Feature Stories

The Girl That Can’t Slow Down

Gotta keep running. You think the world will slow down for a poor, black girl from the Bronx. They won’t. Nevada Tinsley has to stay one step ahead. Always. Keep running, never slow down.

The Metro-North Railroad New Haven Line has 29 stops along 74 miles of track stretching from Grand Central Station in New York City to Stanford, Connecticut. 7-year-old Tinsley knew these train routes like the back of her hand. Being born and raised in the Bronx, traveling via train, subway, or cab was all she knew.

On a rainy afternoon in the summer of 1973, Tinsley walked to the train station to visit her father working at his barbershop in Manhattan. This was something she did countless times and did not think twice about this routine. She would spend her time there sweeping up the kinky coils that had fallen on the floors from her father’s clippers and receive a dime for all her hard work.

On this train ride to the other side of the city, Tinsley diligently read The New York Times newspaper. Again, this was a routine, and she did not find it unusual in the slightest. Not until a woman doubted her one day.

“What are you doing, young lady?” the dubious stranger sitting across the aisle said. “You know you can’t read that.”

Can’t. A word that Tinsley had not heard often in her seven years of life, and worked to not hear again. The woman stood corrected as Tinsley read the articles of The Times out loud for the duration of their trip. She left that train with a feeling that she would chase for the rest of her life. The feeling of being ahead of the game and proving people wrong.

Growing up, Tinsley was always fast. She learned how to read at age four and was holding reading lessons for the neighborhood children, younger and older than her, by the time she turned five. She learned how to walk after only 10 months and it was not long until she ditched walking for running because she realized it was faster.

“Nevada ran everywhere,” her mother, Evelyn Tinsley said. “You couldn’t catch her. After a while, I just stopped trying.”

This need for speed quickly carried her through the classroom as well. Every year, Evelyn would see the same thing written on her daughter’s report card by the teachers of Community School #70.

Nevada Tinsley: Fast Learner.

This 100 mile per hour way of life got Nevada in trouble from time to time. Why would she stay in class when she already understood what the lesson was about before it was even taught? She was still making straight A’s, so why not pick a shift working at the corner store sandwich shop across the street?

“I didn’t need to go to school to excel, but I did need the money,” Tinsley said. “I tried to lie about my age so the owner would hire me, but he saw me leaving school one day and I was busted. After some convincing, he still let me work there, only if I left to take exams and return them to him with 100%.”

Despite her truancy, Tinsley had the highest GPA at Stitt Junior High School and was named Valedictorian in title only. The principal refused to let her give a speech or be awarded at graduation since cutting class could not be rewarded.

While seeing her academic prosperity undeterred by her absence, her 8th-grade teacher Ms. Wallace recommended she attend Ethel Walker Boarding School. The only way Wallace felt Tinsley would actually go to school is if she lived there.

This change in education would require 12-year-old Tinsley, after combining 7th and 8th grade thus graduating a year early, to leave the only home she has ever known and move 2 hours away to Simpson, Connecticut.

“The school was for rich, white girls,” Tinsley said. “I felt guilty for leaving my family behind, but I always just thought to myself; gotta keep running.”

Nevada was not running away from her mother, as her father did 4 years before. She was not running from her 4 older siblings, who were slowed down by CPS-ordered family separations and the abuse of their father before she was born. She was running because she couldn’t afford to have her past catch up to her. Slowing down meant getting trapped in the despair of her community.

“Everyone was desperate in order to make it to the next day,” Gail Tinsley, Nevada’s sister said. “Living paycheck to paycheck was the norm. The children adopted that lifestyle and settled for it as an adult. Other than Nevs- she was always going to get out.”

Mirroring her life so far, Tinsley sprinted through Ethel Walker, skipping 9th grade and graduating three years later at the top of her class once again.  During her studies, Tinsley was certified in speed reading, not like that came as a surprise to anyone who has crossed paths with this driver unable to be stopped.

While at boarding school, Tinsley found companionship with one of the few other students of color, Tracey Crockett. Since all of the black girls were on athletic scholarships to be able to attend the over $50,000 a year school, they found themselves dominating the fields together game after game. Whether it be softball, soccer, or basketball: Tinsley and Crockett were a force to be reckoned with.

“I couldn’t bear to be apart from my girl,” Crockett said. “She had this fire about her. It was intense. Yes, she was younger than me, but honestly, I looked up to her.”

In order to continue their dynamic duo, Crockett urged Tinsley to apply to The University of Virginia. Crockett was going on a track scholarship and wanted her best friend to follow. After both getting accepted and choosing to attend UVA, Tinsley had no idea what the next four years of being a Wahoo would entail.

“I had no idea what I was doing there,” Tinsley said. “I just did it to please Tracy but I was shocked when I got in. At that point, I had to rise to the occasion.”

