Despite Snow, Fitzgerald Finds Direction in Indianapolis

DaeQuan Fitzgerald '18 (second from right) and other NCAA Division III Immersion Program participants pose with NCAA President Mark Emmert.
DaeQuan Fitzgerald '18 (second from right) and other NCAA Division III Immersion Program participants pose with NCAA President Mark Emmert.

I had never been so completely discouraged in my life.

Back in October, I scheduled my flight for early morning because I wanted to settle into my hotel room and prep for introducing myself to complete strangers. I'm as awkward as it gets, so I needed to ready myself for interactions with the potential professionals who could offer internship or job opportunities. I was one of 40 students picked to attend the 2018 NCAA Convention in Indianapolis through the Division III Immersion Program and I couldn't wait to go.

Unfortunately, my plans endured some turbulence. My day started at 3:30 am. Most of it was spent trapped inside the Greensboro and Atlanta airports. As a kid, I used to pray for snow to cancel school. I was so thankful for North Carolina's unpreparedness for the weather, knowing we would have an extended period of delays and cancellations compared to other parts of the country. But the snowy night that preceded my Wednesday morning flight from Greensboro to Atlanta was delayed five hours. I finally left Atlanta after being stuck there for eight hours. At one point, I sat down in a corner with an overpriced chicken salad sandwich in hand thinking, "I'm not going to make it there." I was scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis at 8:55 a.m., and did not even check into my hotel until 11:35 p.m. I missed check-in, the tour of the NCAA Headquarters, and also the NCAA Honors Celebration where hundreds of convention guests gathered to recognize some of the best and brightest people in college sports.

There was no time to mope or complain. We were up at 6 a.m. for a Thursday breakfast where I met the mentors my Immersion Program cohorts met the previous day. Fortunately, the mentors were excited to meet me and made the foreign environment comfortable.

I attended several conference sessions following breakfast, including one on substance abuse in collegiate athletics. Beyond students getting high or using performance enhancers, the session touched on the health and wellness of student-athletes, and how bystander awareness is so vital in preventing substance abuse. The panelists said it is important for coaches and teammates to recognize a student-athlete suffering from substance abuse, and having the courage to acknowledge it and help them. It was interesting to hear from NCAA representatives Markie Cook, Thomas Paskus, and Mary E. Wilfert, who discussed various issues surrounding substance abuse, as well as UNC-Greensboro's own Dr. David Wyrick, someone close to home. I hope we can create awareness and promote the health and wellness of college student-athletes at Guilford. Dr. Wyrick is the director of UNCG's Institute to Promote Athlete Health and Wellness, which helps various organizations provide educational resources, instruction through evidence-based programming, training, and research/evaluation. I am working to branch their programs to Guilford and help the school prevent substance abuse and promote the emotional health of our athletes. Should I land in collegiate athletics, this topic will always be with me.

Immersion Program participants had lunch with the national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and it was encouraging to see the NCAA's willingness to hear and consider current student-athlete voices. The national SAAC members participate in voting for new NCAA legislation and communicate directly with the organization's national office.

Friday's programming opened my eyes the most to pursuing collegiate athletics as a career. I attended the morning Division III Issues Forum where topics of increased athletics participation, ethics, and legislative proposals were discussed. I sat with athletic directors, a conference commissioner, other student-athletes, coaches, and even a school's president. Hearing their perspectives on the presented topics taught me a lot about conversing with others in a professional manner. I appreciated the opportunity to network with incredibly insightful individuals. I also got a picture with NCAA President Mark Emmert after his presentation at the NCAA Association Luncheon.

I was struck by how readily I connected with the other program participants despite only knowing them for three days. They came from different places and had a variety of experiences, yet we were all similar in many ways. The experience widened my world as I now believe I have 39 new friends scattered across the country.

Beyond my peers, I met many people who were not only insightful, but caring. They will prove valuable connections down the road. This was my first professional conference and everything I learned helped me see a career in sports can be a reality. The opportunity is there and it is undoubtedly accessible. Thanks to Guilford Sports Information Director Dave Walters for nominating me for this program and facilitating my application. Thanks also to Guilford's Interim Athletic Director Craig Eilbacher and Vice President Barbara Lawrence for joining me as Guilford representatives and for their open communication and accessibility. I'm grateful to the NCAA and Division III Director Louise McCleary for endorsing the Division III Immersion Program, which I hope continues for the benefit of future student-athletes.

Initially, I felt I'd miss out on this opportunity. While I didn't know exactly what the program entailed, sitting around in airports made me question the trip's worth. Looking back, I'm thankful I was able to arrive safely and engage in one of the most rewarding experiences of my life thus far.

-DaeQuan Cancio-Fitzgerald '18

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