Success, Surfing, and
By David Wheaton
Stanford? Not a problem.
The week before entering my freshman year at Stanford University,
I was riding a major wave ... in more ways than one. I spent the
week surfing Pacific rollers in Malibu, California, while visiting
my brother, who was toiling away at Pepperdine Law School.
Sitting on my surfboard waiting for the next set of waves to
appear, my thoughts drifted back over the previous months--the
best summer of my life. In June I had graduated valedictorian
of my high school class, and now in September I had just won the
U.S. Open Junior Tennis Championships in New York, confirming
my place as the top-ranked junior player in America.
I was number one on the court and in the classroom.
How appropriate that in just a few days I would travel up the
coast of California to attend the top-rated academic and tennis
university in the land ... on a full scholarship, no less.
While I was riding a perfect wave that golden summer, do you
think I was concerned about the next stage of my life in college?
Welcome to Stanford
My duffel bags had barely touched the dorm room floor when two
tennis teammates-to-be barged through the door with pitchers of
beer in hand. It may have been the middle of the afternoon, but
the party had already started. Girls and guys roamed the co-ed
dorm, checking out their new surroundings. Classes started the
next day, and I kid you not, I had neither pen nor paper.
The first assignment in Great Works of Western Culture, a required
freshman class, was to read the books of Genesis and Job. "Easy
enough," I thought, since I came from a Christian background
and was familiar with the Bible. Imagine my disbelief when the
professor and other students ridiculed the Bible and mocked God
for the "stupid" way He dealt with mankind. I had never
heard "God" and "stupid" in the same sentence
before! I was so stunned, I didn't know what to say.
The night life was just as shocking. It was as if all moral restraint
had been lifted from the campus. Drunkenness and sexual activity
were seemingly everywhere. The overall scene brought to mind images
of wanton sailors coming ashore at a foreign port of call. Surely
this wasn't Stanford--it was Sodom!
Why was I so surprised by my introduction to college? After all,
I had heard what college was like. I had already seen and experienced
a taste of campus life on college recruiting visits. I was no
potted plant--I had been out of my own backyard plenty of times.
But this was different ... way different. I was now
living full-time in the midst of a world diametrically opposed
to the one I had grown up in--there would be no returning home
to Mommy and Daddy every night. I would soon find out that an
excellent upbringing coupled with academic and athletic success
was no match for the maelstrom called college. The waters were
baited, the sharks were circling ... spiritual shipwreck loomed.
* * *
There is one word that perfectly describes my upbringing: idyllic.
In my memory it was as near to perfect as it could be.
Just west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, my parents' home was perched
overlooking Lake Minnetonka in a quaint neighborhood called Cottagewood.
Whatever the season, life on the lake encompassed our existence.
Swimming and sailing in the summer were followed by ice-skating
and cross-country skiing in the winter. Living on the lake was
so special to us that my mother would let me stay home from elementary
school in early December to skate on the newly frozen black sheet
Life off the lake was storybook too. There was the annual
Independence Day parade when all the kids would march around the
neighborhood in their patriotic attire. There were the two public
tennis courts just down the street from our house where I, at
age four, was tossed my first tennis balls by my mother. And there
was the outdoor hockey rink across the bay at the local town hall,
where my mother would send my brothers and me, saying, "Don't
come back till dark."
More than just a lake and a neighborhood, though, what made my
childhood especially idyllic was the closeness of our family.
Before I came along, the Wheaton family of five was seemingly
complete with my sister, Marnie, followed by my two brothers,
Mark and John. But then there were six! My arrival almost nine
years after my brother could have generated sibling resentment
or apathy toward me. Instead, nonstop affection and attention
flowed my way. (Being the youngest can have its advantages, you
My parents set the tone for our family. My father is an even-keeled
and kind-hearted man who diligently provided for our middle-class
family by working as a mechanical engineer for an air pollution
control company near Minneapolis. My mother, dynamic and driven
with a keen sense of discernment about people and life, would
have been well-suited for a business career but chose to be a
homemaker instead. They grew up in the same area, married young,
and worked hard to raise a family. This was traditional American
Most important, my parents based their lives, marriage, and child-rearing
on the Christian values found in the Bible, which were not only
taught to us, but lived out by them. They were the same people
in the home as out of it. We attended church on Sundays and read
the Bible together after dinner.