And that she did. Tinsley took on two jobs to afford school in combination with her financial aid and academic scholarships. She worked nights as a bartender, having to lie about her age once again, and then took on the graveyard shifts waiting tables at a diner right off-campus. Her day continued with attending class, doing schoolwork, and then biking back to the diner for another shift serving burgers and shakes during the dinner rush.

“Everything she did was fast, but she was never in a hurry,” her mother said. “Life forced her to be in a rush constantly but she always kept up.”

A few weeks into her freshman year, her mantra of gotta keep running took a much more literal meaning than Tinsley ever had intended.

“For a girl that only lived at top speed, it was crazy to me that she had never run track. I couldn’t believe it!” Crockett said.

Crockett begged Tinsley to try out for the Virginia track team. She saw the raw talent and determination her young friend had inside her, and thankfully, the sprinting coaches saw it as well.

As I am sure you assumed by now, Tinsley, like every other aspect of her life, burned rubber in lanes. She was finally able to channel the accelerated pace of her life into an activity where speed was awarded.

“It just made sense,” she said. “My whole life I have been running from things. Now? Now, I was running to something: the finish line.”

Nevada ran towards that line with all she had the four years she was wearing orange and navy. But just crossing the white stripe painted on the red rubber underneath her feet was not enough, she wanted to win. No. She needed to win, and she was going to keep running until she did.

During Tinsley’s college career, 1982-1986, the UVA track team was elite. They were national champions and did not need help to win. She was the only walk-on and was constantly frustrated that she was not the best on the team. This was the first time in her life she was running from behind the pack.

To catch up and ultimately surpass the rest, she committed to training with the fastest sprinter on the team, Sonja Fridy, the summer before her sophomore year.

The others were intimidated by Fridy, the way she worked relentlessly and refused mediocracy. Not Tinsley, that ignited her. She had found a twin flame and they made each other burn brighter.

“Sonja was always so encouraging, but also very demanding,” Tinsley said. “I could easily see why she was the best and also why no one wanted to train with her. It was the hardest summer of my life but after that, I was a completely different athlete both physically and mentally.”

Recognizing her impressive work ethic and undeniable skill, Tinsley was put on several relay teams for UVA. She quickly became one of the athletes earning the Wahoos the most points as she competed in about five events each meet.

Yes, this was a remarkable feat, but do you think this was enough for the young runner to catch her breath? Absolutely not, gotta keep running.

“She never made it easy,” Fridy said. “Even though she wasn’t winning, she would never be too far behind. It was impossible to be comfortable when Nevada was in the race.”

The ACC Championships of 1985 was the chance Nevada has been waiting for. It was a hot day in April at NC State in Raleigh, North Carolina. The blood, sweat, and tears from the previous three years of training would pay off now. Her speed would result in something indisputable: victory.

Nevada was in the 4×100-meter relay,  the 4×400-meter relay, the 4×200-meter relay, the triple jump, and the open 100-meter dash. She placed in the top three in all of her events that day, but one medal shined in a way she would never forget.

“The last race was the 100-meter dash,” Tinsley said. “I had never beat Sonya outright in an open race, but I always dreamed of it. Each day in practice I was able to get closer and closer, but never crossed that line before her.”

On the Wolfpack track, the women’s 100-meter race ended up being a photo finish. Tinsley and Fridy looked like they were running for their lives, and in a way, Tinsley was. With heads facing forward and long strides allowing them to glide on top of the rubber beneath them, there was no question that these girls gave everything they had plus more.

The deliberation took about 10 minutes, but it felt like 10 years for those who were anxiously waiting on the call.

“I did it,” Tinsley said. “I really did it. My dreams came true that day due to grueling years of hard work and determination. She was the one responsible for sharing her talents and her heart with me, and I have never forgotten that.”

With every team reunion or phone call to catch up, that finish is brought up. It is not the record-breaking speed that is discussed, but the competitors who finished just a nose apart.

“I didn’t think she would ever beat me,” Fridy said. “After that race, I said to myself, ‘Underestimating Nevada Baker is a mistake I will never make again.’”

Nevada went from a walk-on on the track team to becoming an ACC Champion. That is what can happen when you don’t walk, but run.

Tinsley has lived her entire life with her finger pressing the fast-forward button. Since the day she was born, she has been characterized by her sense of urgency.

“She came a few weeks early, which should have been foreshadowing for me,” Evelyn said. “I was at a prenatal checkup and she decided it was time. Even back then, no one could tell her no.”

Nevada’s always being on the move unexpectedly continued into her adulthood. At 21, she fell in love with a professional football coach named Brian Baker. Little did she know, this marriage would cause her to move 14 times to states around the nation.

She would spend the next 35 years, and counting, traveling to unfamiliar cities, picking out the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood in the perfect school district, unpacking boxes, and meeting the fresh batch of coaches’ wives, all to do again in another unfamiliar city hundreds of miles away a few short years later.

