The Definition of ‘Student-Athlete’: Chris Zarkoskie’s Story

 

Note: Below is a recent feature story I wrote on New Hampshire’s Chris Zarkoskie, who was named the winner of CAA Football’s inaugural Chuck Boone Leadership Award this season and is one of the most amazing student-athletes I’ve met in the profession. Zarkoskie was presented with the award at the team’s annual football banquet on Sunday. This story is an account of my time at the banquet and Zarkoskie’s sensational story. A special shout-out to my coworker Bobby Broyles for his work on the video.

Every team professes to have a family culture about its program. In fact, this always seems to be among the first selling points a coach employs when recruiting and the first recollection of a former player reminiscing about his college years.

But there’s something different about this dynamic in Durham. Sitting among the several hundred attendees at the University of New Hampshire’s annual football banquet on Sunday, this sense of family was starkly present. With the exception of a few players having reportedly nodded off in the back of the room, the nearly four-hour ceremony – yes, four hours – was an overwhelming hit with its guests, who ranged from coaches, administrators and donors to players and their parents and siblings.

The day’s speeches were filled with enjoyable memories and endearing jokes, culminating in bearlike hugs and moving even an outsider like myself. The emotion filling the room was palpable and all but a few of the graduating seniors sitting at the front of the room failed to shed a tear; I can only imagine the state of the parents behind us. Few guests rushed from the room at event’s end, with parents and coaches working the room to capitalize on a rare opportunity to catch up with one another away from the field, while the returning players hastened forward to congratulate the program’s departing players – many of them obvious mentors.

The affair was much akin to a family reunion. And as we can all attest to when it comes to our respective families, there are always one or two favorites. This year, senior Chris Zarkoskie was clearly a prized son. In fact, he may be one of the most prized graduates produced by a storied program that boasts such esteemed alumni as Corey Graham, Jerry Azumah and 14-year head coach Sean McDonnell himself.

As several coaches and players remarked on Sunday, Zarkoskie – or “Zark” as he’s commonly referred to – embodies the very definition of student-athlete. The largely unrecruited offensive lineman would eventually become a three-year starter and earn a place on CAA Football’s All-Conference team as a senior, seemingly making his the oft-told story of the prototypical underdog and the coach who took a chance on him.

But anyone who’s met Zarkoskie knows that he is anything but typical. Yes, he came into his own in Durham, but while playing a largely unheralded position on a perennial powerhouse program that has consistently produced big-name players like the guy sitting just four seats down from him in 2011 Buck Buchanan Award Winner and UNH all-time tackle leader Matt Evans.

The greatest chapter in Zarkoskie’s early story is one that is often overlooked in sport because it goes beyond the playing field. Playing on the offensive line, which lacks so much of the game’s glam, has served him well given his natural tendency to stray from the limelight. Thankfully others have stepped forward to share his story for him.

As part of the nomination process for CAA Football’s inaugural Chuck Boone Leadership Award, each of the conference’s 11 member schools put forward a nominee and submitted three letters of recommendation on his behalf. In preparing the profile materials for our athletic directors, who were charged with choosing the winner, I had a chance to read through each candidate’s letters. I admit I was particularly moved by what I read about Zarkoskie, who McDonnell called “probably the best leader and captain that I have ever had here in my coaching career” and athletic director Marty Scarano said represents “all that is good about our business of intercollegiate athletics.” Team sports psychologist coach Tim Churchard added, “I have not met or observed a more complete and respected student-athlete than Chris in my more than forty years of teaching and coaching.”

Scarano’s fellow athletic directors must have concurred as Zarkoskie came away as the clear winner of the award named for Chuck Boone – dual-sport collegiate athlete and long-time coach turned University of Richmond athletic director and Executive Director of the Yankee Conference – and presented to the league player who embodies the highest standards of leadership, integrity, teamwork and sportsmanship in his academic and athletic achievements.

A team’s leaders must embody each of these characteristics in order to help guide their program to success on the playing field. There were countless examples of this kind in his recommendation letters and in Sunday’s remarks about Zarkoskie, who served as one of the Wildcats’ four captains last fall.

There have been many great leaders in sports over the years, all conveying leadership’s many forms. In describing what attributes a leader must possess, Zarkoskie notes, “As a leader, you need to know when to lead and when to let others lead. You can’t always be the one who’s speaking, and there are times when you have to take a backseat. That’s just as important as speaking up.”

And as the old adage goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” This is an especially key point of emphasis for Zarkoskie, who adds, “It’s not just about what you say. Leading by example is a very important quality, too. You’ve got to put the work in each and every day; even when you think no one is watching. There’s always someone watching and your actions speak very loudly. People see your hard work, recognize it and try to emulate it.”

Zarkoskie says that this past year he and his fellow captains tried to take what they had learned from the leaders before them – the likes of and Dino Vasso (’10) and Brian McNally (’11) – and utilize a similar style of leadership to guide the team in the right way, which involves hard work, respect for all and a “team over me” mentality.

He says that much of the brotherhood that has come to define the program is rooted in the latter, explaining, “We always talk about holding the shield for the person next to you. We all have ups and downs. If you’re up and someone else is struggling and down, then you’ve got to hold the shield for that guy. This is a team sport and everybody must act as one unit and one heartbeat. The quality of a true leader, then, would be bringing all of those guys together and leading them in one direction for one common goal.”

But as we see far too often in sports nowadays, a player’s leadership on the field does not necessarily translate to his life off of it. Thus, it’s rare that we come across a player like Zarkoskie who extends his same brand of proven leadership and immense character into his everyday life.