Problems? Arguments? Conflicts? I recall very few.
So it was tennis in the summer and hockey in the winter, with
a secure home life wrapped all around me. I entered my teens happy,
outgoing, well-adjusted, and successful--academically and athletically.
I even played a little piano. My parents (and my brothers and
sister, for that matter) had done everything to raise me the right
way. By all accounts, I was a good Christian boy.
And then life happened. Idyllic rammed into reality.
Entering junior high, I encountered a different road being traveled
by my teenaged peers than the path my parents were bringing me
along back home. Issues like dating, sex, alcohol, drugs, and
general rebellion against parents and teachers were at the forefront
of their conversation and conduct. It was a conflicting message
to me, for sure, but at the same time, this different way also
held its allure.
Some would pass it off as growing up, reaching puberty, or meeting
the real world, but whatever it was, an almost indiscernible change
of course began in my life as I gradually partook in some of the
things mentioned. This deviation in junior high proved to be the
source, and then high school the staging ground, for my future
trouble in college. But I digress....
Shortly after I won the Minnesota state high school tennis title
as a ninth grader at Minnetonka High School, my parents and I
moved to Bradenton, Florida, so that I could train at the famed
Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
With my dad now working from home as a consulting engineer and
my older siblings embarking on their own careers, my parents had
the flexibility to uproot themselves from Minnesota and move to
My tennis improved dramatically during my junior and senior years
of high school in Florida as I trained every day after school
with future tennis greats like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. Before
long I rocketed to the top of the junior tennis world--elite universities
were recruiting, sports agents were visiting, the professional
tennis tour was beckoning. Life was as good as it gets for a seventeen-year-old.
The day of my high school graduation brought no valedictory address
from me, though, for I was off in Europe with the U.S. National
Team playing the Junior French Open and Wimbledon. Returning to
America in July, I won a prestigious national junior tournament
and then narrowly missed defeating the number one professional
player in the world at the time, Ivan Lendl, at a tournament in
Washington, D.C. The U.S. Open junior title in New York came a
few weeks later, providing a climactic end to an extraordinary
Which brings us back to Malibu. Do you better understand why
I wasn't too concerned about the next stage of my life in college
at Stanford? As a matter of fact, I didn't even give it a second
thought. An idyllic upbringing coupled with remarkable success
had bred a bulletproof confidence within me.
Yet the small cracks that appeared in junior high had continued
to expand in high school. It would have been very difficult for
even my discerning parents to know that I was susceptible to veering
down the wrong path in college. Besides, I was mostly compliant
toward them, and in comparison to my peers, I was a pretty good
Being a "good kid" wasn't going to be nearly enough
to survive college though. Within a week I had seen enough of
college that I called my parents on several occasions telling
them I wanted to come home. In an odd moment of clarity, something
inside me warned that campus life was going to have a very negative
effect on me. My parents listened but wanted me to stay. So I
Just two months later the roles reversed. After a campus visit
by my parents, they started to see college for what it was and
asked me if I would consider dropping out in order to join the
professional tennis tour. I listened, but now I wanted to stay.
So I did.
Why my change of heart?
In two months' time I began to like college. I made new friends.
I went to football games. I enjoyed the tennis team. I read about
my athletic exploits in the Stanford newspaper. I bought a motor
scooter. I made my own decisions. I had fun at parties. And, oh
yeah, I met a cute blond girl.
In short, I adapted to college life. My (paltry) desire to adhere
to the Christian values with which I had been raised was overwhelmed
by the temptations and pleasures of college life. Drinking at
parties didn't seem like such a big deal. The anti-Christian philosophies
of my professors didn't bother me as much. And late nights with
my girlfriend certainly didn't make me want to leave college now.
Details of my decline in college could be inserted here, but
they would only serve to give you a point of reference for your
own life ("I would never do that!" or "That's all
he did?"). I am definitely not the standard.
It is enough to say I was an eighteen-year-old off at university
... the University of Destruction.
Read Chapter One of this book:
Excerpted from: University
by David Wheaton. Copyright © 2005 ; ISBN 0764200534.
Published by Bethany
House Publishers. Used by permission.
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