As a stellar student, standout athlete and tireless volunteer, John Stokes has made quite a name for himself at Vanderbilt.
But the name John Whittemore Stokes already owned quite a legacy on West End Avenue, stretching back nearly 90 years.
His parents, John and Carol, and his paternal grandparents, John and Anne, all have undergraduate degrees from Vanderbilt. His great-grandfather, the original John Whittemore Stokes, earned a Doctor of Dental Sciences degree from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 1926.
But the Memphis University School product was not always destined to be a Commodore. When the opportunity presented itself to play football in college, Stokes had a decision to make.
The Commodores had won only two Southeastern Conference games in the five years leading up to his junior season at MUS, and Vanderbilt was not No. 1 on his early list. Until he met the Commodore coaching staff.
"I knew Vanderbilt was a great school," Stokes said. "I knew I liked a lot of things about it. Coach Johnson and his staff convinced me that we can win and we will win, and there was no, `It's okay to get a good education and not do well on Saturday.' I think that was sort of what really made me want to come."
The 6'5" Stokes began making a big impression as soon as he arrived on campus. The only true freshman to play in every game of the 2007 season, Stokes earned time as a second-string outside linebacker. But he made his name on special teams and would take over snapping duties for both kicking squads during the season.
Stokes' impact on the field was mirrored by success off of it. His academic prowess landed him on the SEC Freshmen Academic Honor Roll, a distinction he has repeated as a sophomore and junior.
His proficiency in math and science led him to consider a future career in medicine. During spring break of his freshman year, Stokes volunteered with Dr. Rick Donlon at Christ Community Health Center in Memphis--his first "watch a doctor be a doctor" experience.
That summer, he shadowed surgical oncologist Dr. Martin Fleming.
"He loved what he did," Stokes said. "I loved how he treated people and what he was able to do outside of just healing people and helping them. Those two experiences made me want to go for it."
So as a sophomore, Stokes applied to the Vanderbilt School of Medicine through the school's early-acceptance program. The program only accepts a handful of Vanderbilt sophomores each year, allowing them to forego the MCAT and encouraging them to "take academic risks and/or perform scholarly work" while maintaining at least a 3.5 grade point average and fulfilling their pre-med requirements. Now entering his senior year, Stokes carries a 3.85 GPA.
"I was accepted," Stokes said. "And from there I've done a lot of different things, and I'm really fired up about it."
For Stokes, the first "different thing" was a 2009 trip to Belize through Manna Project International, a nonprofit started at Vanderbilt that connects young people with service projects in Central America. The group built school buildings and a playground for local children and helped farmers run irrigation lines to their crops.
This past spring, Stokes led a Manna group back to Belize. He serves on the campus group's executive board and is organizing trips for Spring Break 2011.
Stokes also had a different summer break than most this year. He spent four weeks in South Africa this May with his brother, Will, working on AIDS relief and prevention through the United States Agency for International Development.
These experiences have put a lot of different things into perspective for Stokes.
"I've really come to realize that the world is big," he said. "And there's a lot of people that don't get to play football in the SEC and have everything given to them. To understand that and to recognize the problems--not that there aren't problems here--but it's good to be reminded that college football at Vanderbilt, the things I have here, are not necessarily the norm."
Stokes' path through college has certainly strayed from any usual storyline by weaving together top-notch athletics and international relief efforts. Through it all, he has shown a continued ability to perform at the highest level both in a Vanderbilt classroom and on an SEC football field.
The training and preparation he has received, and the successes he has produced, have convinced Stokes he can tackle any challenge, whether at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine or in the National Football League. He will have the option to defer his medical school acceptance should the league come calling, his most likely look coming as a snapper.
"There's a confidence that comes from handling the responsibility and pressure of playing on Saturdays in the SEC with 100,000 people watching that carries over," Stokes said. "Most 22-year olds don't have that when they walk out of college. Being a part of something as big as an SEC football game and an SEC football team prepares you for a lot.
"I think the discipline it takes to play college football and get a degree from a place like Vanderbilt University is incredibly impactful, and it changes who you are. There's a sense in me that I can kind of do anything."
Still, Stokes is quick to deflect praise for his accomplisments, choosing instead to honor and thank those closest to him.
"There's an overwhelming sense in me that, although I've worked hard and done some things, I don't know that I have a whole lot to do with what's happened," Stokes said. "My parents, my friends, so many people around me; I'm a Christian, I love the Lord--I just feel that it's not me who did all this."