Creating a legacy requires talent and time. Dedication. Spirit. And a greater vision. And that vision began at St. Thomas.
For five luminaries and a group of legendary state champions, their reputations now carry the greatest recognition afforded a St. Thomas scholar-athlete – enshrinement into the institution’s prestigious Sports Hall of Fame.
Character. Contributions. Brotherhood. Those reputations define who they were as young men. And who they have become. For themselves. For their families and communities. For their institution. And for the future of St. Thomas.
The latest inductees along with the triumphant 1965 Eagle Football state champions understood that the race was never over. The journey had no port. The adventure never ended because they were always … on the way. The 2020 honorees were remembered and revered in a rousing November celebration in Cemo Auditorium hosted by Athletic Director Mike Netzel. The festive salute was delayed more than a year because of COVID-19 concerns.
David Apolskis ‘89 was a highly decorated offensive lineman and fulcrum for the 1988 state champions before accepting a prestigious scholarship to the University of Southern California. The big bruiser on campus possessed the advanced ability to explode into an opponent and drive him five yards back, drawing an avalanche of attention from college recruiters. He didn’t just block, he embarrassed. He didn’t merely finish plays, he destroyed.
Along with his size and straight-ahead speed, Apolskis added a rare, phenomenal lateral agility and balance. He could slide and adjust to a stunt like a tippy-toe dancer, the same 265-pound guy capable of annihilating a defender playing him straight up.
Following a redshirt season, Apolskis started six games at center for USC in 1990 and earned second-team freshman All-American honors. He quickly picked up the necessary tricks of the trenches to pair with his raw power and natural quickness.
But the joy of being a beast in a big man’s game, the joy of being a superior athlete with vast potential was abruptly silenced in life-threatening fashion.
Two days before the Trojans were to report to practice in August 1991, Apolskis was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Surgeries and chemotherapy treatments that removed cancerous abdominal lymph nodes wiped out his season. He triumphantly returned to football and finished his collegiate career in 1993.
“I showed up as a freshman at St. Thomas and three weeks later my father passed away,” Apolskis says. “This school, my teammates and coaches and teachers got me through that. The strength I gained from that experience was invaluable in dealing with cancer. I was also surrounded by a great support system at USC. And honestly, I was only 20 years old. I wanted to live. I was determined to win the battle.”
Apolskis received his Masters in Business Administration from the University of St. Thomas in 2007 and is currently a sales specialist with Mission Critical Systems for Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
The Apolskis’ athletic lineage runs rich and deep. His brother Rick ‘85 was inducted into the St. Thomas Sports Hall of Fame in 2017 after a standout career at Arkansas. Their father Richard was the St. Thomas head basketball coach from 1972-78 following a distinguished playing career at the University of Houston for Hall of Fame head coach Guy Lewis. Grandfather Chuck was a defensive end for the Chicago Bears. And great uncle Ray played linebacker and offensive lineman for the then-Chicago Cardinals before and after his World War II military service commitment as a captain in the Marines who fought in Okinawa, Japan. He then was part of the Cardinals’ last NFL championship team in 1947.
“This is not the NFL gold jacket but to share this same Hall of Fame recognition with Rick is just as special for the two of us,” Apolskis says. “More than anything else, this is a celebration and honor for my mother Roxanne, all that she did as a single parent to provide a future for me and my younger brother John.”
Nduka Odizor ‘77 was a transfer student from Nigeria, sponsored to the United States by University of Houston psychology professor Dr. Robert Wren. Odizor led Eagle Tennis to a district team title, earning an athletic scholarship to the University of Houston three years ahead of his basketball-playing countryman, Hakeem Olajuwon. Odizor was a three-time All-American at UH, a 1981 NCAA semifinalist in singles and doubles, and was voted the Male Academic Cougar of the Year.
In 1983, Odizor rallied from two sets to none and match point in the third to defeat No. 4 Wimbledon seed Guillermo Vilas in four hours, four minutes on the way to the round of 16. He added professional tournament titles that year, in Taiwan and Nigeria. The tennis odyssey included climbing from a world ranking of 457 in 1980 to as high as 52 in 1984 and representing Nigeria in the 1998 Summer Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Odizor’s impact is measured outside the lines of his game, changing the trajectories of lives. He is the president of Anointed Holdings Group, LLC, a property developer for affordable housing and commercial real estate for the sub-Saharan region of West Africa, and is an honorary member of Tennis for Africa, a non-profit outreach program designed to benefit under-served youth.
“My story has come full circle. A poor guy coming from Africa, adopted by foster parents, educated by the Basilian Fathers, graduating from college, and playing in the Olympics. When I came to St. Thomas, I needed the structure, the discipline, coming from a different culture. What I learned here was benevolence which is why I’m so involved in helping kids.”
