Buying in from the Sideline

by Chris Hughes

Before my name even left Coach Lance Leipold’s mouth, I knew I was about to be the recipient of my team’s newest weekly award. And judging by the number of heads that turned around to look at me, I think most of my teammates did, too.

Let’s go back to the week after our overtime win at Texas. Coach got us all together and said he wanted to recognize someone’s effort from that game. With the number of guys who showed up and showed out in that one, it could’ve been anyone. But Coach didn’t just say a name. Instead, he started describing someone — a player who always brings the energy; the loudest voice cheering on his teammates; a dude who’s always bouncing around, wired into the game and unwavering in his belief from kickoff to the final whistle.

If I was connecting the dots at that point, Coach’s next line gave it away: “He’s so into the game that sometimes he’ll stay locked into a squat with his hands on his knees.” That’s when everyone knew. One of my habits, I guess. Then came my name. Citing the way I made sure everyone kept the faith when things got dicey against the Longhorns, Coach announced I was being recognized as Teammate of the Week, a distinction he was creating right then and there. All the guys stood up and clapped, which was honestly surreal (and maybe just a bit embarrassing).

Words can’t do justice to what that moment felt like. I loved every second of it. This is my sixth and final season at KU, and most of my contributions this year have come from the sideline. But for me, that’s a source of pride, not frustration. Instead of being bitter or mailing it in, I’m more determined than ever to make an impact. Why? Because the way I see it, being a great teammate boils down to one thing: belief.

You’ve gotta believe, not only in yourself but in a common goal. No one came here to just be another person, another number. We came here to help boost this community and get this football program back to unimaginable levels. We all arrived with a purpose, and if you truly believe in that purpose, there’s nothing you won’t do to help get that team back where it belongs. Whether it’s a player on scout team, a coach, a trainer or the people who help clean up the facility late at night, everybody needs to believe.

Since the day I first stepped foot in Lawrence, my purpose has been to leave this team better than I found it. I’ve always felt strongly about that, but never more so than now. Don’t get me wrong: Keeping the faith hasn’t been easy. Trials and tribulations; successes and defeats; coaching changes and injuries — my belief has truly been tested. But it’s come back stronger every time. You’ve just got to buckle down, saddle up and get back at it, because there’s no one else who’s going to do the hard work, so why not you?

When you’ve been around as long as I have, you come to realize just how much belief it takes to win. When you compare yourself to the dude lining up across from you, it’s pretty similar, actually. The biggest difference between having dominant games and getting dominated, again, is belief. That was definitely the case against Texas. When our lead slipped away and maybe a little doubt crept in, I knew what my boys needed to hear: “Don’t even think for a second we’re leaving this building without a win. We’ve been here. We can do this. As long as you make your mind up that we’re winning, there’s no way we can lose. Cash out. Just put everything in and we’re going to get this win tonight.”

And we did. It was like an out-of-body experience. I could feel myself helping the team and I could feel them reacting and connecting with the energy I was putting out. Walking off the field knowing I helped my team get a mental edge, it was an incredible feeling, almost indescribable. I’ll always remember the one-on-one conversations I had afterward with guys like my teammate Mike Novitsky (we call him “Dirk”) and our strength coach Matt Gildersleeve, who both went out of their way to thank me. Then came my interaction with Coach Leipold. That was one of those moments where a person is looking at you and there are not a lot of words said but it’s an emotional connection of support and just feeling a sense of pride. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said that while someone in my position might sometimes feel unnoticed, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It would be easy for someone in my shoes to just let this final year pass them by, to see no need in building relationships with or buying into a first-year coaching staff. Frankly, most people in my position just wouldn’t care. I couldn’t do that. I appreciate everything this university and this football program has done for me. I’m invested in KU and our success, and I truly believe that is just around the corner. If I did a snapshot of my first day on campus and a snapshot today, everything would be different — from mentalities to facilities to just a basic sense of pride. You can’t look at these past few games and say you haven’t seen any change. I’m proud to say I was a part of that.

My Jayhawk journey ends this Saturday with Senior Day against West Virginia, and while my teammates love to call me “Old Man,” it feels like my entire six-year run occurred in the blink of an eye. Everyone’s moving around with a bit more juice this week. They want to send us seniors out with a bang, and I’m right there with ’em. To the KU fans who ride with us through thick and thin: Thank you. We appreciate you. It would be easy to pack it in, jump on another bandwagon or pour water when it’s already raining, but it takes toughness to do what you do: stay positive and stick with us. The success that’s coming our way, it’ll be an ode to you.

I feel a sense of joy that I’ve made it this long in college football, but I’m sure Saturday will bring out a lot of other emotions. I’m not a super emotional guy as far as tears go, but who knows? I might just have to drop a couple this weekend.

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