In a little town, on a little street, inside a little bar, the orders of wings were going around.
“Thomas, your beard.”
Someone was pointing at me.
“Is that … hot sauce on your beard?”
It was, in fact, hot sauce on my beard. Sitting right in front of me was the culprit: a demolished plate of superhot wings that we call “Kiss Your Taste Buds Goodbye.”
If you’re a Stephen F. Austin student, you know the spot I’m talking about.
This was at Flashback Cafe — or Flashbacks, as it’s more commonly known. It’s downtown in Nacogdoches, Texas (pop. 32,000). Nacogdoches is the town I’ve been proud to call home for the last five years. It’s pretty much your typical small Texas town. It’s a simple and humble place. The people are really friendly and there’s not a whole lot to do after about 8 p.m.
On this particular day — a Sunday — there was a buzz in the air. It seemed like everybody in town who owned a purple Lumberjacks t-shirt was jammed inside Flashbacks, crowding around the TVs. Shoulder to shoulder. You could hardly move in there. Everybody was looking forward to the announcement.
If there’s one thing that makes everyone go crazy here, it’s Lumberjacks basketball. This was as close as Nacogdoches gets to an all-out, citywide party.
The sauce-in-my-beard thing actually happens more than I’d like to admit. It’s just a consequence of growing your beard out, which I’d been doing ever since the season started. The more I let it grow, the more people wondered what I was doing. I never had a plan…. It just sort of happened. Then we started winning, so I kept letting it grow out. I’ll shave it off when we lose, I thought. But after 20 conference wins in a row — on our way to winning the Southland Conference title — my beard took on a life of its own. It seemed like nothing could stop our team, so I vowed nothing would stop my beard. Not even some hot sauce.
I didn’t even bother to get up to get a napkin. Like everyone else at Flashbacks that day, there was more on my mind.
The date was Sunday, March 13.
Also known as Selection Sunday.
If you went to a mid-major basketball school, then you probably know what it felt like in Flashbacks that day. A lot of us have sat in similar establishments, surrounded by our teammates, coaches and fans, cheering for our small school on the big screen.
Truthfully, before a few years ago, I think it would probably have been a stretch to even use that term about Lumberjacks basketball.
The term says a lot: You’re almost in the major leagues, but not quite.
Looking back on my senior year, my final season as a Lumberjack, I’ve started to reflect on what it means.
Which brings me to Lesson 1 about being a mid-major: They won’t know your name.
When our school’s name flashed across the screen as a 14 seed, the whole room went nuts.
But at first, I didn’t react. The thing I remember wasn’t the cheering, it was hearing the announcer call us “S.F. Austin,” instead of Stephen F. Austin or SFA.
They won’t know your name.
Remember how back in the day some people would mispronounce Xavier? They’d say, “EX-ay-vee-yer.” Well, you don’t hear that mistake much anymore. That’s because Xavier’s been to the tourney enough times and won enough big games. People have learned how to say the school’s name. Like a lot of teams, the Musketeers have cleared the first hurdle for a mid-major: recognition.
It goes without saying that no one really picked us to upset West Virginia in the first round. We saw the experts’ picks.
Amidst all the commotion inside Flashbacks, I noticed something. It happened so fast that I’m not sure anyone else saw it.
One of our assistant coaches slipped through the sea of purple shirts and handed our head coach, Brad Underwood, a folder.
On the folder were two letters: WV.
West Virginia. The 3 seed. The team we were going to face in five days.
Inside the folder was what you’d expect: stats and other info about West Virginia’s personnel, plays, strategies and so on.
But it wasn’t the contents of the folder that caught my attention. A folder of papers won’t win you ball games. In that moment, I remember feeling a sense of pride. It was a sign. We meant business.
I mean, how many folders for other possible opponents did our coaching staff have to prepare? Eight? Twelve?
This makes me think of Lesson 2: There are two types of mid-majors. One is happy to play one game in the tournament. They’re happy just to be there.
The other is prepared to take it by storm.
Obviously, every team hopes to win as many games as it can in the tournament. But not every team has the mindset necessary to make a deep run.
That’s what I love about our program. We started the preparation to win before that moment. Three minutes after we found out who we were playing, our coaches were huddled in the corner of Flashbacks passing around papers.
They weren’t satisfied just seeing our school’s name flash across the screen. The party was over.
And our preparation had actually started before that. Way before that. With mid-majors, it usually does.
We started preparing last June.
June 6 to be exact.
That’s a day anyone on our team will remember really well.
June 6 didn’t start on the basketball court. It started on the SFA football field. It was the hottest day I can remember in a long time. No shooting around, no drills, no scrimmages. No ball at all. It was just our team and the strength and conditioning coach. Our coach ran us into the ground. Sprints, stadiums, everything. I’ve never worked so hard.