Thomas J. Robinson ‘89 was a distinguished two-sport two-year captain for Eagle Basketball, and Eagle Track and Field. He blazed a 10.3 100 meters and a :47 400 meters at the Texas Southern Relays, earning an athletic scholarship to attend Lamar University, where he holds school records in the 400 meters (46.33 in 1992) and 200 meters (21.32 in 1993). In 1992, Robinson became the first Lamar student-athlete to reach the NCAA Indoor National Championships and was the program’s only qualifier until 2009.
“The credo of goodness, discipline, and knowledge has given me a direction, driven me to be the best throughout my life, whether academics, athletics, or as a person. Since leaving high school I’ve come to appreciate all the opportunities St. Thomas provided, to be around excellence. The challenges were demanding but that’s life. I was prepared to be successful.”
Larry Strelau ‘64 was an accomplished two-sport co-captain scholar-athlete who quarterbacked Eagle Football to the state championship game against Waco Reicher Catholic.
Strelau earned an athletic scholarship to continue his baseball career at the University of Houston. He was the starting catcher in 1967, teaming with All-American Tom Paciorek, Ken Hebert, and Ike Lewis in leading the Cougars to their first College World Series since 1953, reaching the CWS final against Arizona St.
“I never thought when I was a St. Thomas student that I would return one day to enter the Hall of Fame. I went to St. Thomas with the goal of getting an education, playing for great coaches and winning championships. Definitely, it never crossed my mind eventually receiving this kind of recognition. I’m eternally grateful.”
C. Tyrell Whisenton ‘94 was an acclaimed two-sport scholar-athlete for Eagle Athletics. The three-year starter and 1994 All-State performer for Eagle Basketball earned All-Greater Houston by the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post while averaging 21 points per game.
Whisenton accepted an athletic scholarship to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio where he is a member of the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. The two-time NAIA All-American and a three-time All-Heart of Texas Conference selection twice participated in the NAIA national tournament. Whisenton led the Rattlers in scoring during his sophomore and junior seasons and was a valuable contributor on the 1996 conference championship team. He remains the school’s all-time 3-point leader with 176 during his four-year career.
Whisenton received his bachelor’s in psychology from St. Mary’s and his Masters in Business from San Francisco Art Institute. His professional profile includes serving as an insurance and financial services agent for State Farm; a franchise owner for Human Healthy Vending; and a proprietor for Outback Steakhouse. He is married to Ginger Grimes Whisenton, also a member of the St. Mary’s Athletics Hall of Fame after leading the volleyball program to its most successful period in school history – a 148-23 record from 1993-96 and a fifth-place finish at the NAIA national tournament.
“There was always a unique feel walking into Reckling Gymnasium. The first time was when I was at St. Peter’s and we played the middle school tournament here, such a strong impression, that’s the reason I decided on St. Thomas. Goodness, discipline, and knowledge have carried me through my life, whether my playing career or my business opportunities. I’m passing those values to my daughter (11-year-old Sydney) in every way I can.”
1965 Eagle Football dominated to repeat as TCIL state champions with head coach Joe McDonald and lead assistant Burr Davis. The program’s third straight crown came in the midst of eight state titles from 1964-73.
The Eagles featured a bespoke offense and bone-crushing defense during an 11-1 assault, capped by a 27-7 victory over Waco Reicher Catholic to seal consecutive titles, allowing 65 total yards and only three first downs in the clincher. The tour de force included six shutouts with four straight to start the season, a 23-13 victory over Clear Creek to avenge the only defeat from the previous season, plus 14-0 over Strake Jesuit, 23-0 over Mt. Carmel, 7-0 over St. Pius X, and 82-14 over Marian. The lone setback was a 14-6 defeat to La Porte. The postseason included a 14-6 win over Galveston Kirwin (later merged into O’Connell College Preparatory).
The headliners included tri-captains John Sage ‘66, Larry Stegent ‘66, and Mike Young ‘66 with Sage and Stegent later selected in the 1970 NFL Draft. Nine scholar-athletes earned Division I scholarships to Houston, LSU, Rice, Texas A&M, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas-El Paso, Tulane University, and the United States Military Academy.
There is a flip side to Apolskis the football road grader, Apolskis the Hall of Famer. Apolskis the humble, gentle, loving heart, which isn’t celebrated in the machismo of the hard-knock gridworld. He and his wife Leslie have two thriving daughters. Sanna is a sophomore at Fordham University studying digital media. Erica is a high school junior at Tomball Memorial.
The many common connections Apolskis has always shared with his fellow Hall of Fame brothers is a deep, foundational root in making a difference, within his family, his community, anywhere he’s called.
“Those three special words say it all – goodness, discipline, and knowledge,” Apolskis says. “I have a wonderful wife and I couldn’t be more blessed to have her as a partner in this journey. She pushes me to be better, to do more, to be the best person. And inevitably it comes back to what was instilled here at St. Thomas.”
Eagle Fight Never Dies!