“With the life we live, you can never really be a step ahead,” her husband said. “But one thing about Nevada, she will never be a step behind.”

As she grew up, the pressure that kept her running evolved. She went from escaping those daunting Bronx streets as fast as she could, to having to continue the momentum for her 4 daughters. If she slowed down, how would her family keep progressing?

“My mom did the impossible raising us,” Jade Baker said, daughter of Brian and Nevada. “She was everywhere and everything to everyone all at once. I still can’t figure out how she did it all.”

Mesmerized by her mother growing up, Jade wanted to follow in her footsteps and committed to run track at UVA.

“Seeing my mom excel at the level she did at Virginia was one of the biggest factors in my decision to go there,” she said. “I both wanted to be her and beat her. She was the first person who made UVA feel like home to me.”

Nevada’s dedication to greatness inspired everyone who knows her. The success she found not only on the track but in every facet of the life she has worked tirelessly to create is admirable. She has caused a ripple of effects that have positively impacted her family.

“You always want more for your kids, and I was trying, doing all that I could… but Nevada went out and got more herself,” Evelyn Tinsley said.

As she is currently taping up what feels like her one-millionth box in preparation to conquer the 15th Baker move in May, slowing down is not anywhere in sight.

Along with her kin, Nevada’s teammates are also captivated by the seemingly endless journey that she is on.

“You don’t forget a runner like Nevada,” former UVA teammate Rob Archer said. “You could just tell she came from somewhere and it wasn’t easy. You could see her struggle in her strides, and in her success.”

In the pursuit of advancement for those who came before her and those to follow, Nevada Baker has never slowed down. While running from desperation, she paved a way for her children to run toward their future.

Because of Nevada’s constant acceleration, her children had the opportunity to take a break if they ever needed to, but just like their mother, they always go fast.

Gotta keep running. Three words that have not escaped her mind since as early as she can remember. But this is why. Where she is right now is what makes it all worth it and she won’t slow down now.

The Real Goal

2019 Sports Illustrated SportsKid of the Year. Member of the US Women’s National Youth Team. Number 1 women’s soccer recruit for the class of 2021. Voted United Soccer Coaches’ All-American 3 years in a row. 2017 South Shore Select Player of the Year and MVP of tournaments all around the world.

As impressive as these accolades are, UNC freshman soccer player Ally Sentnor does not want to be known only for her success on the field. She wants to leave a legacy of being involved in the community and enhancing the lives around her.

“I want people to say, ‘She made a difference on the program, she made the UNC culture better, she made other people better and made them reach their goals as well,’” Sentnor said.

While living a life where it is extremely easy to be blind of everything that does not involve fast breaks on a field of grass or the sight of the ball hitting the back of the net, Sentnor chose to avoid complacency. As much as she loves the game, she is passionate about the bigger picture.

Heeding the voice in her head directing her to do more, Sentnor found inspiration in her former strength coach, Lee Docherty. Though Sentnor appreciated his skill as a coach, she admired Docherty for what he accomplished outside of the gym.

“You want your career to mean something. Yes, you play soccer and you’re an amazing soccer player, but I know you, and with your platform you want to do good with that,” Docherty said to Sentnor.

Docherty is the founder of United Kidz Soccer Development (UKSD). This is a charitable organization that uses soccer to unite players of all races, genders, and socio-economic circumstances, while also teaching them life skills.

“The foundation of our program is developing community-minded youth leaders, while enabling them to foster a desire to make an impact locally, as well as globally. We work with teens throughout the U.S., teaching them to use sports as a means of community connection, education, self-identity awareness, and diversity appreciation,” according to UKSD.org.

While having volunteered with the Boys and Girls Club and the Special Olympics in high school, Sentnor discovered her purpose. It was to empower children the best way she knew how, through the game that has given her incredible opportunities throughout her life. Sentnor has seen the positive effects soccer, and sport in general, has on people, which is why she felt UKSD is the perfect organization for her to continue her philanthropic efforts with.

Additionally, Sentnor spent the better part of her high school career traveling the world and playing on soccer fields in counties across the globe. Her talent has allowed her the chance to explore places that are much different than her hometown of Hanson, Massachusetts, with a population of less than 11,000 people.

“Traveling with the national team overseas, those were some of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. I got to experience so many different cultures… and it’s so cool that it’s something beyond soccer and it’s inspiring to meet all these new people,” Sentnor said.

Her global exploration has connected her with players thousands of miles away from her. This not only exposes Sentnor to new languages and customs, but also provides entirely new perspectives. Docherty aids Sentnor’s desire to inspire change globally.

“I do a lot of projects with him now where we talk to groups in India and New Zealand and come up with projects with them,” Sentnor said.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Sentnor has used her social media to unite players at every level, both locally and overseas. On April 8, 2020, she started the “Kick It Forward Challenge,” an initiative with UKSD to spread positivity through random acts of kindness.