That day in the hot sun, we set a goal as a team. No matter what happened this season, we would never be outhustled. We would always be in better shape than our opponents.
“June 6,” became our rallying cry.
Throughout the year, the date would keep coming up. At the end of a tough practice, or at halftime of a close game, someone would say, “June 6.” We all knew what it meant. The sweat and the pain. We remembered the bond we had made that day.
And we also remembered the goals we set that day: Not only to win our conference, but also to win games in the NCAA tournament.
June 6 was about something bigger than basketball, too. For me, this is Lesson 3 about being a mid-major: There’s no substitute for experience.
At SFA, it was our superpower. Last season we had five seniors — four of whom were starters. That’s not a knock on players who leave early for the NBA. There’s just no way to replicate the bond that a team of seniors has. Usually when you see an upset in the tourney, there’s a team of seniors behind it.
For me and my teammate, Trey Pinkney, the bond went deeper than normal. Trey and I played AAU ball together and grew up in nearby towns in East Texas. We were both hungry but underrecruited high school kids looking for a big break.
At a mid-major, four-year players don’t just help you win. They also become the building blocks for future winning seasons. It started with coach Kaspar and then it really ramped up to a new level with coach Underwood. And it’ll continue with the next coach. Because over time, with four-year players leading the underclassmen, a tradition of leadership develops.
For our seniors, this would be the last trip to the tournament.
Here’s Lesson 4 about mid-majors: It’s always a road game.
The day before we played West Virginia, we rode over to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in a team bus. The 30-minute bus ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn was one of the highlights of our trip. We were all so excited to be playing in New York.
It was fun people-watching out the window of the bus. I actually saw quite a few guys with beards like mine. By that point, after 20 straight wins and counting, my beard getting big enough that it was going to need its own page in the SFA media guide.
Then I saw something weird. It was a man with a green beard. Just walking down the street. At 10 a.m.
Then another green-bearded man, and then another.
What the heck was going on?
We had been so focused on our game that we had forgotten: It was March 17. Saint Patrick’s Day. In the biggest city in the U.S.
Suddenly, people in Saint Paddy’s Day gear seemed to be popping up everywhere.
In Texas, I guess we don’t really celebrate Saint Paddy’s to that degree.
I looked over at Trey, thinking, They’re wearing leprechaun hats at 10 a.m., and they think we’re the ones riding to class on horses with cowboy hats on!
It was comedy. It was great. But it was also a perfect lesson for us at the time.
It’s always a road game.
In the wild and crazy chaos of Saint Paddy’s Day revelry, our focus became sharper than ever. While people were partying, we were ready to go to work. The color we cared about wasn’t green. It was purple.
On game day, the next afternoon, Trey came over to me on the bench right before the opening tip-off.
“It’s go time. Let’s do this.”
This was my closest friend, my teammate, the guy whose game I knew like my own.
Everything else could be left unsaid.
West Virginia was big. They were good. We knew they would be.
But we played our game from the beginning. We knew we could outrun them. We knew we could force turnovers. We were already one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers.
June 6 was still on our minds.
At halftime, we led by three. In the locker room, coach kept repeating to us: “We’re built for this.”
We believed it.
Halfway through the second half, we opened the game up.
Trey and I were playing our best basketball. We kept scoring on an open-court play we’ve been practicing since high school. When I was trailing him, he’d fake the drive and flip it back to me for a three. It looks simple but it’s the type of play you can only do if you know your teammate’s tendencies through and through.
After we won, we were jumping around in the locker room. It was one of the best feelings of my life. Not just because we won, but because we had achieved the goal we set out to achieve last summer. There’s nothing like that feeling of accomplishment.
Two days later, our season ended. We thought we had Notre Dame beaten, but in the final seconds it didn’t go our way. It was a really difficult loss. There were tears in the locker room.
Now with some time to think about it, I’m not sad. I’m just thankful.
To my fellow teammates, coaches and students, you’re the best. Trey, you and I will leave SFA knowing that we’re the winningest players in school history — and that we did it together. I’m gonna miss the town of Nacogdoches.
I’ll definitely miss the burgers at Butcher Boy’s.
I’ll miss walking into William R. Johnson Coliseum. I’ve spent thousands of hours there and I won’t forget any of them, even the early morning ones. Wins are always going to be great memories, but I think some of those sold-out home games at the Coliseum will stand out the most. The fire marshall had to turn fans away sometimes because it got so packed.
And to my family, you’re my best friends. I’m extremely lucky.
Of all the lessons I learned, I keep thinking back about the first one: They won’t know your name.
I’m willing to guess more people know our name than they did before March.
We’re the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin.
Which reminds me, now that the season’s over, my mom has been asking me constantly, “When are you going to shave off your beard?”
Last week I trimmed it down a little bit, but I’m still not ready to get rid of it.