PITTSBURGH (AP) — Myron Rolle and Troy Polamalu walked off the Pittsburgh Steelers practice field on Thursday, sweat dripping down their faces, jerseys drenched, arms moving animatedly as they talked.
Was Rolle, a free agent trying to resurrect his career, picking the All-Pro safety's brain about the finer points of Dick LeBeau's defense?
"We were talking about the expansion of the middle class and how resources are running out," Rolle said. "How everyone wants to have two cars and three TVs in their house. But how are we going to sustain that with 6.4 billion people on the earth and growing?"
Rolle wasn't kidding. He rarely does. His concerns are legitimate, his passion for the topic obvious, his curiosity palpable.
That thirst for knowledge is also one of the reasons why the 25-year-old finds himself in Pittsburgh trying to revive his flagging career instead of enjoying life as an NFL starter.
The athletic 6-foot-2, 215-pound Rolle appeared well on his way to the pros after being named a third-team All-American following his junior year at Florida State in 2008. His playmaking ability and impeccable instincts shot Rolle up NFL Draft boards.
Rolle, however, had other plans. Rather than enter the draft he opted to spend a year at Oxford University after being named a Rhodes Scholar. While former college teammates — including Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons — lived it up in the NFL in 2009, Rolle worked on his thesis and earned a master's degree in medical anthropology.
He planned all along to return to football, working out in a tiny 10x10 weight room and running on a grass-barren rugby field while his classmates went to the pub.
Rolle returned to the U.S. with his degree and a fair amount of football rust. Shaking it off proved more problematic than he imagined.
The Tennessee Titans chose him in the sixth-round of the 2010 Draft. He made the team but never saw the field during the regular season and was released prior to the 2011 season.
It was the first time in Rolle's life success hadn't come easily, or immediately.
His frustration grew to a point where he wondered if choosing Oxford over the NFL was the right idea. Regret, however, was only fleeting.
"Once I thought about being a Rhodes Scholar and how that could behoove my future interests, and how it's placed me in a social station of life of being a role model for other young people to pursue academics and athletics at the highest level, I think it was a great choice," Rolle said.
Even if he understands that it left some in the NFL wondering if he was really committed to football. Unlike most players his age just trying to grab a roster spot, Rolle has seemingly limitless options outside the game.
He could go on to medical school to become a neurosurgeon. He could pour all of his energy into his eponymous foundation, which focuses on "health, wellness, educational and other charitable initiatives throughout the world." Or he could continue his campaign against obesity and diabetes, particularly in Native American culture.
Rolle will get to those things eventually. Just not now. If anything, he believes his decision to pursue an NFL career only proves how badly he wants to succeed.
"Despite having the option to do B, C and D I still want A," he said. "I still want to be here even though I'm on the bottom."
And Rolle certainly knows he's on the bottom. The Steelers already have two established veterans in Polamalu and Ryan Clark and quickly improving Ryan Mundy as the top backup. Chances of Rolle beating out Mundy appear to be slim, meaning he'll be fighting with a handful of other free agent safeties for one roster spot.
There was a period when Rolle would spend hours running over every practice in his mind, trying to read the tea leaves. It was exhausting.
"I'd see who's there, how many reps I'm getting," he said. "That was so time consuming and just expending a lot of intellectual energy that I could have used to learn the playbooks, make calls on the field and different things of that nature."
This time he's just trying to let it go. Rolle believes the rust he struggled with after returning from England is finally gone. He leans heavily on Polamalu and Clark for advice and despite his academic pedigree he doesn't feel like an outcast.
He worried about not being on the same "wavelength" with his teammates while playing for the Titans. It never happened. In a way, they took ownership of his success.
"They respected me and the journey that I've taken and they're proud of me," Rolle said. "They feel like they've gone on the journey themselves being young African-American athletes. I feel proud to carry the mantle so to speak and serve as a representation for what a true student-athlete should be."
Rolle's focus at the moment is on the athlete part of the equation. The student part with always be there.