Remembering 56

Not everyone plays.

That’s the harsh reality in college football.  Any college sport, really.  Kids who dominated entire conferences in high school are suddenly fighting with 14 other high school superstars for five spots on an offensive line.  And the weeding-out process continues in college, with Heisman winners failing to even get drafted.  More than one million high school football players, 10,625 FBS scholarships, 256 NFL draft spots every year.

On that continuum, Shawn Afryl was the high school superstar who got one of those college scholarships but never found the starting lineup.  We’re crass, so we say that they’re a “bust” or, if we’re attempting to be kind, that they “never panned out”, and we even go as far as to start to discuss who might fill their scholarship the minute they transfer.  Fans have this insatiable thirst for victories, so maybe the next guy can crack the starting lineup.  There’s always a next guy.

For those of us looking in from the outside, that was Shawn Afryl’s path.  Graduated high school early and arrived in Champaign early.  Redshirted his first year, and then didn’t play his redshirt freshman season.  Then, a coaching change, with the line coach who brought him here moving on and a new scheme/position coach for his redshirt sophomore season.  He did play, once, in the Charleston Southern game in 2012.  I always watch for guys like Shawn during our FCS games.  I want to see their reaction to their first “Afryl, get in there” moment.  I hope it was amazing for Shawn.

After that 2012 season, a decision.  He was still technically a “sophomore” in football terms that spring, but in school he was a senior, getting ready to graduate after seven semesters.  With the new coaching staff recruiting players for their scheme, should he go to grad school and stick it out?  Transfer?  Go somewhere he could play?  Afryl chose to graduate and leave, ending up at Winona State in Minnesota.

And that’s what he was doing last night.  During an informal football practice with teammates at Winona State, Shawn Afryl collapsed and died during voluntary strength and conditioning drills.  22 years old, college graduate, the chance to play one more season of college football, and it’s gone.  He’s gone.

For me, as it is for many of you I’m sure, his untimely death is an unfortunate time machine back to similar circumstances in our own lives.  For me it was 1997 and my friend Mark who, just 383 days after I stood up in his wedding, collapsed and died playing sand volleyball.  He was a college basketball player – he remains the all-time leading scorer at Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis – and suddenly he was gone at age 25.  The autopsy showed the cause to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM.  Reggie Lewis, Hank Gathers, Gaines Adams, and many other athletes have died suddenly from HCM.  Mark was happy, healthy, and in love, and then Mark was gone.

I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at Mark’s funeral, and in preparing for it, not knowing what to say, I gathered all of our friends together to get their words about Mark.  Because of that experience, and because I couldn’t begin to do Shawn Afryl’s memory justice as a blogger who spoke with him only a few times, I decided to let his friends tell you about him.

You see, he might have only played that once, but that’s not how college football works.  There are film rooms.  There are pregame rituals with second-stringers leading the charge.  There are late night chats about football and class and life, and it’s usually not the superstars handing out the wisdom.  The Illini football team is a family, and they lost a family member yesterday, and I want his brothers to tell you about him.  So using direct messages on Twitter (phone calls just didn’t feel right here), I asked several of his offensive line brethren to share their thoughts about him.

Like Alex Hill.  Hill arrived in Champaign with Afryl as a member of the 2010 recruiting class.  The 2010 offensive line recruiting class, to be exact.  I asked him for his thoughts about Shawn.

“The best man I had the opportunity to meet. He never showed signs of being down and always had a happy spirit. We came here together in 2010 and he was one of the first friends I made.  Seeing him gone honestly breaks my heart.  But at least he got to do what he loves one more time, and that’s football.”

Michael Heitz, also a member of that 2010 class, said the same. “Great, super caring guy. Would do anything for you if you asked.  One of the hardest workers I know.”

Simon Cvijanvoic was the fourth member of that 2010 offensive line class.  His response: “Shawn was a great kid.  He worked really hard and I saw the love for the game in him.  It’s really sad to know he’s gone.  He was a great friend.”

