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Backstory: High school dropout to Rhodes scholar - mission possible

On the adventurous path to the top of his military class, brawn was the entry ticket, but brains kept him there.

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Among this year's 32 winners of the famously prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, only one can honestly say that having biceps like baseballs played a critical role.

Meet Nicholas Schmitz, a high school dropout who enlisted in the Marines at 17 and found his way through community college night classes to the US Naval Academy, where he's No. 1 in his class.

For six years without so much as two weeks off, he's wowed superiors as a quick study with loads of technical aptitude and a relentless work ethic. But it was his performance on the chin-up bars during a physical exam in 2000 that helped convince recruiters to admit him without a diploma.

"They required four chin-ups," says his proud father, Joe Schmitz, in an interview at the family home here.A staff sergeant suggested the deal was all but done when Nick "cranked out 26 perfect chin-ups, looked down, and said, 'Is that enough?' "

"That," says Joe Schmitz, "was definitely a performance waiver."

Nick Schmitz's unorthodox journey from boot camp to Oxford University, where he'll spend the next two years studying political theory on a full ride from the Rhodes Trust, might suggest a rise from humble origins. But he came from privilege - following an adventurous streak off the beaten path, largely to show himself what he could do.

"He's Huck Finn," says Bill Mohan, father of Schmitz's close high school friend Will Mohan. "You can tell from his smile that he's up for anything.... He's a rare Rhodes scholar. I'd guarantee most of them have taken very predictable courses in life, but Nick's is about as unpredictable as it gets."

Even Schmitz seems a little surprised by how it all worked out: "I wouldn't recommend it to my little brothers to do it this way. But for me, it was the right thing."

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