Dec. 8, 2003
Looking back is something Alan C. Page, the 2003 NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award honoree, just doesn’t do very often. By his own admission, he’s not one to reminisce.
Ironically, this year’s winner of the national association’s highest honor has generated more than his share of good memories and proud moments. Page was a three-year starting football defensive end and consensus All-American at the University of Notre Dame before making the move to the National Football League, where he was part of the Minnesota Vikings’ famed and feared “Purple People Eaters” defensive line. Then in 1993, he earned a place in the annals of Minnesota state history by becoming the first African-American elected to sit on its Supreme Court.
But despite a career punctuated by an extensive list of accomplishments, Page, presently an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, has kept his focus firmly fixed on the future and how he can leave the world a little better than the way he found it.
Page will be recognized for his successes and his many contributions to intercollegiate athletics and higher education when he becomes the 37th recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Award during the Jan. 11, 2004, NCAA Honors Dinner at the NCAA Convention in Nashville, Tenn. The coveted “Teddy,” named for the 26th President who played a key role in founding the NCAA, is presented annually to a distinguished citizen of national reputation and outstanding accomplishment.
Former winners of the award include four former presidents — Ronald Reagan, Gerald H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower. Last year’s winner was former Olympian Donna de Varona.
The seeds of Page’s accomplishments were planted early on when he set his sights on a career in law, long before he developed an interest in football. Page said he understood that the options for someone like him growing up in Canton, Ohio, were limited without a strong education. Law offered him a future.
“The football career was just a function of following in my brother’s footsteps and having some fun,” he told The NCAA News.
“Whereas when I was relatively young – fourth- or fifth-grader — I started thinking about law. As I grew and developed as a person, I came to the conclusion that law was about helping people and solving problems, and that was something I’d always found interesting.”
Page worked his way through law school as a full-time student while he maintained his career as a professional football player. He earned his juris doctorate from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1978.
After retiring from football in 1981 and after a one-year stint as a commentator with National Public Radio, Page worked as an associate with Lindquist & Vennum, before moving on to fulfilling responsibilities as a special assistant attorney general in the employment law division in Minnesota. Page served as assistant attorney general for the state from 1987 until 1993 when he was elected to the state’s supreme court, an experience Page said has been far beyond anything he could have anticipated.
“My expectation was that it would be challenging and my hope was that it would be fun and that I would be able to make a contribution to the institution,” he said.
“I have absolutely enjoyed every moment of it.”
Page’s experiences as a college and professional football player afforded him some key insights and significant life lessons.
“Certainly those experiences have shaped who I am,” he said.
“The lessons I learned there, whether it was hard work or sportsmanship or team play or how to deal with adverse circumstances, how to deal with success, they were all a part of it.”
Page said it is important for today’s student-athletes to realize that there is life after sports:
“What they are doing at the time in terms of education is going to have a direct bearing on how successful they will be in the future, no matter how long their athletics career extends. There are unique opportunities to influence in positive ways and, quite frankly, negative ways other peoples’ lives. It is important to act in ways that allow that influence to be positive and, in fact, to actively be involved in helping other people.”
The advice is born out of personal experience, as Page’s days on the gridiron also provided him with a lens through which to view the relationship between academics and athletics. In a February 2001 interview, Page recounted the story from his last year with the Vikings when a new defensive line coach asked Page and his teammates to study their new playbooks. In the course of studying, he discovered only five of his nine teammates could read.
That experience, as well as seeing other athletes who throughout the years had struggled in the classroom, convinced Page to become involved in influencing the future through education.
“The experience with the teammates who couldn’t read sort of focused me on the fact that this was not an athletics problem, it was an academic problem,” he said.
“It occurred to me that what they represented was really just the tip of a very large iceberg and that I could make a contribution on the academic side that was far more valuable than anything I could do on the athletics side.”
A vocal proponent of education and a frequent speaker at elementary schools, Page has aimed his efforts at youth.
“As an athlete, seeing the conflict between academics and athletics and trying to influence or wanting to try to influence young people in terms of how they viewed education, I’ve come to the conclusion that our hope for the future is the young people.”
Consequently, one of the things Page is most proud of is the work his Page Education Foundation does with youth. The foundation, established in 1988 by Page and his wife Diane, provides educational grants to students of color to attend colleges in Minnesota. As a condition of receiving the funds, the so-called Page Scholars serve as role models and mentors for younger children with the simple, if not lofty, goal of changing the future.
“For far too many young men and women of color, education has not been something that they focused on, but I believe that education can be a tool that can overcome the problems that are associated with discrimination, with poverty, with a whole host of other issues that people of color face. By ensuring that every child has the opportunity to learn and does learn, I think we make the future better for all of us,” Page said.
Thus far, the foundation has awarded 3,965 grants to 1,885 students totaling more than $2.5 million.
For the time being, Page is happy serving on the bench of Minnesota’s highest court — “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said — but it’s not at all surprising that he has been mulling over what lies beyond his time on the court.
“I suppose someday I would like to teach,” said Page. He is most interested in teaching at the fourth- or fifth-grade level because those children are at an age where their lives are taking shape.
“It would be nice to be able to influence that, to be a contributor to that,” he said.
Page led the Notre Dame football team to Associated Press and United Press International national championships in 1966 and a 25-3-2 mark from 1964 to 1966. A first-round draft pick and 15th overall, he went on to collect 164 career sacks, block 28 punts or placekicks, recover 24 fumbles and appear in eight Pro Bowls in a professional football career that spanned 15 seasons, including 10 as a member of the Vikings and five with the Chicago Bears.
Page made an appearance in every game of his professional career and started all but three matchups, a string of 215 consecutive contests that included 16 playoff games, four NFL championships and Super Bowls IV, VII, IX and XI.
In 1971, the four-time NFC defensive player of the year became the first defensive player in NFL history to earn the league’s most valuable player award. Page was selected to the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and was inducted into the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame in 1993.
An NCAA Silver Anniversary Award recipient in 1992, Page has been a member of the National Bar Association since 1979 and currently sits on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and the board of directors for the Minneapolis Urban League. Since 1980, he has been a member of the Minnesota Minority Lawyers’ Association, and he has served as an advisory board member to the League of Women Voters since 1984.
In 2001, Page received the Dick Enberg Award from the Academic All-America program sponsored by the College Sports Information Directors of America. The award is given annually to a person whose actions and commitments have further strengthen the meaning and reach of the Academic All-America program and the student-athlete while promoting the values of education and academics.
In the 1970s, Page took up marathon running and in 1979 became the first active NFL player to complete a marathon He currently runs 60 miles a week. He and his wife have four children.