WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- There are lessons to be learned from the realm of competitive athletics. Unfortunately, too many young athletes never learn them. They chase their sport with great passion and tremendous resolve, always giving their best effort. Yet their pursuit of excellence often fails to extend to the classroom, or for that matter, to other parts of their life. Dreaming of a future in professional sports that almost never materializes, they pass through their teen years with an air of indifference, showing little regard for academics and taking scant notice of a larger community that might want and need their help.
For Whitman College senior Will Washington, this portrait of the young American athlete, academically and socially aloof, is all too familiar. Even though Washington earned "scholar athlete" honors last year playing a starring role on the Whitman basketball team, his life was not always so well balanced between academics and athletics.
Earlier this decade, Washington was one of the best schoolboy basketball players in the Seattle, Wash., area -- and one of its most poorly motivated students. He started at point guard for two seasons at West Seattle High School, winning his team's most valuable player award and a spot on the All-Metro League second team. At the same time, his academic achievements were much less noteworthy. "My grades in high school were horrible," he admits. "I didn't have the same appreciation for education that I do now. I used to hate school. Now I love it."
Washington skipped through high school with a 2.0 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale), and he replicated those mediocre marks during his first year at Bellevue (Wash.) Community College. He continued to excel at basketball, however, capping his sophomore season at Bellevue by earning MVP honors at the Northwest community college all-star game.
Despite his ongoing successes on the basketball court, there were no athletic scholarships from four-year schools looming on the horizon. With that in mind, Washington was taking academics more seriously by his second year at Bellevue. Once idle thoughts about a medical career began to take flight; he raised his cumulative college grade point average to 3.4 during his third academic years at Bellevue; and he gained admission to Whitman, a school that take prides in the high percentage of its graduates who gain admittance to medical school.
During the summer of 1997, prior to his first semester at Whitman, Washington spent six weeks in the Minority Medical Education Program at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Later that summer, he spent three more weeks as an intern in the office of Dr. Sigvard "Ted" Hansen, a 1957 Whitman graduate and orthopedic surgeon who has offices at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
As a biology major at Whitman in the fall of 1997, Washington earned a 3.6 grade point average while starting his first basketball season for the Missionaries. Shaking off nagging injuries, Washington averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists. By the end of the academic year, he had raised his cumulative grade point average to 3.7 and was one of 41 Whitman students who earned Scholar Athlete honors by maintaining grade point averages of 3.5 or higher.
Washington returned to Harborview last June, spending a full summer internship with Dr. Hansen, who is recognized internationally for the innovations he brought to reconstructive surgery under trauma conditions. As an intern, he worked with Dr. Hansen as he examined and diagnosed patients in his clinic office, observed numerous orthopedic surgeries, and helped in the Harborview emergency room. Washington also assisted an orthopedic clinic surgeon who is using his engineering background to test the strength of bones and connective in the foot and ankle, which is Dr. Hansen's area of anatomical expertise.
"Will learned a lot in the time he was here," Dr. Hansen said. "He obviously enjoyed it and was very enthusiastic. It gave him a good idea of what it means to be a physician. He was exposed to a number of areas and had the opportunity to see how it all interacts. Being a physician is more than just giving people pills to make them better. It's tremendously complex and diverse."
Dr. Hansen, a longtime faculty member at the UW School of Medicine and formerly chief of orthopedics at Harborview, said Washington has a "very pleasant personality" that allowed him to interact easily with patients while he assisted with clinic visits. "Will has an easy-going manner that patients like," he said. "He also had a nice relationship in the office with the graduate orthopedists, people in their early- to mid-30s who have already completed medical school. They liked him a lot and wanted to include him in what they were doing."
Dr. Hansen, an all-conference football player during his own undergraduate days at Whitman, said Washington took note that many of the graduate orthopedists had been good athletes in high school and college. "A lot of former athletes tend to gravitate toward orthopedics," Dr. Hansen said. "A lot of the guys Will met are just as tall and just as athletic as he is. Will and I got along fine, but I think he related to them more easily because they are closer in age."
Given his athletic abilities and age, "Will reminds me of one of my own sons who also was a very good athlete," Dr. Hansen said. Christopher, a basketball and football player, is now a writer in New York. Eric, who followed in his father's footsteps as an orthopedic surgeons, earned his undergraduate degree from Whitman in 1985, joining his father, grandmother (Beverly Means Hansen, '29), aunt (Marilee Hansen, '61) and cousin (Tracy Detlefs, 91) on the Whitman alumni rolls.