I also wanted to get the perspective of older Illini players who played with Afryl.  So I asked Jeff Allen, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Corey Lewis, who just finished his career, if they could share a few thoughts.  Responding via Twitter can be a bit abbreviated and maybe even awkward, but I thought that they were both quite eloquent.

Jeff Allen: “Shawn was a great teammate and friend.  He was always willing to put in the work and never complained.  Us playing together on the O-line created a bond that we all shared and that’s a true brotherhood. I’m truly saddened to hear this news.”

Corey Lewis: “Shawn was a great dude, man.  He always thought about others before himself.  Never a day where he pouted or walked around feeling sorry for himself.  Truly a class act, and he brought energy and effort to the facility every day.  Tough to see such a great teammate, friend, and O-line brother go.”

Did you catch that?  “Never a day where he pouted or walked around feeling sorry for himself”. “Always willing to put in the work and never complained”.  “Never showed signs of being down and always had a happy spirit.”  “Brought energy to the facility every day.” We the fans sit around complaining that a certain player can’t crack the two-deep, or that they “disappoint” us when they finally start.  And here’s a kid dealing with coaching changes, scheme changes, and an eventual transfer with a “happy spirit”.  All of that hard work, very little payoff from the world’s perspective, but his teammates still speak of the inspiration they drew from his love of the game.

Sure, not everybody plays.  But everyone contributes.  And Shawn Afryl, it appears, gave more than most.

Back From Vacation

I was only gone six days, and it’s the middle of the summer, but a lot happened while I was gone. I tried to keep up with all of the necessary LLUOI posts, but there’s more stuff to cover.  That’s what this post will be.  Quick thoughts on everything that’s going on. Starting with Coach Ricker leaving for Miznoz. [Read more...]

Freshman Jersey Number Day 2014!

I did a Google search for “freshman jersey numbers” just to see if other teams/bloggers care about this like I care about this.  The results, in order: Alabama 24/7 site, LSU 24/7 site, Ohio State blog, Michigan blog, Alabama newspaper, Notre Dame blog, Michigan blog, my #FJND post from last year!  Until the entire world follows Illini Football. [Read more...]

Airing Of Grievances

Happy Festivus, everyone. Festivus is a December holiday, of course, but to me, Festivus lives in our hearts throughout the year. So if someone wants to hold the Feats Of Strength in September, I say more power to them. As such, this is me celebrating the annual rite of The Airing Of Grievances on a Monday in June.

[Read more...]

Housekeeping

There will be no 90 Illini series this summer. I’ve mentioned that on Twitter and in the comments here, but I keep getting “where’s the 90i?” comments, so I figured I should probably write out a quick post explaining why.

For starters, it was never mine to begin with, and I’ve always somewhat felt awful about stealing the concept from someone else. Especially since that someone else was Bob Asmussen. Bob’s my mentor of sorts, bringing me along with him into a few locker rooms 18 years ago when I worked part-time at the News Gazette, and then helping “legitimize” me when I started the blog.

How do I repay him? With a “Dear Bob, You’re Doing It Wrong” series in the summer of 2009 as I challenged his selections for the 50 most important Illini players. Such a brash kid I was at the age of 36 in the summer of 2009. I then expanded it to 87 players in 2010 and then to 90, and I called it The 90 Illini, and I used it as a season countdown and position preview, but still, it was Bob’s thing and I was a copycat.

The second reason I’m going away from it is that the site has subscriptions now. As I said when I went to that model, the very last thing I wanted to do was write a bunch of short posts so that everyone’s 10 free clicks would run out as soon as possible and they’d have to SUBSCRIBE. As I said when we set up the leaky pay wall, my concept was that casual readers would never have to subscribe. I simply asked that if you were someone who regularly read the site – more than 10 times per month – that you help contribute to the costs.

So putting up a daily series felt wrong, like I was going with the CLICKS model. The line between that and “click on this 20 picture slide show so that we can add 20 more clicks to the site and show you 60 more ads” is thin. At least in my mind it is.