“I bought pizza from a local pizza place and delivered pizza to the local gas station employees, and to a prison guard in my town. I hope these positive gestures make people’s day and travel around the world,” Sentnor posted in an Instagram caption (@allysentnor).

Creating the hashtag “#kickitforward” utilized the following she has accumulated through soccer while inspiring people to do something good for the community.

While the purpose of UKSD is to galvanize children of all identities and backgrounds, Sentnor is aware of the disparity between male and female sports participation as the players get older. She is passionate about encouraging young girls to continue playing and is constantly looking for new ways to motivate them.

Sentnor, in combination with Docherty and UKSD, is launching a new domestic-based program to address the issues plaguing women’s sports.

“It’s a girls-to-play initiative. A lot of girls drop out of sports in high school for whatever reason. There’s a lot of research on it,” Sentnor said, “Starting an initiative that will follow me through my career… I just think it’s important to do things outside of soccer with the platform that you can gain from soccer.”

Girls are dropping out of athletics at an alarming rate. According to a study conducted by Forbes, girls drop out of sports when they reach high school twice as much as boys. This topic is extremely personal to Sentnor, being a woman in sport herself.

There is no debate about how talented Sentnor is, in fact, Hall of Fame coach Anson Dorrance said, “She would have been the best player on the team,” omitting her season-ending ACL injury.

As excellent as Sentnor is at soccer, there is no telling if she would have stuck with it as long as she has without the support of her community.

“It is important because I want to empower women and girls like my mentors, coaches, and support system did for me growing job,” Sentnor said.

She wants to give back to the future generation of girls that will play on the fields after her, just as she looked up to those who came before her.

While participating at USWNT camps, the girls are told repeatedly, “Respect the past and be the future.” Sentnor internalized this mantra and uses it to shape lives.

Yes, Sentnor wants to help her team bring a National Championship to Chapel Hill and she hopes to be a member of the full US Women’s National Team one day, but her real goal is worth much more than just one point.

She wants her actions off the field to be her greatest victory.

“The four years here are fleeting, and even though I’m a freshman, I know that, and I’ve been told that, I want to take advantage of everything that they have here so I can do what I can after UNC.”

On the Field for Family: The Story of Robert Mathis

“I grew up playing hood ball on the southside of Atlanta,” retired NFL player Robert Mathis said. “Basketball, baseball, and football: hood rules apply. I just really couldn’t afford Little League and stuff like that.”

“I didn’t start playing on an organized football team until my sophomore year of high school,” Mathis said. “Needless to say, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I always knew I just wanted to play football. So I just kind of stuck with it. And after a while, it kind of came naturally because I wanted to play so bad.”

Due to his late start in the game, Mathis did not receive any college football offers during his senior year of high school until after National Signing Day. The HBCU Alabama A&M University was turned down on National Signing Day by a player they had really wanted, which opened up a scholarship position for Mathis.

Mathis used this opportunity to continue his football career and not only became one of the most dominant defensive players in NCAA I-AA history, but also a Super Bowl champion. His dreams were fueled by his passion for the game and inspiration from his family.

“I’m the youngest of six in a single-parent household, so my mother had to provide for a lot of people while playing both mother and father. And she did the best she could. She did a great job,” Mathis said. “She put in 12-hour shifts cleaning houses. She’d come home tired and she still made dinner and made sure all of us were taken care of.”

Mathis saw how hard his mother, Emma Lou, worked to make sure she could support her family, and he wanted to be able to buy her a house and retire her. He knew for that to happen, he would need to work hard on the field. 

Seeing what his mother had to go through for him and his siblings was a driving force for Mathis in his career. He took out his frustration on the field and quickly became every quarterback’s worst enemy.

“There’s going to be a lot of hell to pay for somebody on the football field,” Mathis said.

He started for the Alabama A&M Bulldogs freshman through senior year due to his relentless work ethic and his raw talent. He was named team captain and the Southwestern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, while setting an NCAA Division 1-AA single-season record with 20 sacks.

Emma was proud to see how well her son was doing in college, but was initially uneasy about him leaving.

“She was nervous about her baby leaving the state because I was really the only one that ever left Atlanta, but she also seemed happy because I was getting away,” Mathis said. “I was getting away from a lot of negative influences. She just wanted me to be okay. When it was all said and done, she just wanted me to be happy.”

After his record-breaking season, Mathis was drafted in the fifth round by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2003 NFL draft. Although many teams had doubts about Mathis wondering if he was up against any competition at an HBCU and if his size would be a handicap, because standing at 6 feet even and 235 pounds, he was considered small for his position as outside linebacker.

Nevertheless, former Colts head coach Tony Dungy liked what he saw and gave Mathis a chance to play in the NFL. Dungy envisioned the destructive force Mathis could be against the opponent’s offense and he was not disappointed. 

