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My Surreal Viewpoint Of The Day Athletics Stood Still As A Former Athlete

Image: Ed Zurga / Stringer

March 12, 2020 will always be a day I remember. It will be a day in my life that I remember exactly who I was with and where I was when the news broke. In a few ways, it was worse than watching a tragedy play out on TV because I viewed the impact firsthand and it didn’t just seem like a horrible movie I was watching.

Yesterday started fairly normal with meetings set at the Downton Kansas City Marriott with athletic departments, both current partners and prospects. I have been blessed to have a career immersed inside of college athletics and, at times, a front row view. The Marriott serves as the main hotel for Big XII teams in our hometown during the basketball tournament. I was actually in between meetings with two schools when I got the first text from an administrator when the life-changing news broke about cancellations of all games. I was in denial at first that something as big as college basketball could be brought down so quickly by a virus that, at that point, had seemingly impacted very few Americans. It was a really chaotic scene from the lobby restaurant with players, coaches, and administrators all trying to digest the rapidly spreading news. In times like that, it is hard to discern fact from fiction, but it quickly was obvious this March would be like none other before. 

I talked firsthand with Athletic Directors who had just told their teams the news and were witnesses to dreams being ripped away. In seconds, basketball players went from mentally preparing for the biggest moments of their careers on a basketball court to hearing, in some cases, they will never put that jersey on again.

People outside the industry or who weren’t former athletes won’t understand, but when you spend all of your life trying to achieve specific goals, it is a devastating moment when those are unexpectedly ripped away. Unfortunately, all competitive athletes realize that someday it will come to an end. But nobody envisions it would end like it did yesterday. It made the day all of that much more difficult seeing the tears on faces of both young men and young women basketball players as the reality set in after the news was confirmed.

When you spend all of your life trying to achieve specific goals, it is a devastating moment when those are unexpectedly ripped away.

At the same time as I sat and soaked in the moment, I saw ops people and administrators dealing with the business side of the sport where you have to worry about travel, meals, and logistics. Literally people then had to transition from everything is cancelled to how do we get home and where are our bags. At one point, I saw the head basketball coach at Iowa State pushing a luggage cart and proving to be a servant leader in a moment of need for someone else. It was hard to watch as fans rushed the hotel registration desk to deal with early checkout options and wanting to get home to the safety of their normal worlds. 

Unfortunately, everyone knew the magnitude of the virus had hit close to home and could not be denied anymore. One awesome thing in retrospect is that everyone I watched or came into contact with was kind, polite, and empathetic. Not once in the hours I was in that Marriott lobby did I see anger or frustration turn into ugliness, which was quite refreshing in a potentially scary and devastating moment.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, my mind raced between personal empathy for the teams and coaches to the reality of my own world and how this would impact my life. Annually I travel to conference tournaments, each round of the tournament, and to the Final Four for business reasons, but also to reconnect with lifelong friends in the college athletics industry. There was a time or two that I was selfishly sad about the people and traditions I wouldn’t be able to continue this year because of the virus. Many times during the day, I had to remind myself of the bigger picture of society and the future health of our country. I know these decisions were made with great care and were the right decisions, but when you have spent your whole life in and around college athletics, it is easy to get caught up in the micro level moment. 

Yesterday was a day where dreams ended and goals were no longer obtainable.

Yesterday was a day where dreams ended and goals were no longer obtainable, which is tough in our industry. Athletes and competitors don’t mind as much if they are not the victors on the field of battle after a fair fight, but when outside forces rip things away, it is harder to digest. Many of these kids will face mental health challenges now and in the future because life as they know it will never be the same and this abrupt ending will not make that any easier. I spent time reflecting yesterday and hoping that all of these student-athletes have access to counselors because it will be needed more than ever. Again, hard for some outside of sports to realize, but when you only know one way of life for maybe 17 of your 22 years, it can be an extremely hard transition.

Yesterday I spent time reflecting on my own last ever college track meet wearing the proud pink and blues of the Kansas track team. It was a very long time ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the infield of the Nebraska outdoor Big 8 track meet after finishing the mile relay.  Realistically, I knew it was the last time I would ever put on a pair of spikes and compete at the highest level. I sat with my teammates from the relay and in many ways didn’t want that moment to end. All of the sudden the years of running circles didn’t seem so painful and I probably would have done most anything to have one more shot at running another lap on a track. All I could think about yesterday is how those senior basketball players will remember their last day of competition. I wish there was another way and another solution, but unfortunately, their memories will be quite different than mine. Hopefully in time, they all cherish the good times and life-long friends they have all created. Those are the things that will keep many of them afloat in the days and weeks ahead.

One thing that I pray will soon be apparent to all of these fine young men and women that had their dreams dashed yesterday is that the same traits that made them elite athletes will allow them to be successful in life after sports if channeled properly. It is hard to realize for those seniors, but they are rare individuals that accomplished things that millions of kids could only dream about. All of those same traits like being a team player, coachable, hardworking, and competitive provide a key place in the game of life. It was a surreal day and one I will never forget, but also one that will help drive me everyday in a career that I am more passionate about than ever before. I am blessed to work at a company where every day we have a mission to help former college athletes succeed in life after sports. Just like yesterday and every day moving forward, my goal is to take my experiences and help others get better.

I hope this crisis passes soon for all Americans as well as globally, but yesterday was a day I will never forget. God bless us all!