The subscription thing is still something we’re trying to figure out. I’ve received your emails this past year pointing out ways around the pay wall – every time I see one friend he tells me “you know people can just X, Y, and Z and then read all of your articles for free, right?” – and we’re taking steps to change some things in August, but for now, it’s what I said from the beginning. The subscription pay wall is leaky by design, and people will find ways around it. But if you’re a regular reader and find yourself reading 10 posts every month, please help us get this site off the ground. We’ll monitoring that for a year and then make decisions on where to set the posts-per-month limit and where to set the subscription cost.

The third reason for no 90 Illini series this summer is that I have a different (better?) plan for how I’ll preview the 2014 football season. And I want to include individual player evaluations as part of that. You probably won’t see anything on that until late July or early August, but please know that it’s something I’m working towards. And there will be all kinds of 2014 season preview posts between now and then. Just nothing formal or part of any series.

One more housekeeping thing to cover. Once May hit, I announced I’d be doing podcasts every other week until the season hit and then going back to the weekly format through football and basketball season. And I think it’s now been a month since the last one. I had planned to do a few sit-down interviews at the St. Louis caravan event, but two days prior that got rescheduled to a daytime event, and I have this job thing, and blah blah blah couldn’t do any interviews.

So new plan! Podcasts will officially be “sporadic” until football season. And then back to weekly throughout the year. Probably. I’m doing the best I can with the hours I can devote to the site. Maybe. Possibly.

Last thing: thanks again to all subscribers. Keeping track of all gas, hotel, photography, and site hosting expenses for a year gave me this really clear picture of just how much of my own money I had been pouring in year after year just to write a blog. To have that covered by others – last year with the tip jar and this year with the subscriptions – is a really fantastic thing. So thanks. We still have funds left over, and we haven’t paid ourselves a single dime outside of expense reports, so we have some funds available to do some site upgrades. And maybe even add a part-time writer or two to take some of the burden off of me and expand with more basketball coverage. Maybe. Possibly.

More on that later this summer. For now, to you I-read-ten-posts-every-month people, thanks for subscribing and making this site go. And sorry there’s no 90i series this summer, but it’s for the better, I think. I hope you’ll like what you get in terms of a season preview this year. I’m putting more time into it than anything I’ve ever done here.

Because we’re totally going to win six games and go bowling. I hope. Maybe. Possibly.

Slapdash

According to this little thing here, this is Slapdash post #23.  I feel like there should be more of them.  Slapdash posts are hastily thrown together posts where I don’t have time to sit down and write through a topic so I throw together some random thoughts on a few topics and hit “publish”.  First one was maybe three years ago – there should be way more than 23 by now. I need to do this more often. [Read more...]

I’m Ready

Have you ever been to a football game at Iowa?  At least in the last 15 years or so?  Isn’t it weird how much their fans actually believe that their team is going to win?  Down ten at halftime and most of the stadium is sold out to the idea that they’re going to come back and win. Wouldn’t it be weird to have that in Champaign?  On either side of Kirby. [Read more...]

And The Winner Is…

Can I just say that this was really hard? After the first 10 submissions or so, I realized I was going to have to say no to some very compelling stories. Sons wanting to take their dads. Mom’s wanting to take their sons. I even had a father and son both write me and propose to surprise the other. Graduating students, people wanting to drive 800 miles… the thing about a contest like this is that you’re going to have to say no to 20 great stories and just pick one.

After a brief thought that I could talk the Cardinals into letting me be Oprah (YOU get tickets and YOU get tickets and YOU get…), I decided on a winner. And the winner is David Llewellyn. I won’t go deep into his story, but David wanted to take his son, Stu. There were a lot of father-son stories submitted, so it’s hard to say no to the rest, but David’s story about wanting to take his son to meet Tyler (and why) seemed like the perfect fit for this contest. I hope they have a blast.

