Sometimes the best sports stories are the ones where one or more people are making a difference. Well, I’m about to tell you a story about how one group of women, who played volleyball, helped a veteran, me.
They are the women of the Oakland women’s volleyball team which played on the team during my first few years after I returned to Michigan. They formed a team, coached by Rob Beam, which was trying to take the Oakland volleyball program to new heights. A few years earlier, the Golden Grizzlies had only five wins overall in the 2006 season, and just one win in conference play. This was back when Oakland was still in the Summit League. Beam was hired as the head coach a year later and began guiding the Golden Grizzlies on an upward climb. By 2009, his third year, he guided the team to a 17-10 record overall (10-8 Summit League), and barley missed reaching the Summit League Tournament due to a tiebreaker.
So how did they help me you ask? Well, they helped me get through a tough transitional period on my life. I returned home to Michigan back in May 2010 after eight years in the Air Force. For those who may not be aware, when someone serves in the military for an extensive amount of time, regardless of whether it’s four, eight, or 20 years, it can be very tough to adjust to life afterwards. Though I was returning to the Metro Detroit area where I was born, raised, and lived my entire life at before I served, I felt like a stranger. I felt like a fish out of water. You get used to one way of living and then all of a sudden, everything changes.
Though the Air Force was full of ups and downs, it provided me with a level of stability, with a secure job, my first job in fact. I had a steady income, and I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. While, I felt it was time for me to leave after eight years, coming home and realizing that I now had to start all over was scary. Where do I go from here? My mother regularly saw my frustration with this as well as the mental battle scars I carried from my Air Force days; which I still choose to keep largely private. On top of that, my father, an Army veteran, passed away that August.
What helped finally ease my transition back into civilian life was going back to school, Oakland University, where I began my journey to becoming a journalist. Aside from the the admissions advisers and the veteran liaison that I met, the ones who gave me my first impression of the Oakland were actually the women of the volleyball team.
I had become a volleyball fan a few years earlier during my time stationed in Alaska. Our Chief Enlisted Manager emailed us about the Alaska-Fairbanks college team hosting Military Appreciation Day where we received free admission for that game. I started going to more games after that, and went from being someone who had very little knowledge of volleyball to someone with great familiarity and respect for the game. So when Coach Beam held his annual Black and Gold Scrimmage before the 2010 season, I decided to go. Afterwards, I got to meet a few of the players, the juniors and lone senior. In the following months during the fall semester, and the regular season, I got to meet the rest of the team.
These ladies showed me great warmth during my first year at OU. They welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged. This was very important as I had felt like an outsider until then. However, these ladies embraced me as their fan and their friend. They let me know their appreciation of my support and let me know that they needed more fans like me, as they were struggling to get more people to come to the games. These ladies were so appreciative of me being “such a good fan,” but what they didn’t know yet was how much I appreciated their support also.
One moment that sticks out to me was one time in the Oakland Center when Ashleigh Slemmer sat down at the table next to me to study. She chatted with me for a few moments, and when I told her how difficult it had been for me to adjust to civilian life in the months prior, she let me know how she understood, as her mother went through the same thing after she retired from the Air Force. Ashleigh showed a willingness to open up to me after I opened up to her. We also developed a “friendly little rivalry” too as she’s a huge Ohio State Buckeyes fan since she’s from Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus. I on the other hand grew up a Michigan Wolverines fan. She couldn’t beat me though when the discussion turned to hockey, as my Red Wings were always better than her beloved Blue Jackets.
I later wrote a profile on Slemmer for my final project for my first Journalism class. The fact that she had overcome season-ending injuries in both of her first two years made her an easy choice for me. After getting an A on the project, I then submitted the story for the campus publication, the Oakland Post, and was offered a staff reporter position on the spot.
I then covered the team for the 2011 season in which the Golden Grizzlies qualified for the Summit League Tournament for the very first time. Some of the highlights included seeing Allie (Kirk) Lehr reaching one thousand career digs, Brittany (Holbrook) Magsig overcoming injury to become Player of the Week, and Meghan (Bray) Richardson reaching one thousand career kills. Meghan also had seven service aces against Western Illinois. Another highlight was being the first to interview Taylor (Humm) Van Dyke upon her arrival to Oakland as a freshman and then interviewing her again after her first start, a win over South Dakota State. As a senior, she would lead the Golden Grizzlies to a Horizon League championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
What probably sticks out more than anything else though was before the 2011 season was when I was preparing to interview the freshmen. As the other players came up and saw me, they gave me such a hugely warm welcome with shouts of “Seth!” Sure I expected pleasant greetings, but I was overwhelmed and deeply humbled that these ladies thought so much of me to respond to me that way.
I could go on about how sweet all of the ladies were, from Brittany, to Allie, to Ali Hedden, to Jenna (Lange) Welke, to Audrey Wilson and everyone else on the team, but that would make this column even longer, and this is long enough. However, I believe it’s important to mention my belief, whether these women realize it or not, that God used them to help me during a transitional period in my life. They’re great players, great people, and most importantly, great friends. You heard it from me, Seth Walker.