During his rookie year, led by accomplished quarterback Peyton Manning, Mathis quickly became a defensive standout playing all 16 regular season games. Each year, Mathis worked on improving himself as a player. 

“My goal was to always be one step better than I was last year in every category and also to be mentally better because that was separate stuff,” Mathis said. “Everybody has talent in college but not a lot of guys can use their mental to just gain that advantage. That separates good players from great players.”

Mathis did what he set out to do and got better with each season. In his third season, Mathis set a Colts’ record with eight consecutive games with at least one sack. He finished the season with an impressive 54 tackles, 11.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles.

Following the 2005 season, Mathis became one of the highest-paid defensive ends in the league after signing a 5-year extension with the Colts worth $30 million.

“I was able to provide a house and a car for my mom. I was able to retire her. I have three sisters and I bought them houses and cars. My brothers, too.” Mathis said.

Although he accomplished what he had always set out to do, which was to provide for his family, Mathis continued grinding on the field.

Mathis is known by players, coaches, and fans as a person with extreme grit. Former teammate and Colts linebacker Gary Brackett can testify to his diligence.

“He just went about his work the right way,” Brackett said. “He was such a student of the game. He watched film religiously to get a competitive advantage. And then once he was out there, he had what we call a killer instinct, the dog in him.”

In addition to his impressive skill, he also had great sustainability. With Mathis, it was not just sporadic good plays here and there, but he was able to play well for the entire 60 minutes of the game. He gave it his all with every snap.

This dedication along with his teammates led to the Indianapolis Colts’ win over the Chicago Bears in 2007 Super Bowl XLI. This championship was a culmination of years of hard work for Mathis.

“I’ve never won anything in my life up until that game,” Mathis said. “It was very humbling, because how many guys just grind, fight, scratch and compete just to get to where you are right now?”

After winning the Super Bowl, Mathis did not stop trying to improve. He went on to win multiple AFC Defensive Player of the Month awards, AFC Defensive Player of the Year, First-team All-Pro, 2013 NFL sacks leader and was voted into the Pro Bowl five times.

Despite all his success, things took a turn for the worse in May of 2014. Emma Lou, Mathis’ mother and greatest inspiration, was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus at age 69. She passed away later that year.

Mathis retired in 2016 after a very successful 14-year career at the Colts.  He holds the team record for sacks with 123 and defensive touchdowns with three. Mathis is also the record holder for most strip-sacks in the NFL with 47. He will be inducted into the Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor in 2021.

“I don’t want to be the type of player that’s gonna be that’s gonna put out bad film. So I knew my turn was pretty much coming near. I always said I want to be able to walk away from the game versus limp away,” Mathis said.

After retirement, Mathis moved to the sidelines and joined the Colts coaching staff as a Pass Rush Consultant. He is currently working under defensive line coach Brian Baker. 

“As a coach, you love players who maximize their ability and learn how they are most effective. As a man, you love the humility of greatness. Robert embodies the things I love,” Baker said.

Although it was difficult to stop playing the game he loves so much, Mathis knew he had to walk away from the game healthy, because he was walking back to a wife and 4 children at home. 

Just like his tenacity on the field, Mathis is devoted to being the best husband and father and he can be. He learned everything about being a parent from his mother.

“I just want to make her proud and keep her legacy going,” Mathis said.

The 21st Century Flu Game

The day was June 11, 1997. The Chicago Bulls were tied with the Utah Jazz with two wins each in the series of the 1997 NBA Finals. The star shooting guard and UNC alumnus Micheal Jordan had come down with an illness, what we now know was food poisoning but was thought of as the flu at the time and was obviously in no condition to play. Maybe that would ailment would cause a lesser player to throw in the towel for the game, but Jordan refused to give up. He decided to play for his team and his city, no matter how weak and tired his body was.

MJ rallied his team to a 90-88 win over the Jazz, only solidifying the legendary status he already held in the world of sports and especially at UNC. This infamous game, commonly known as the “Flu Game,” had a massive impact on athletes around the world, even athletes that had not been born yet. Whether Jordan knew it or not, the Flu Game inspired generations and served as a precedent for what Emma Blake Byrum was to do 21 years later.

After her sophomore season of high school lacrosse, Emma Blake had racked up over 100 career goals. This ignited a fire to reach her goal of scoring 200 goals before leaving the fields of JH Rose High School.

“Since I am more than halfway after two years of playing, 200 goals is definitely attainable,” Byrum thought, little did she know what it would come to in order to achieve this mark.

Starting almost every game of her high school career, Byrum utilized her playing time at attack by constantly scoring to contribute to her team’s success. With one game left in the regular season of her senior year, Emma Blake was 12 goals short of the landmark but giving up was never an option in her mind.

Byrum’s drive, in combination with many assists from the team, who found almost as much excitement in the perennial mission as she did, led to a JH Rose victory in which she contributed 10 of the 16 goals they scored that game.

