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QB's dilemma: Harvard game or Rhodes interview

On Nov. 19, Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt faces a tough choice: He can lead Yale against arch rival Harvard University in New Haven, Conn., or he can interview for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in Atlanta. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

By Anne Thompson
NBC News

He runs a pro style offense for the Yale Bulldogs, but 22-year-old Patrick Witt is, in a real sense, an option quarterback. Or at least a quarterback with options any college senior would envy.

Not only does Witt have a full-time job offer from Boston Consulting Group, but National Football League scouts are closely watching his games. One scouting website even projects Witt, the most accurate passer in Yale University history, will be selected in the sixth or seventh round of the NFL draft.

But on Nov. 19, Witt faces a tough choice: He can lead Yale against arch rival Harvard University in New Haven, Conn., or he can interview for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in his hometown of Atlanta.

On the one hand, the opportunity to be a Rhodes Scholar, Witt says, is tremendous. “And it is a difficult process. There are plenty of excellent candidates every year that aren’t selected, so that’s one part of it,” he said.

On the other, the game against Harvard would be Witt’s last college game. “And I’ve invested a lot of time. This is a sport I’ve been playing since I was a kid.”

Witt is not the first football player to face this dilemma. You might remember former Florida State University safety Myron Rolle, who faced a similar choice in 2008. Rolle, too, was a Rhodes finalist and had to interview for the scholarship in Birmingham, Ala. during the day, and try to make it for a crucial contest against Maryland in College Park, Md. He was able to do both because the Maryland game took place at night, and FSU had a private plane pick him up in Alabama. A police escort delivered Rolle to the game in Maryland. Rolle won the scholarship and FSU won the game.

The timing this year is not in Witt's favor. The kickoff for the 128th meeting between Harvard and Yale is set for noon on Nov. 19. The Rhodes interview could take all day - that same day. Even if Witt got the first interview at 8 a.m. Saturday, he could still be called back in the afternoon for a follow-up conversation.  There have been offers of private planes, but with the possibility of a callback, they wouldn't help.

Witt is a history major with a 3.91 grade point average. "Patrick rocks," said Dr. John Merriman, history professor, who wrote a Rhodes recommendation letter for Witt. Merriman said Witt earned an A plus in one of his courses during football season. 

"Patrick, he's the only guy I've known here that -- male or female -- that's really a great athlete and a great scholar," Merriman said. 

Witt's college career started at the University of Nebraska, where he had a four-year athletic scholarship as a quarterback for the Cornhuskers. While the football was challenging, Witt felt frustrated in the classroom.

"I came [to Yale] as a finance major from Nebraska and completely changed my trajectory,” he said. “I became a history major, focused quite extensively on French history with Professor Merriman. It's those expansions of your horizons that I really sought in coming here and I've been able to do just that."  

Yale does not offer athletic scholarships. Witt’s parents, Gene and Cathy, both commercial airline pilots, pay $55,000 a year for their son’s education.

Witt wants to study international relations at Oxford University in England, in preparation for a career in politics. "At the end of the day, the best advice I've been given is ‘this is your decision and you have to do what's right for you,’” he said.

The choice comes with no guarantees. If Witt opts for the Rhodes interview, he might not get the scholarship. If he opts for the game, Yale will be a decided underdog against a Harvard team that has not lost in the Ivy League this season. 

"It's thrilling," Witt said, "but, again, it's a big dilemma."

Learn more about Patrick Witt on Monday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 ET on Nightly News with Brian Williams.