As Washington developed an athletic kinship of sorts with the graduate orthopedists in Dr. Hansen's office, he learned one very basic lesson. "What he learned from them, I think, is that even those people who are very bright still have to work tremendously hard to compete at this level of medicine," Dr. Hansen said. "There is no automatic ticket into this profession. The only ticket is having the ability to do the job."
Washington enjoyed his time with the graduate orthopedists, but he obviously picked up a few points directly from Dr. Hansen. "He is a great surgeon, but he also is very good with his patients," Washington said. "Working with him showed me how important it is to communicate with people. He has a great relationship with the patients he sees in his clinic."
"Dr. Hansen also taught me a lot about hard work, right from the beginning," Washington added. "When I first called about an internship, he had me go to his house the next day so he could get to know me. It was about 90 degrees outside and we carried bricks up three flights of stairs all day. The next day it was raining and we carried bricks all day in the rain. I don't know, but I think it was a test to see if I was willing to work hard."
It was Washington's willingness to work hard, both on and off the basketball court, that most impressed his new teammates last year at Whitman, according to head basketball coach Skip Molitor. "We have a few science majors on our roster, and it was very clear to them that not only was Will a gifted athlete, he was working very hard in the classrooms and laboratories. Not too many Whitman students, whether they were on the basketball team or not, worked any harder academically than Will."
Other Whitman basketball players who can relate to Washington's determined pursuit of a medical career are seniors Cameron Evans of Roosevelt, Utah, and Tom Storey of Spokane, Wash. Evans, the son of an obstetrician/gynecologist, spent last summer at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center, assisting with genetic research into the causes of low birth weight in newborns. Storey, who will miss his senior basketball season because of injury, has spent his last two summers on the East Coast, assisting with research into the effects of seizures early in life and their possible role in predisposing the adult brain for later onset of temporal lobe epilepsy. His internships were arranged through Dr. Daniel Hoch, a 1975 Whitman graduate and an assistant in neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor in neurology at the Harvard Medical School, where the research is taking place.
Molitor, who helped arrange Washington's internship with Dr. Hansen, expects his basketball Missionaries to do well this winter. "Will is going to be a big part of that," Molitor said. "He has the ability to be one of the very best players at his position in the conference, especially if he stays healthy."
Washington remains a committed athlete and intense competitor in the gym, but he isn't about to forget there is more to life than athletics. For one thing, it is a lesson his parents, Willie and Juanita Washington, worked too long and hard to teach him. His mother has been an elementary school teacher in Seattle for as long as he can remember. His father, now retired from the Boeing Co., was a record-setting track & field athlete who also led his high school basketball team to a state title as a 5-foot-10 center.
"I was just too hard-headed to listen to them when I was younger," Washington said. "They stayed on me about working hard in school. They didn't give up. They did the best they could to get me to listen."
Even though his father was the athlete in days gone by, it was his mother the school teacher who started "turning cartwheels" once her oldest son starting hitting the books with a vengeance, Washington said.
Two of his brothers, Kenny and Walter, are students at the University of Washington and Washington State, respectively. The baby of the family, Daniel, is a 6-foot-3 200-pound freshman at Seattle's Franklin High School and a blossoming basketball star in his own right.
Speaking from first-hand experience, Washington has plenty of advice for his youngest brother and other talented high school athletes. "It's great for young guys to play sports and have dreams about pro ball, but they should be realistic," he said. "They should pay attention in class, do well in school and get involved in their community. For me, it's a good feeling now that basketball is not my whole life in college."
Now in his second year as president of Whitman's Black Student Union (BSU), Washington is developing a Big Brother/Big Sister mentoring program that matches BSU with at-risk youngsters in the local community. He also has worked in a variety of community service projects, volunteering his time with the Special Olympics program and at a local farm labor camp and the Whitman Health Center.
While his life has grown beyond basketball, Washington plans to fully enjoy his senior season this winter. He knows he has earned it, and he shakes his head over young athletes who forfeit any chance to play at the collegiate level because they fail to prepare themselves academically.
"We have always had great high school basketball players in the Metro League in Seattle, some of the best players in the country, and it's too bad that some of them never get the chance to play beyond high school," Washington said. "Too many of them never pass their college admission tests. Or, if they do, they aren't able to handle the academics in college. That's sad. Really sad."