsend will continue about his senior year now, trying to keep Yale on track to one of the best seasons in school history. Away from the court he'll be experimenting on mice, trying to learn how cells become fat cells. He'll be up at 7:30 a.m., grabbing breakfast, going to lab classes, writing his senior thesis, working on genetic analyses. Come 3 p.m. he's off to the basketball facility -- an hour before 4 p.m. practice -- to spend the next four and a half hours on hoops. Afterward, it's dinner and back to the room by around 9 for a few hours of hitting the books.

Matt Townsend is a baller well beyond basketball.

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