Thanks to all who entered – it was seriously hard to review all of these submissions and only pick one – and thanks to the Cardinals for providing these tickets (and the Illini Night promotion). Meyers Leonard will be there too, signing autographs. There’s way too much Miznoz around here, so seeing some orange and blue take over downtown STL is a good thing. Go Illini.

Illini Night With Tyler

I got a little greedy. The Cardinals sent me two tickets to to give away for Illini Night at Busch Stadium next Friday night, and I asked for two more. My idea? If you’re going to win tickets to Illini night from IlliniBoard, why not sit with an IlliniBoard contributor at the game? No, not me. The good writer. Tyler Griffey. [Read more...]

Life Lessons From Europe

Well my first professional basketball season has finally come to a close.  Now that I’ve had a week or two back home to get readjusted, I thought I’d share some of the things I learned while living and playing abroad.

This is stuff they just can’t teach you inside a classroom.  I think I learned more in the past 9 months than in any other time period of the same length in my life—my time at Illinois included.

1. How to make friends anywhere, even if you don’t speak the same language.

When I first arrived in Austria, I didn’t know anyone, but it would turn out to be more salutary that no one knew me.  I quickly realized Austrians don’t care about the University of Illinois or its basketball program.  They also don’t care about the Big Ten conference or even when the number 1 college team in America loses on a buzzer-beating layup.

It feels weird to say out loud (or type onto a screen) but I had gotten used to the looks of recognition on people’s faces as I went about life in Champaign.  The random shouts of, “Indiana sucks!” or “Nice layup!” that followed me everywhere I went had become a normal part of my day.

That hasn’t happened to me here.  Not once.

I learned how to walk into a bar knowing no one and leaving with a handful of friends.  It doesn’t matter what language you speak, just by being enthusiastic, genuine, and polite I was able to communicate with anyone I met.  Sometimes I had entire conversations with just my hands—other times, I had to utilize my knowledge of English, German, and even the little Spanish I know in a complicated jumble of speech that probably wouldn’t have made sense to anyone outside of the conversation.  This led to some interesting discussions, but they were always engaging and wildly entertaining.  Just by being outgoing, I made some friendships that will surely last a lifetime.

2. Always say “Please” and “Thank You”

Americans have a reputation for being rude and disrespectable while traveling in foreign countries.  I did my best to counter that stigma and found it was effortless if you just act polite.  I found that people instantly warmed up to you just by saying a simple “thank you” (danke schön) or “you’re welcome” (bitte schön) in their native tongue.  It took me two seconds to learn these phrases and made all the difference.

3. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely.

I experienced both while in Europe and can decidedly say that while I enjoy being alone, I absolutely loathe being lonely.  Fortunately, with the ever-increasing reach of technology, I didn’t have to feel lonely all that often.  Loneliness brought with it unpleasant feelings of homesickness and depression.  I was forced to suppress powerful urges of wanting to drop everything and come home.  It taught me not to take time with the ones you love for granted.

On the other hand, being alone was invigorating.  I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted.  How many people can truly say they’ve experienced being alone?  I’m not talking locked-away-in-your-bedroom alone.  I’m talking completely cut off from the world you know best for an extended period of time.

Other than team activities, which usually only lasted a couple of hours a day, I had no other obligations.  I had no class.  I had no mandatory study hall.  I was left to do whatever I pleased.

Sometimes this resulted in me never leaving my apartment only to play Minecraft all day in my underwear—most of the time though I tried to be productive.

4. There is great power in solitude.

I quickly came to appreciate the times of solitude.  I was able to read.  I was able to write.  I had the freedom to study any subject I desired.  Every day I woke up with the mindset that I was going to learn something new about the world we live in.

The German language was an obvious choice because I suddenly found myself surrounded by the language everyday, but I also took on computer programming.  Coding has been an off-and-on again hobby, but for 2014 I made it a goal to be able to program a simple computer game by the end of the year.  It is my belief that code will become a universal language that is taught at the elementary school level in the not-so-distant future.