“I knew what was at stake and I had to go off in order to reach 200. So I did what I had to do,”  she explained.

Unfortunately, the dominant performance by Byrum fell just short of completing her objective. Though she had broken school records and had an impressive four years of play, she was still hungry for the 200 career goal milestone, yet only had one guaranteed game left to do it.

Sitting at 198 goals entering the playoffs, this should have not been too difficult of a feat for Emma Blake to achieve. Playing at the attack position, scoring is a priority to her regardless of ulterior motives. For a healthy Emma Blake Byrum, two goals in one game is entirely doable, unfortunately, that was not the case for her upcoming game.

A few days before her team would travel to take on their first playoff opponent, Byrum became ill. Suddenly, she found herself weak with every muscle aching, demanding to be felt. Her body fatigued and nausea monopolizing her stomach, she drove herself to the hospital, seeking any solution in order to relieve herself quickly.

After testing positive for the flu, playing on Friday seemed to grow farther out of reach. According to JH Rose High School’s rules, student-athletes must attend at least half of the school day in order to compete in extra-curricular activities. This not only meant Emma Blake would have to summon the strength to make it to the lacrosse game, but she would also have to sit idly through first and second periods without vomiting, which was a difficult task.

After a couple of days of attempting to expedite the eradication of her symptoms, Byrum succeed in suppressing her fever to under 100 degrees so she could attend school. While doing her best to stay upright during her first period, the reality that she may not be well enough to play in the much-anticipated game is finally setting in.

Although, Byrum did find comfort in the fact that she at least made it to school that day and had the option to play if her body allowed it, emphasizing,  “even if I didn’t feel well enough to play, I didn’t want the school to make the decision for me.”

Between her coach, her parents, and herself, it was decided that this would be a game-time verdict.

After drinking an entire bottle of Pedialtye: Extra Tough, she threw up once again and then headed to the game. Weakened by the virus holding her body captive, Byrum could not even make it through team warm-ups. At this point, it did not matter whether she was 2 goals or 20 goals short of 200, her body was in no shape to play a lacrosse game.

Refusing to accept the fate that was glaring before her, Emma Blake’s compulsion to play in this game overcame her bodily pain. Her coach shared in her passion but also was concerned and instructed her to limit her running, stand by the goal, and take advantage of every time she got the ball. Essentially, just wait on the ball and score.

As simple as the directions were, Byrum was still weighed down from her illness, and even just standing required all of her strength. But just like Micheal Jordan all those years before, that was not enough to keep her out of the game. She preceded to do exactly as told, which lead to her greatest athletic achievement.

She did it. She scored the final two goals she needed to reach 200. She reached her goal. The pride she was radiating was contagious, so much so that the referee called a personal time out to give Bryrum the ball she scored with and to let the team join together for celebration.

Although the JH Rose girl’s lacrosse team ended up losing that game, which consequently eliminated them from the playoffs and ended their season, she had a victory of her own that day.

It was anything but easy, yet it is a testament to what a determined athlete can and will push their body to do. It may have not been nationally broadcasted like MJ’s performance, and the story may not be told for generations to come, but to Emma Blake Byrum and those around her, what she did was just as legendary.

As a future Tar Heel at the time, Bryum was inspired by Jordan and had a “Flu Game” of her own that she will never forget.


“The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.” -Anson Dorrance.

A quote that Olympic Field Hockey defender and UNC alum, Caitlin “Poppy” Van Sickle has not only admired but has adopted as a lifestyle. This “always keep grinding” mentality has brought her great success as a former player, and she is passing it on to the players of the present.

From being raised by a Golf Professional as a mother, to being inspired by legendary coaches like Anson Dorrance, to playing for one at UNC under Karen Shelton, Van Sickle has seen how great coaching changes lives and aspires to do so during her tenure as an assistant coach for the Carolina Tar Heel Field Hockey team.

Van Sickle did admit that playing field hockey was not always her dream, but being a student at the University of North Carolina was.

“Might sound cliche, but for whatever reason, when I was six, I got obsessed with UNC. I’m a big basketball fan. This was literally my dream school,” said Van Sickle.

Her plans to be a Tar Heel were unwavering, confirmed by the email address she made in seventh grade, UNCPoppy224@AOL.com. As much as she loved playing a multitude of sports growing up, Van Sickle was committed to attending UNC for college no matter what.

“I always wanted to go to Carolina, whether that was playing sports or not,” said Van Sickle.

Luckily for her, the Heels had an opportunity for Poppy to continue her athletic career on their field hockey team and she was offered a recruited walk-on spot by her former coach and now colleague, Karen Shelton.

This was a dream come true for Van Sickle and it was an extremely easy decision for her to join the team. Shelton took a bit of a chance on young Van Sickle and went off a recommendation that alerted her of Van Sickle’s raw athletic ability.

