Alone in the dark


At about 1:30 AM on the night formerly known as March 21st, I opened Spotify and played “One More” by Jimmy Cliff.

It’s my victory song, a familiar concept in sports, where teams often designate a track to be played at celebratory volume in the locker room after each win over the course of a season. Victory songs usually change from year to year as unique rosters seek to leave their own mark on the locker room’s culture, but I’ve stuck with mine for over a decade.

So what victory am I celebrating? After all, I’m not a player or coach, and I certainly didn’t beat anyone. If there’s any sort of competition between media outlets, I’m usually happy if my work doesn’t look embarrassing next to someone else covering the event.

Some context might help answer the question. Cliff released “One More” in 2012, well after the reggae legend’s prime. It drew enough crossover airplay to reach my orbit, and instantly became a favorite. I already knew Cliff’s name, mostly thanks to his high-profile soundtrack work in the 1990s (The Lion King, Cool Runnings), but very little else about him. By 2012, with Hakuna Matata a couple decades in the past, I assumed he was dead, or at least retired.

“One More,” off of the aptly-named Rebirth album, exists to proclaim that he was neither of those things.

I got one more story to tell
Mystery, my story
I got one more story to tell
True story, my glory

I, too, am still here.

That might sound like a modest accomplishment, but if you feel that way, you probably haven’t spent as much time alone in the dark as I have.

A little more than 12 hours later, I was approached at a Cleveland State women’s tennis match and asked where on the planet I intended to be this week.

“Well, I was in Toledo last night for women’s basketball, and I was at Purdue Fort Wayne on Wednesday.”

That answer wasn’t acceptable from someone the inquisitor viewed as some sort of first-world transient: “Okay, but where to next?”

I’ve always had a hard time with the fact that people generally reduce who I am to “a guy that drives to a lot of places.” Any idiot with a car and gas money can drive, that’s nothing special. Tell me that I’m a good writer, I’d often beg internally while refusing to accept well-meaning praise. If not that, at least tell me that you enjoy my social posts. Don’t congratulate me for showing up in Detroit or Indianapolis or Dayton, congratulate me on the 2,000-word feature I wrote. I don’t want to merely be present, I want to be good.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that those road trips are extremely taxing, obviously on the finite amount of time we all have, but also on my mental health. It’s hard to pretend otherwise when, for hours on end, I’m fixated on flashing lines and that truck that’s going to force me to break my cruise control in a few seconds. There’s a radio, of course. Music, podcasts, and sports are always valid options, but after a certain point, they generally regress to a background hum in the all-encompassing void between any two dots on a map.

Beyond that moment, I mostly pass the time by thinking. There’s always a lot to think about. Sometimes it’s the game I’m traveling to or from and my ancillary efforts. Other times it’s the bike ride I’m not on at that moment or any number of other opportunity costs, the steep tax for being a Guy Who Drives. There’s also my high school girlfriend who just popped out another kid with a guy who definitely makes more money than me, the work I have to do on Monday, the car maintenance that I put off yet again (and the possible consequences of that decision), the t-shirt I ordered a month ago that still hasn’t arrived, life, death, and everything in between.

On March 21st, I thought about Millie Luedtke. Luedtke was a big forward on Iowa State’s women’s hockey team, and in a past that feels much more immediate than it was, she scored the only goal in the Cyclones’ ACHA national championship game victory over my Penn State squad. I replayed that goal in my head, in the same slow motion as I saw it live: one of our penalty killers missed a switch, leaving ISU’s leading scorer by herself at the bottom of the right circle. One good pass later, the puck was in the net. Then, after seven minutes of futile desperation, our best chance at a title in my run as a staff member with the program was over.

One thread was suddenly interrupted by another: that happened exactly a decade ago, in March of 2014. The players from that game are now 30 years old, give or take. Several are married and have started families. Virtually all have become successful adults, in whatever sense of that adjective resonates most with each individual.

