A year ago I knew it was possible Colorado meant the end of basketball for me. Sure, I talked tough and tried to think tough, but come on. Double hip surgery for a 17-year-old? Not an easy road. Well, a year and a day later, I’m back on the road to Colorado, but it’s not an end. It’s just another start, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo. This road is the one less traveled. However hard it’s going to be, though, I know it will be good for me in the end. Everything I went through is finally paying off. One year ago I was just out of surgery, barely walking. Now I’m getting ready to play college basketball, after an 11th-hour offer from the head coach at Air Force. An offer out of the wild blue yonder, you might say. It’s hard to believe how far I’ve come and maybe that’s the beauty of it. After a whole year of doubt not knowing what I was going to do, not knowing what was going to happen, it finally is a relief that I understand my path now. I can’t explain how good it feels to finally have a set direction. That magical run our team made to the state finals is what made this possible. Even the way the Air Force offer happened was magical. At a recruiting visit I hesitated to make to a school in West Virginia, another recruit tipped me off to the idea that Air Force needed another guard. We contacted Air Force, and sure enough I found a coach who liked my game. Incredible. So now I build myself up to focus on the next task at hand. Air Force is the beginning of a new journey, hopefully a journey that will consist of many accomplishments. My life will be very different. I know it will be tough, but that should only help in the long run. The experience at Air Force will benefit me. I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life. Too long have I been waiting to move on. Now is the time. July 15th is the date. From Colorado to Colorado. One journey ends and another begins.
My school, Upper Arlington, has won over 100 state titles. In basketball, we only have one. It happens to be our school’s first state championship back in 1937. This year, we had 8 players on our team who grew up and lived within a mile of each other. Most of us had been playing together since 3rd grade. We were always good, from all the way back then. It carried through to middle school, where we only lost two games in two years. And most of us were still playing as this year unfolded. Were we destined to win this year? The amount of time and effort we put in. The obstacles we had to overcome. 26 victories in a row. March 22, 2014, the state title game at the Schottenstein Center on Ohio State’s campus. Up 3 over St. Ed’s with 4.7 seconds to go. Then they hit a miracle shot to tie. At the buzzer. Forced overtime and beat us. So, so close. My goal had been to make it to the State Final Four. I had missed the entire recruiting season during my summer heading into senior year due to my hip injury and I knew the only way for me to get back on somebody’s radar and to get people to see me was to make it to states. We did. My team, and I personally, achieved more than anyone thought we would. Those of us who played felt differently, though. We knew from a young age that we could compete with anybody, and it showed this year. We battled and fought, and won and won and won, until the end. We just ended up one shot short. It wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t cry after that game. I knew I had done everything in my power to get to that spot. From where I was almost a year ago, not being able to walk after hip surgery or even shoot because of my thumb surgery, to where I was that game, well, I knew I had done something special. My tears came later from the thought that I wouldn’t play another game with the people I had grown up with. We were a team that faced adversity and overcame it. That shot will always haunt us but we’ll know there is nothing to be ashamed of in how we lost. I guess we should have fouled before they could shoot, to put them on the free throw line. We left the game up to fate. In the end the ball went in and we lost in overtime. But, you know, we all left it all on the floor, and that’s what I’m proud of. We were a great team. The scoreboard can’t change that.
One year ago our season was already over. The best we could produce was 11-11. Eleven and 11, are you serious? That’s terrible. We had won the OCC three years in a row and we couldn’t even get above .500. Our future looked bleak. Our upcoming season was in question. We hadn’t proven ourselves. How would we do? It didn’t just end there. It was worse for me. I had just received news from doctors that I might never play again. How is a 17-year-old supposed to react to that? You can’t play sports again. Are you kidding me? My first reaction was, like, screw you. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Then came the facts that seemed they like would never stop coming out of this doctor’s mouth. Silence. And then it hit. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. My mental state took a major turn. The only comfort I had was my family. My parents were looking out for me, though. Spring break of last year was a trip to Florida but also a search for a new solution. My mom never left her i-pad on that trip and sure enough she found a doctor. There was hope. A long journey was ahead of me–and look where we are today. Almost exactly a year anniversary from when my life seemed over in my mind. Last year I was watching Watterson live my dream. This year my dream is becoming a reality. We are in the final four. We have arrived. I knew from the get-go that our team always had the potential. To me it doesn’t really seem like a shock. If you asked anyone on our team I think they’d all say that they knew we were good and that we just had to prove it. Our season started all the way back in September with morning workouts. But for me it seemed like last season never ended. We had something to prove and I was in a constant grind to get myself healthy and ready for the season. I’ve been working myself to get where I am today. And for the last third of the season I’ve kinda felt like how I used to feel. Everything I went through was worth it. All the pain and suffering and doubts were worth it. I’ve made it and now all I have to do is finish. The hard part is over. Now, I rarely pat myself on the back. And if you don’t believe that ask my teammates. But I believe I can be proud of how far I’ve come. I went through three major surgeries in the past calendar year and have made it to the Division I state final four. I have survived over 100 of Coach Casey’s practices–that’s no small feat–and I’ve conquered unimaginable goals. I realize that when you need to overcome things your mind is your greatest weapon, no matter how difficult or easy the task at hand is. If your mind isn’t right then everything becomes harder. We believe we can win. I believe we can win. And that’s all that matters!