5. There is a staggering wealth of information, available freely to anyone, if only you know where to look.

You know as well as I do, the Internet can be a crazy place at times, but it can also be a great resource if you know how to use it.

I used resources found on the Internet to teach myself the python programming language.  Websites like www.codecademy.com made it fun and easy to keep track of progress.

I taught myself German from online resources as well.  I downloaded Rosetta Stone and committed myself to a few lessons everyday.  I also used the very helpful (and free) website http://www.duolingo.com. I’m nowhere near to being fluent, but by learning through these means, I am able to work at my own pace and from wherever I want to.

A few other websites I frequented:

http://www.supercook.com/- Supercook is basically every other cooking website combined into one.  It let’s you input the ingredients you currently have in your pantry, fridge, etc. and will search its database for recipes you can make with just those items.  I used it frequently to make grocery shopping, one of my most hated activities, a breeze.

http://www.ted.com/ – Everyone that owns a computer and a modem should know what TED is by now.  TED is an acronym for Technology Entertainment and Design and it is a forum where people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds give talks on anything they see fit to discuss.  One of the best TED talks I watched this year was by a 13-year old who has been “hacking” his education.

3. Being sociable and introverted is perfectly normal.

One thing I did a lot of this year was read.  I absolutely love to read and could never seem to find the time for it back home.  One of the better books I read during my time in Europe was Susan Cain’s “Quiet”.  It was from this text I learned that while I do love meeting new and interesting people; I’m also naturally introverted.  This means that after a night out on the town, it’s more likely I’ll need some time alone to recharge my introvert batteries.  I was able to enjoy my outgoing experiences more by calculating the perfect balance between the two that would suit my personal needs.

6. More is less

When preparing for the move across the pond, I made a list of all the items I would bring.  Since being gone for only 8 or 9 months is far from a permanent move (in fact, I refuse to refer to it as a move at all.  More like a prolonged trip or extended stay) I tried to keep what I was bringing to a bare minimum.

I saw this as a chance to embrace a minimalist lifestyle that is so difficult to achieve by American standards.  A lot of things I initially planned to bring got left behind and I still ended up bringing more than I needed.  That Apple TV I got before I left was of no use because I didn’t have a high definition TV.  The week’s worth of sweaters I brought naturally turned into a rotation of just my favorite three.

Tyler Durden from Fight Club said it best, “The things you own end up owning you.”  How many pairs of jeans would I wear on a regular basis?  How many pairs of shoes?  The answers to those questions are two and five respectively, and that’s even counting my basketball shoes.

This also applied when purchasing things over here.  The Xbox One came out in November, but do I really want to lug both my Xbox 360 and this new one back home?  My mom wanted to buy me a Bose portable sound dock for Christmas.  “Just wait,” I told her.  “My computer speakers are working just fine.”

I learned I could live and be perfectly content with just a handful of clothes my MacBook and some WiFi.

7. How to save/budget

Looking at the results from Googling “budget template” makes my head spin.  Maybe budget isn’t the word I’m looking for because as far as I can see, my only fixed expenses are gasoline and food.  I have no rent, it’s included in my contract, no student loans, no income taxes, no insurance costs (also covered by my club), and any repairs my car needs is done by the club as well.

Something I learned 7.a – I’m a lucky dude.

Since I didn’t want to buy anything materialistic in Europe knowing I’d have to lug it back to the States with me, I was able to spend the discretionary income I allowed myself on experiences.  I didn’t think twice about paying 20 Euros for a one-way train ticket to Vienna for the day.  Vienna is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to, and I went there as often as I could.

Going out in Salzburg included a train ticket, a taxi fare, drinks, and getting back to my apartment with the sun already overhead.  (Gotta live it up while you’re young, right?)  Experiences like these are one’s I’ll have with me for the rest of my life.

8. Social media isn’t a necessary part of life

Most Austrians I came across had never taken a filtered picture just for Instagram, had never thought they were more-funny-than-they-actually-are on Twitter, and had never sent or received a shameless selfie on Snapchat.  And guess what…?

9. …Life goes on.