​​”She was one of those players that somebody who I trusted and respect said, ‘You have got to see this girl. She is one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. Primarily an AAU basketball player but she’s so quick and super smart. I think you should take the kid,’” said Shelton.

Van Sickle was thrilled to be able to play field hockey at UNC, especially because it helped her get into school there. But just being on the team was not enough for her, she went on to be considered one of the greatest athletes to ever wear the Carolina uniform according to teammates, fans, and Coach Shelton herself.

“She’s one of the few that went from having no scholarship money to having full scholarship money. Three-time first-team All-American and was just a terrific player for us and a great leader,” said Shelton.

Despite her collegiate success, it was not until high school that Van Sickle started to consider the possibility of playing field hockey after graduation.

“I guess I didn’t really think of it myself. My one coach when I was like a sophomore, was like, ‘Is she thinking about playing a sport in college or not? Maybe she should take field hockey seriously,’ kind of thing. ‘Because I think she could maybe play at the next level,’” said Van Sickle.

Her coach saw something in her that would have missed since she was not focused on field hockey throughout her young athletic career. She was a multisport athlete, playing lacrosse and soccer as well, but basketball is what she loved most growing up.

“I did want to pursue basketball, that was my number one passion. You play that in the Y when you’re like six so maybe that’s why. I did love the sport very quickly,” said Van Sickle.

Unfortunately, she would not have the opportunity to play at the level she hoped she could. This realization, in combination with what her former coach said, changed the trajectory of Poppy’s life, both on and off the field.

Van Sickle created a legacy for generations to come as being a strong defender and a team player, which stemmed from that work hard mentality she is known for.

Erin Matson, highly decorated UNC field hockey forward and former teammate of Poppy on the U.S. Women’s National Team, had admired the type of player Van Sickle was even before they played together.

“I knew her as a badass back on defense. Plain and simple,” said Matson. “She was a brick wall that did anything to make sure the ball didn’t get through or the girl didn’t get through her. She knew how to turn her defense into attack.”

Matson accredits Van Sickle’s rigor to the way the former coaches and players on the U.S. team prioritized grit and hustle while on the field, instead of focusing more on skill as it was when Matson joined the team.

“Poppy’s generation was all about work. We’re gonna outrun the other team and just run circles around them,” said Matson.

Van Sickle was not phased by the relentlessness of training this way, for it is all she has known. Her mother, Lori Van Sickle, taught the competitiveness she had on the greens as a Golf Pro to her daughters growing up.

“It all goes back to how my parents raised me. They didn’t care if I scored 100 points in a basketball game if at the end of the day I worked as hard as I could,” said Poppy. “As long as you work your ass off, for however long you’re in or whatever you’re given, they can be ok with that and that’s just how I live my life.”

Though Van Sickle says her mother being a coach did not directly influence her to become one herself, it did shape who she is as a competitor and what mindset she is passing down to the current players. Van Sickle, in addition to the other coaches, wants to teach more than just good technique, but instill determination into each player to wear Carolina blue.

“They helped me finally realize how much of a game-changer that is coupled with having skills and good fundamentals and everything, but challenging yourself and working as hard as you can. That’s when you can be great,” said Matson.

Coaching is an experience Van Sickle considers an honor, as she has seen firsthand what a great coach can accomplish within an individual athlete. Without the push from Coach Shelton, Van Sickle would not have tried out for the U.S. Women’s National Team.

“She deserves credit, because when I was here I was like, ‘I don’t want to pursue the national team.’ I think in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can,’” said Van Sickle. “I was always competitive, but she brought more out than I knew.”

Shelton was able to give Van Sickle the confidence she needed to pursue a professional career in field hockey and go on to compete in the Olympics.

“I’m like, ‘Poppy you’ve got to think about this. You are too good. You need to give this a try,’” said Shelton. “Thankfully she went, she got selected and obviously fell in love with representing the country and being on the national team where she took her game to the next level all the way around.”

The decision to try out for the national team led to her greatest athletic achievement of scoring the deciding goal against Australia in the U.S. team’s second game of Olympic preliminary play during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

“​​It was a blur, but I think of my coach in that moment, Craig [Parnham]. Because that was just something that we literally practiced and practiced,” said Van Sickle. “And it just happened so naturally that it was just like, ‘Oh,’ I felt like I was in practice for a second because, again, we worked, we trained that.”

Her memory of that goal is a testament to the effects of great coaching. Van Sickle has used her past experiences to excel in her current position.

“I just want to be the best coach I can be,” said Van Sickle. “I’m trying to just, one day at a time, get better and help the group as much as possible. Obviously, we want to win the national championship next year so whatever I can do to aid in that, for sure.”

Inspired by the vision of the champion explained by Coach Dorrance while being raised by a mom so competitive she routinely beat Poppy in Candyland and training under prolific Coach Karen Shelton, Van Sickle never ceases to strive in being the best she can be in every endeavor, and that is only possible with hard work.