Here we were, in mid-January, halfway through the season. I did in fact get back for the first game but I wasn’t fully there. My conditioning was bad and I just didn’t feel right yet. My shot wasn’t falling and my passes weren’t going where I wanted them to go. My timing was off. Yeah, we had only lost one game so far. We had won our Christmas tournament in Missouri, but I still just didn’t feel the same. I knew I could bring more to the table. I was just waiting for it to turn on. Then there came a point in the season where I guess I just got fed up with what was going on. I got angry. It was in the third quarter of a game against Thomas Worthington on January 17. Coach sat me down when I wasn’t even playing bad. We had only scored 18 points late in the third quarter and we were down to a team I knew we should be dominating. I couldn’t take it anymore. When he put me back in I played a whole different type of basketball. I played angry. I hit a big three and ended up leaving my fingerprints all over the rest of the game. Now I’m a very modest person, but if you could talk to my teammates and the people at that game they’d tell you I turned that game around. From that game on things for me were different. Everything seemed to start clicking.
Baby steps. That’s where I am in my life right now. An 18-year-old adult taking baby steps. That doesn’t make sense. But to me, it’s as clear as it gets. I’m thankful to be at this point. For those of you who don’t know, I had two hip surgeries this past summer and to be here at this stage I feel blessed to have the opportunity to gain ground and recover. You know, it’s different. I have to watch everything I’m doing. I have to make sure every muscle is firing correctly, I have to make sure my mechanics are perfect, and I have to listen to my body at the same time and try to decode what it’s telling me. It’s not just the physical baby steps, though. It’s the mental aspect. That’s the hardest part. I have to retrain my mind to believe in my body. Because I can tell you right now, that’s not the case. All the signs from my body are saying let’s roll while my mind on the other hand is saying take it easy, chill, slow it down, come back to earth, you’re not superman. I mean, it’s a constant battle, literally a battle. I feel like I’m making progress but then again it’s hard to tell. In order to combat this, one of the things I’ve done throughout this journey is I’ve video-logged my thoughts. Sometimes I’ll look back through them just to reiterate to myself that I am getting better. Even doing this, it’s still difficult to tell if I’m making strides; everything seems so mushed together because I haven’t really done anything in so long. That’s why whenever I see improvement I try to remember that day and what it felt like so that I can compare it to the next time when I think I’ve made an improvement.
It’s a slow process. That’s one of the hardest things to grasp for me. I’ve always been living in the fast lane and these days it’s much like the mom-walking lane speed. I want to be back so badly that I have to check myself to remember my focus. No basketball games are played in these months. My goal is to be 100% for the first game and that’s where these baby steps are leading me. I want to succeed so badly that I have begun to fear failing sometimes. That’s one of the hardest things for me to overcome and I’m not so good at it. Fearing failure is a negative for me. It hurts my recovery. By fearing failure I miss out on some speedier results I could have from these baby steps, because I fear that some of the things I do will bring back the pain I used to have. Right now it’s so hard to get that out of my mind. I have to trust that everything is going to be OK. I have to trust that these baby steps will lead me where I want to go. I have to trust the support I have around me telling me that if I stick to the plan then nothing is going to stop me. These steps have made me realize I can’t be afraid or I’ll never reach my potential.
It wasn’t going to be easy. I was up against the world. Nobody thinks you’re going to recover. Noone believes in you except yourself. In Vail everybody believed in me. Each person down the line. Every person I met made me feel a part and that anything could be accomplished. It would be hard but it would be worth it. You have to be dedicated to your recovery. And for athletes that’s pretty easy. You’re trying to get back to the activity or sport you play and that has to be your motivation. Not to be motivated by the people who doubt you but motivated by the people who believe in you and give you strength. Vail was a life changing experience for me and I’ll never forget it. I will always feel a part of Colorado because of the time I spent there. I didn’t want to go home when I was there. Everything seemed so perfect and I felt like nothing could go wrong while I was out there.The people I met and those that helped me recover I will never forget. I will always feel like I owe them something for what they did for me.