With or without you, life back home, or anywhere else in the world, continues without a hitch.  Other than my beloved Illini and St. Louis Cardinals, I couldn’t tell you what was happening in the sports world.  Sports Center seemed like it belonged in a different world—and it did.

Movies were released that I didn’t even know were being made.  I had to wait until they came out on Blu-Ray just to find out about them.  Politicians kept doing what they do best.  Whatever that means.  My Austrian friends really got a kick out of the government shut down last year.  They asked me about it while laughing, and I couldn’t help but to join in on the laughter.

10. What it means to be a professional
TG bball
Again, I will stress that I got lucky.  The life of a professional basketball player outside of the NBA is unbelievably unpredictable (I hope that’s not a double negative there).  There’s no such thing as a guaranteed contracts.  In fact, it’s quite common that a lot of teams go bankrupt right in the middle of the season and stop paying their players.  I was lucky because the situation in Gmunden was not like this at all.

For a while, Brandon Paul and I were the only ones from last year’s Illini team playing professionally and even Brandon had to make a career move back to the States.  It’s just impossible to predict any stability in a career in international basketball.

I knew I was in a good place from the start, but even more so when one of my fellow expatriate teammates went down with a knee injury.  The club stood by his contract and paid for his surgery, rehab, and continued to pay him the rest of his salary for as long as our season lasted and he stayed in Austria.  I haven’t heard of another club that would do this.

11. How to drive a stick.

At first, this seemed like a daunting task, but it wasn’t so bad.  It took me two lessons to be able to drive on my own and then about a week of regular driving to feel completely comfortable with it.  I still like to keep track of how much time passes in-between times when I stall it, but they are becoming more and more infrequently as time goes on.  Nothing is more embarrassing than stalling it when you have passengers in the car, especially if that passenger is female you’re desperately trying to impress.

12. Enjoy the little things in life

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

Small things I looked forward to:

  • Looking up at the stars – Living on a mountain and in a city that turns off the street light after midnight provided some absolutely breathtaking views of the nighttime sky.
  • Falling into a novel – I’m not quite sure why I never had time to read in college, but I pledge to always find the time now.  The oldest way of story-telling will always be the best way.
  • A hot cup of coffee in the morning – My favorite beverage in the world.
  • An ice cold beer after a tough practice or game—probably not the most adequate drink after an intense workout, but sometimes it’s the only thing that’s keeping me going during practice.
  • Sleeping in – For a self-diagnosed insomniac like myself, mornings where I sleep in until 9am don’t come very often, but are treasured when they do.
  • Cooking for myself – I’ve always been a conscious eater, but it really hit me when I read the clause in my contract that stated I am responsible for what I’m putting into my body.  Sure, the clause is implying about testing for drug usage, but I took it one step further.  There is no substitute for a freshly prepared, nutritious, and healthy meal created just for you.  I can’t wait to show off what I’ve learned in the kitchen and start cooking meals for other people too.
  • The comments on my blogs – Seriously, they mean the world to me.  Writing has always been my little secret hobby.  It was a big deal for me to start Chew Softly and an even bigger deal when it started gaining the attention of Illini nation.  I live for the comments you guys write to me.  I read every single one.

13. I can have fun on my own

Call me crazy but I can only take so much of staying in one place before I get anxious.  I love to be constantly moving, to get out, and to explore new places.  Sometimes I would just get in my car and drive and drive until I didn’t recognize where I was.  One time I found myself on the German autobahn before I had fully figured out the whole stick shift thing.

Don’t worry, I lived to tell the tale, but I still don’t know how I managed that one.

Some of my best nights were spent wandering around the streets of Salzburg or Vienna just exploring on my own.  I found some great hidden gems of restaurants, pubs and these places were always filled with interesting and friendly people.

 

***

I’m sure there is a few more I am forgetting at the moment, but that’s okay because I am going back to it all again next year.  I don’t know where in Europe I will be, but I’m excited to share another adventure across the pond with all you Illini faithful.