“I don’t think you’re gonna get anywhere in life unless you put in as much work as you can, especially when no one’s watching. You can do everything that you’re told, but to me, I think I got places because I did more than what was expected.”

Field Trip to the Lanes

“It is all in your head,” said Jacob Karabatsos to himself before earning bronze in the MEJO 455 class bowling competition. “If you think you’re going to bowl a strike, you’re going to bowl a strike.”

Unfortunately for Karabatsos, that mentality was not a reality for him as he battled with his fellow classmate Shelby Swanson and teacher assistant Hunter Nelson until the very last frame.

In somewhat of a controversial victory, Nelson returned his bowling shoes to the front desk of Mardi Gras Lanes in Durham, North Carolina as a champion. Bowling a victorious score of 126, topping Swanson’s 124. This disputable crowning achievement left the fans and competitors alike thinking, how was a TA eligible to compete?

Tim Crothers, professor of MEJO 455: Creative Sports Writing, showed Nelson a bit of grace by allowing him to participate since he was an alumnus of the class that was crippled by COVID last year.

“Hunter was a student in J455 last year and we weren’t able to have the bowling tournament because of the pandemic,” said Crothers. “I knew he was disappointed not to be part of a class tradition.”

Nelson, a junior at the University of North Carolina, had a history of bowling that was deeper than winning a class competition, he was playing with something to prove.

Not only was Nelson bowling to validate the bold decision made by Crothers, but he was also bowling for his hometown.

“It is a stereotype that all midwesterners are great at bowling because that is all we have to do there, so I feared I would not live up to that expectation,” said Nelson.

This pressure was premeditated and he has been carrying this burdensome weight along with his previous bowling experiences that have been riddled with gutter balls and embarrassingly low scores.

”Despite my presumed Midwestern ethos, I’ve failed to live up to the region’s stereotype that all its occupants excel at rolling a heavy ball down some shiny wood,” said Nelson.

This was before an outing in December where one man changed Nelson’s bowling career forever. Guillermo Molero, a former editor for the Daily Tar Heel, gave Nelson a piece of advice that delivered him to victory on February 9, 2022.

“Use a heavier ball,” said Molero.

These four words were the key to the untapped potential buried inside Nelson all along. He made the imperative adjustment from an 8-pound ball to utilizing the 13-pounder and has never looked back.

“From there, I got into a rhythm and at one point, rolled four straight strikes to begin the game. I ended with a 166 — the only time I had ever broken 100 in my uneventful career,” said Nelson.

That 166 score is still a personal record and that pivotal game changed the trajectory of Nelson’s success on the lanes.

The weight of the ball was vital to Nelson’s gameplay, but the fierce competitors around him also played an essential part in his triumph.

Bowling on the very same lane as him, Swanson proved to be one to beat from the very first frame. She came out strong bowling a strike the first time her ball hit the purple and gold-themed lanes that Wednesday afternoon.

This class field trip was not the first time experience for Swanson at this bowling alley. She had already claimed a victory at Mardi Gras Lanes many years ago, yet she was not thinking of her previous wins during this tournament.

What fueled Swanson’s fire was the memory of the brutal defeat during her sophomore year of high school, at the tiny hands of her two-year-old sister.

“Our face-off was the first time she had actually bowled before, and I was beaten straight-up by a two-year-old,” said Swanson.

This momentous game occurred in their living room on a Friday night Swanson will never forget. The sisters used a Dora bowling set, “complete with 6 miniature plastic pins, adorned with the faces of Dora and her sidekick Boots, and a softball-sized bowling ball that probably weighs less than a pound.”

“The all-knowing smirk that lit up her little face still burns in my memory. It haunts me to this day,” said Swanson.

Although she continues to seek vengeance for that humbling loss, the memory of Swanson’s taunting sister was not enough to overcome the lethal combination of Nelson’s skill and passion.

To get a group of 18 students to care so greatly about bowling, the game had to have been extremely competitive. Saving the last frame of the best 3 bowlers for last, after everyone else had finished their game, gave the students the opportunity to watch intently as the battle for first place intensified. With each release of the ball and the knocking down of pins, the class would exclaim at such volume it mirrored a Super Bowl watch party.

Whether he had won or lost, Nelson believes his being in the competition forced the students to give it their all. Subsequently, even the third-place score this year was higher than the previous winner.

But Nelson did not come to only inspire the other bowlers, he came to claim gold and was successful, despite being specifically directed not to be.

“I told Hunter not to win, but he didn’t listen,” said Crothers.

He had victory in his grasp and could not just let it go in order to satisfy Crother’s requisition for failure. Being a fan of Detroit sports teams, Nelson was all too familiar with the pain of losing. He put his city on his back and handled his business, which became his greatest athletic achievement.

“If someone is going to bring a championship to Detroit, it might as well be me,” said Nelson.