This is where Zarkoskie’s story truly begins to unfold. In addition to captaining the football team and capping his academic career with upwards of a 3.5 cumulative GPA and Academic All-District honors, perhaps his strongest record of leadership has been demonstrated in the community. His devotion to community service began back in New Jersey, where as a high schooler at Seton Hall Prep he spent his Spring Breaks volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and still today delivers the Eucharist to patients at a local rehabilitation center when he visits home.

The experience that has most profoundly impacted Zarkoskie, however, has been his time as a Pease Greeter at Pease Air Force Base in nearby Portsmouth, N.H. He first got involved with the organization as a member of Athletes InterVarsity, a group of Christian student-athletes on campus, and eventually expanded the student presence among the Pease Greeters by getting his teammates involved.

As Pease Greeters, the group strives to give the troops a proper welcome or sendoff and to thank them for their service to their country. They greet troops and spend time with them upon their return home from overseas, while also spending time with departing troops and wishing them a quick and safe return home.

Inspired by his time with the troops and a friend’s father who provides vocational counseling to veterans, Zarkoskie now aspires to one day work as a clinical psychologist at a veterans center or hospital. After graduating in December, he currently works with mental health patients and soon plans to return to school to pursue a doctorate in psychology.

Talking with 23-year-old Zarkoskie, who’s far more driven than your typical twenty-something and wiser than most people my parents’ age, one gets the sense that he was just born this way. He exudes character, class and selflessness, leading Chuck Boone – on hand to help present the inaugural award – to laud him as one of the most phenomenal young men he’s ever had the privilege to meet.

Predictably, Zarkoskie quickly deflected any such praise, attributing it and his numerous awards to the people who’ve been so present and supportive in his life – his parents, a high school teacher turned coach and his coaches and fellow teammates these last four and a half years.

While Zarkoskie is indeed a product of his environment, the people in his life are also a product of his presence in their lives. This prized son of the tight-knit New Hampshire family will now take the many things he’s learned in Durham and carry them into a professional career that should prove incredibly consequential for our nation’s veterans who return home in great need of gifted individuals like him.

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Serving up the Perfect Morning Drive

Arthur Ashe Snow

It actually snowed to the point of accumulation today in Richmond, so I of course pulled over on my way in to work to take a quick picture of my boy Arthur Ashe. Mr. Ashe, who hails from nearby Petersburg, is one of my childhood heroes and his is my favorite of the many monuments here in the city. Passing by it on a daily basis makes me feel genuinely happy and inspired, so today’s snow served as an added bonus.

The Best of the Harlem Shake

In the matter of a few short weeks, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” has shaken up the online universe like few viral sensations have in history. The 30-second flash mob trend whose titular song is currently No. 1 on the iTunes chart has caught fire across the world, taking workplaces, college campuses and sporting venues by storm. Heck, the trend has even gone underwater and taken to the friendly skies.

Since I’ve watched my fair share of Harlem Shake vids these last several weeks (counting the hours would be pointless), I thought I’d share some of my favorites from the thousands that exist and the more than 4,000 now uploaded each day.

While I’m gladly riding the wave of the phenomenon, I think we’re quickly approaching the point where this is no longer a new trend and the videos are becoming old news. This seems to be the growing sentiment I’ve found in my long hours of recent informal research.

Nevertheless, the trend isn’t over yet, which is why my workplace is planning to create our own Harlem Shake video on Monday. With viral videos like these serving as essentially free, proven methods of gaining instant viewership, there’s no reason not to jump on the bandwagon, especially when there’s a means of publicity behind it.

If you’re interested in learning the dance (like I’m attempting to do), then wait no longer. And I came across the Daily Beast’s interview with the man behind the Harlem Shake, Baauer, whose take on all of this is definitely worth the read.

The video that supposedly began it all

Georgia Swim & Dive goes underwater…

A group takes the shake to the sky…

Maryland may have set the bar for college campuses. They do a range of dances, but the Harlem Shake begins at 1:30 mark…

Jon Stewart’s twist on the trend has been a definite success…

Even Lucy and Linus are into this thing…

The Coast Guard is one of many military schools to create a video, but theirs is the only one featuring a guy who falls off the stairs (guy in brown jacket to left at :20 mark)…

And I can’t leave out my alma maters…

My First Crack at Commentating

SwimCommentating

After working with the Richmond Swim & Dive team a year ago, I quickly grew fond of the ladies on the squad and gained mad respect for their athletic abilities since I can barely swim a full lap in a pool – I wish I was joking. I’m not a water person.

Nevertheless, I do have a tremendous appreciation for both swimmers and divers. The fact that they regularly get up at 5 a.m. for practice only to return to the pool for another afternoon session speaks volumes about the stamina required to be a student-athlete like them at the collegiate level.

Given my affinity for the ladies, the team’s coaching staff and the sports themselves, I gladly obliged when my friend and the team’s assistant, Travis Stensby, asked me to do commentate without me having ever done so before. I’ve done P.A. (public address announcing) in the past, but never play-by-play… or whatever it would be called in swimming.

Thankfully the broadcast was made free for viewers (no one should have to pay to listen to me) and I had two former swimmers co-hosting with me to provide more technical insight into the meet, so my role was largely to facilitate the flow of conversation… and not drop a random f-bomb.

It also helped immensely to do our research beforehand. And while I’ll be generous in saying that the three of us have “limited” combined knowledge of diving, we did have this sweet cheat sheet that allowed us to appear as though we had some clue what we were bantering about during the 1- and 3-meter.

SpiderTV, which ran a baller operation with five cameras throughout the meet, recorded the entire meet along with our award-winning commentary and have made it available for free here.

Check out a few minutes if you have some free time. It’s actually pretty entertaining, and we had a lot of positive feedback afterwards. Someone even said that we made quite the splash.

Okay, that person was me. I know, so lame.