Jan. 7, 2009
21st blog - Meet two guys with even better seats than me. But they've earned their spots.
By Brendan O'Hallarn I had my usual courtside seat for ODU's heart-stopping win over plucky James Madison University on Wednesday night.
It took me hours to fall asleep after the game, because I was still so worked up about the Monarchs' 74-72 win, which featured nine ties and eight lead changes.
"If you're a college basketball fan, you sure had fun watching that one," said a relieved Coach Blaine Taylor after the win. The Monarchs had to weather a three-point barrage from JMU's Julius Wells, whose 29 points included seven three pointers, a couple of them ridiculous off-balance jumpers from well behind the three-point arc. The shot that would have been his eighth three rattled off the rim with four seconds to go and ODU hung on. "It felt good, it looked good. It just didn't go in," Wells said.
Two other young men have even better seats than me for the Division I college basketball drama. But Paul Meredith and Calvin Williams earn their spots on the bench. Meredith is a walk-on, and Williams is a manager with the basketball team.
It's not a glamorous job. They work as hard as the starters in practice, doing every drill they're asked to. They lift weights, they run. But at gametime, Williams and Meredith sit in street clothes and watch their friends go to battle.
Their situation isn't the same as redshirt players Josh Hicks and Anton Larsen. Those two players are on scholarship, and will be on the active roster next year if they're healthy.
Williams and Meredith don't know if they'll ever suit up for an ODU game. They don't even get numbers on their practice jerseys. "No number on the jersey stands for you have to work your way up," Meredith says.
I interviewed Meredith pregame on Wednesday, just after he'd finished running up and down the stairs of the Ted Center bleachers with Larsen and Hicks. While Meredith chatted with me, still dripping with sweat, Williams shagged balls on the court for the ODU players, helping them get ready for tipoff.
Meredith is attending ODU on the GI Bill, as both his mother and father are with the U.S. Army in Iraq. The 19-year-old transferred to ODU from Virginia Wesleyan University, and is studying to be a computer systems analyst.
He contacted the coaching staff before training camp started, and latched on as a walk-on player. "As a walk-on, it's real hard," he says. "We're all a family, we're all a team, but scholarship players, they get paid to go to school, so they get priority."
But the veteran players on the team treat Williams and Meredith with respect, for the effort they show, and their off-court leadership.
Starting point guard Darius James says he loves having Meredith and Williams around, and is impressed with how hard they work, given that they don't get the reward of pulling on a Monarchs jersey on gameday.
"It shows how much they love the game, how much they love the team, how much they want to be around," James said. "Calvin's in his second year, and he'll sometimes be the one to motivate us, 'C'mon, let's go shoot some more.'"
James said he's even more impressed with what Calvin and Paul are doing in their non-basketball lives. "Calvin has a 4.0 GPA, he can help you off the court as well. And Paul, with his parents being in Iraq, they've really got a lot they can teach us."
Williams is in his second year as a manager with the team. The physical education and sports management major is also 28, almost a decade older than his teammates. But he fits right in as a vocal, positive presence at practice.
"I talked with Coach Taylor and he told me that he loves having me around," Williams says. "He just says he loves my energy that I bring to the team. He loves me giving guys tips when I notice things on the side. Also, I give the guys a push. When we were trying out we'd run two miles in workouts, and I'd always be first, second or third, so that would motivate the guys to go harder."
Associate Coach Jim Corrigan is a bit of an inspiration to the two non-roster athletes. The long-time college assistant turned down scholarship offers to walk on at Duke University, and ended up playing on a Duke team that went to the Final Four in 1978.
Corrigan understands what might motivate Williams and Meredith. "It was a little different back then; there were a few more players who I did. But every day these guys come to practice, they work hard, they do what they can to contribute because they want to stay involved. It's great to have them."
Both the players know of Corrigan's experience. They know the score - they're not scholarship athletes on a team that already is redshirting two full-ride players. But part of them still dreams of having an opportunity to pull on that white ODU jersey and "run out of the tunnel," Williams says.
And just like "Rudy" from the classic sports movie, Williams and Meredith are undersized, but do their best to make up for it with heart.
"I'm a part of the team now, but I also hope to work my way up to dressing out for games, and maybe one day get playing time," Meredith says.
"Even though I'm not dressing out, everything else is like I'm part of the team. I go on some trips. I go to practices with the team. The only thing different is that I don't run out of the tunnel with the team," Williams says.
"That's what kind of drives me to stay on the team. Other guys would die to be in my situation, whether they dress out or not. I just have to keep working hard and hopefully one day, I'll dress."
Brendan O'Hallarn is an employee in the office of University Relations at ODU.
Brendan's Blog 46