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Former football player wins student Board position

Some men were born to be leaders and inspirations. Some were born to be successful in their endeavors. Some of the lucky ones were born to be Wahoos - and new student Board of Visitors member Stephen S. Phelan Jr. can claim to be all of these.

Phelan was selected as the student representative from the largest applicant pool since the institution of the University's student member in 1983. There were about 40 applicants this year. Traditionally, student Board members exhibit academic excellence and boast a well-rounded background. Phelan is no exception.

The Montgomery, Ala., native began his career at the University as an undergraduate and is now a second-year Law student. Once he arrived at the University, Phelan said he knew he belonged. The homesickness and uncertainty he said he initially faced when he decided to move to Charlottesville was replaced with a deep-rooted dependence in God.

"God was calling me here and had a real peace about me being here," he explained.

Through his spirituality, Phelan said he was able to achieve academic and athletic success.

He played as a defensive back for the Cavalier football team for five years, spending his fifth year in an Education School program.

Phelan red-shirted his freshman season, and he also attended the University on an athletic scholarship - not an easy feat for a man whose 5-foot-10 stature is not always a characteristic of a football player.

"He's small for a football player, but it turns out he was awfully good [because of his] sheer grit and determination," Board of Visitors Secretary Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam said.

Phelan's determination extended to his other activities and social life. He pledged St. Anthony Hall fraternity and was an active member of the Inter-fraternity and Sorority Christian Fellowship, the Raven Society, Omicron Delta Kappa and the IMP secret society. Although membership in IMP is public, the acts performed by members remain anonymous.

Phelan also maintains his strong relationship with God by leading weekly praise and worship time for University students each Tuesday.

One of the pinnacles of Phelan's success - in addition to living on the Lawn his fourth year - was winning the Gray-Carrington Scholarship Award not once, but twice. This highly coveted award is given annually to one University student who excels in the areas of personal integrity, achievement, leadership and humility.

Phelan's humility is evident when he discusses his new role as a Board member. When Gilliam informed him of his selection, Phelan said he "just kind of laughed" and asked if Gilliam was being serious.

He said he admittedly does not know what to expect during his year of service, but his goals are to "build a rapport with the other members [and to] be as open to the students as possible."

Part of the application process for becoming the student Board member involves meeting with various organizations' student leaders. The applicant pool then narrows to six candidates, who meet with the Board's executive committee.

University Rector John P. Ackerly III said Phelan was elected unanimously despite the strength of the other candidates.

"He stood a little bit above the others," Ackerly said. "He's a sincere, enthusiastic young man."

Student members are allowed to voice their opinions at Board meetings, but they are unable to vote.

Phelan said he does not mind the limited authority because he will use most of his term to overcome the "learning curve" associated with his position.

Being the sole voice of about 18,000 students might intimidate some, but Phelan said he will take the responsibility and added time commitment in stride.

"I always did better in school during football season because I struggled when I had a lot of free time," he said.

The outgoing student Board member, fourth-year College student Robert Schoenvogel, said being on the Board sometimes takes up a lot of time, but he said Phelan has all the necessary skills to be successful.

And despite the success Phelan already has achieved, he said his humility and faith keep him grounded.

"I just thank God for the blessings I have had" at the University, Phelan said. "It's been a phenomenal education in so many ways."