Those hockey teams – where becoming an eyewitness was often the only way to know what was happening in a game – helped develop my obsession with going places, but ten years on, where am I? Alone in the dark, passing signs for Dollar General towns, just as I was on that drive home from Delaware in 2014. Others have moved on and added to their lives, but I’m stuck in a self-made purgatory, where I mostly just get older while doing, fundamentally, the same things that I’ve always done.

If nothing else, I’d like to think that I’ve made some sort of positive impact on the world along that long road, but the data points simply don’t exist. None of those PSU alumnae thought enough of our time together to invite me to their weddings, and my current relationship with any of them consists entirely of watching each other’s Instagram stories. I am, as Adam Scott’s character once described himself in Party Down, “playing an extra in other people’s lives.” I’m not a friend, I’m not a mentor, I’m not even a teammate. I drive places, I do my thing, then I’m largely forgotten as soon as I’m gone.

Just as I hit the nadir of my self-loathing, I reached over to grab some chips that I’d brought along, in case the Savage Arena media buffet wasn’t up to standard. The orange Better Made bag sent me down another synaptic trail.

Those barbecue chips and that bag were once part of a small box of Motor City staples that Kate Achter left to welcome me to Detroit Mercy in January, an unsolicited act of kindness at the end of a different drive.

There’s an inescapable truth to being alone in the dark. There will be a soul crushing amount of self-doubt, regret, and harsh flashes of clarity from all angles, but someone on the other side of that will always make you glad you showed up. The redemption is not always some grand gesture, it usually isn’t in fact, but any reminder that some see and appreciate the effort, time, and expense of chasing college basketball teams around the midwest helps bring me back from the brink.

There were plenty of other moments around the conference, both large and small. At the Horizon League tournament, Green Bay guard-turned-coach Meghan Pingel hit me with a high five as she and fellow assistant Patrick Bowlin chatted with me a couple hours before winning the conference championship, a visit that repeated a previous encounter with another Phoenix staff member, Sarah Bronk. At Wright State, assistant coach John Leonzo spotted me heading into the Nutter Center and joined me on that stroll.

Audra Emmerson and her mother, Jen, caught me while packing up after a game at Purdue Fort Wayne, a place where athletic director Kelley Hartley Hutton always stops by to ask if I need anything. On my last visit to see the Mastodons, director of basketball operations Kendal Muxlow gave me a beanie and a dri-fit top. Northern Kentucky great Lindsey Duvall found me behind a Truist Arena baseline to introduce herself.

I then thought a bit about the fact that I’d never actually met any of them prior to those encounters, yet each recognized and approached me. I suppose there were a few context clues that helped them out, but I still can’t get over the idea that they briefly saw a tiny picture on this website of some guy with a goofy half-smile. Then they were somehow able to apply those pixels to the three-dimensional world – a place where I spent most of the season with a much heavier beard than I have in the photo.

What’s more, I don’t even cover any of their teams, I simply talk about them sometimes as characters in the extended universe of my beat.

Cleveland State is a bit more familiar with me, of course, and throughout my three years around the program, all involved have repeatedly done everything they can to accommodate me. Sometimes it’s Chris Kielsmeier’s angled handshake after yet another postgame press conference for an audience of one in a locker room hallway, and other times it’s a clipping from a championship net. Did those things happen because I was present or because I was good? Does it even matter?

As Cliff and his band played out the final seconds of “One More,” my thoughts shifted a final time, from the amount of sleep I’d manage before work to the notion that I’d been slightly misinterpreting the song for years. It’s not simply a reminder of a man’s survival, a declaration that he’s available for another go-round, another story. It’s an invocation, a summoning of the will to meet forces felt a thousand times but that still evade explanation. It’s one thing to be alive in the biological sense, another entirely to be living in the spiritual sense.

I got one more shot at the prize
So don’t be surprised
Open your eyes
I got one more shot at the goal
Straight from my soul
And I’m in control

So am I. And I’m choosing to throw aside my worst thoughts from my worst moments, so that I can continue running my best race until the wheels come off. I may spend hours alone in the dark, but when those arena lights go on, I’m never alone.

I’m ready for one more.

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