The Walk-Ons

I always respect with great appreciation that I have had the tremendous good fortune to teach and coach great kids who have taught me more than I ever taught them.

With the success of Ohio State football and Virginia basketball, I can’t help but think about two student athletes who I have had the privilege of knowing and sharing both classroom and field/court with in the past 20 years.

Both athletes had a vision to attend their chosen school at a very young age, and both due to a family connection being so strong because someone each loved and respected had attended the school.

According to modern metrics, neither had any business playing at their “dream” school.   Speed and sizr being those which separate the D1 kid from the rest of the pack, also represent the areas where both found themselves most disadvantaged.

But never in my life have I found more of an elite composite of intangibles of human character than in Tara McKnight and Michael Cibene.

There are those who make excuses,  and then there is Tara McKnight.   Never have I seen someone work as hard, with as much humility, for her team, for her family, and with genuine love of the process than T- dog…and always with a smile on her face and genuity in her gait. She loved the process.  She was a state champion a few times, and an All-Stater. Many schools wanted her- the Ivy’s were sure she would join them.  Her pedigree in the classroom made that path even more obvious.

But she had a family full of Cavaliers at home.  An example in her father of persistence and beating the odds to play professional golf.  She wanted to be a Cav. So she went to UVA, walked on as a frosh, and didn’t make it.  So she did what most people wouldn’t do- she kept at it. Worked harder, lifted more, played the best competition.  But all the while, she worked hard in class, enjoyed college, and continued to be the kind of person you prayed your child would find ànd befriend.

Sophomore year rolled around and despite the fact that she hadn’t grown, gotten faster, or suddenly evolved her game in an unforseen way, she walked on again and made the team.  2 years later, she was named captain.  In fact, she became a bit of a celebrity.  Truth be told, it was not her basketball skills that brought her the affection of so many, rather her character, her joy, her genuity, and the way she endears herself to everyone she meets have led to her to be so loved.

So as I moved on, I truly believed Tara was a once in a lifetime kid.  And she was.  But I was blessed again by having the opportunity to work with Michael Cibene.  While Tara was quite accomplished as a basketball player, Michael was still finding himself when I first worked with him. In fact, he played golf instead of football in 7th grade.  And in 8th grade, he didn’t take the world by storm as a 130 lb center. But he had a love of the game, and again possessed that similar set of intangibles that endeared him to his coaches and peers, alike.

Over the next 4 years, his work ethic continued to develop, his passion for the game continued to percolate, and his leadership acumen grew to a high level.  He led by example, and with his enthusiasm for playing, for his teammates, and through his unwavering faith.

What always struck me as unique in Michael was how obvious it was to everyone that his growth, resilience, and passions evolved from his faith.   This strength of conviction has been integral in many a peer, and even a few teachers and coaches, reflecting on and more firmly embracing their own faith.

Michael’s grandfather, who is also his best friend, is a passionate Ohio State Buckeye.  From a young age, Michael has followed suit in sharing this passion for his grandfather’s alma mater.  He always wanted to go there- and as an athlete, he obviously wanted to play there.  But everyone knew that at 6’0 170lbs with a 40 yard dash time somewhere around the high 4’s at best, that his opportunity to participate in OSU football would come as a spectator.

Everyone except for Michael.   As the time to graduate high school moved closer, so did Michael’s efforts in this direction increase- rapidly.   A strong senior year as a defensive end, followed by making the state championships in weight lifting certainly put playing football at a DIII school in the discussion.  But OSU? The Big Ten? No way- the best player to come out of his school in many years was playing at Northwestern.  We knew what a Big Ten player looks like- and Michael didn’t fit the bill.

Then something happened.   He got to Columbus, walked on, and made the team.  It happened so naturally, as if this is what was supposed to happen.

So when he stood on the field a few weeks ago embracing his best friend and grandfather after his team won the National Championship, he exemplified, much like Tara did, all the intangibles, character, passion, and love that go into pursuing and achieving a seemingly unattainable goal.

Tara’s father once said in an interview (see the piece on Tara here) that we must love the process and working hard towards a goal.  Because just because we work hard doesn’t mean that we are going to get where we want to go, but it makes the experience more enjoyable on the way.

Many thanks to Tara and Michael for what they have given me, their peers, and all who know them: an archetypal example of what we are capable of in this world.


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