Keep Grinding: It’s Been a Long Road For This Team and Me

By Edmond Sumner

Xavier started recruiting me in the second half of my junior year in high school.

Michigan and Michigan State, my home schools, had contacted me, but they were looking at other players that were ranked higher, so I was like their fourth priority. I don’t want to be anyone’s fourth priority, so when Coach Travis Steele started contacting me I was happy to hear from him. He talked to me a lot, and over time, I opened up to him.

 I didn't want to be anybody's fourth option.

What caught my attention is that every other school that recruited me always talked to me about how skinny I was, and that was a pet peeve of mine. Coach Steele never talked about it, and I liked that. By December of my junior year I think I knew I was going to Xavier. I knew it was a good program academically, and my Dad loved Xavier too.

When the AAU season started, I was playing well, and my recruitment picked up, but I’d already made up my mind. Like I said, I didn’t want to be anybody’s fourth option.

*

I remember my first workout at Xavier – it was the hardest workout I’ve ever had in my entire life. I really started to question what I’d gotten myself into. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ But the more you work, the more you get used to it, and you start to get stronger and faster. But that first week was tough. And when we went on a trip to Brazil, I noticed my knees started hurting – worse than they ever had before.

I had tendonitis, and everyone decided I needed to sit out that first year and get better.

It was tough sitting out. I wanted to come out and play, so that year was hard. I was in a new environment, and I didn’t know many people. I was away from my parents for the first time. So I started going to Athletes in Action, a faith-based athletic ministry organization. I’ve always had a relationship with God, and I thought this was a good way to find help. It was great and I still go to this day. Another person who helped me was guard Andrew Mitchell, who became one of my best friends. He was just there for me outside of basketball and it was really good to have someone to talk with.

That summer I had to get back in shape and it was so hard. I hadn’t played basketball for a whole year. I went back home to train and really pushed myself. I’d get up at 6:30 and run two miles – that’s a big thing at Xavier, running the mile. Everyone has a set time and you have to make it. My time was 5:15 and I was determined to make it. When Coach Mack would call me he would always bring up the mile run. I just had to keep grinding.

*

As a redshirt freshman I knew what I was capable of. I thought I would have a subtle role, but I knew I would also be competing for the starting point guard spot. And the more I played, I got more confident. It didn’t take long for me to realize that team was special. Playing with that group of guys, I never played with that many talented guys before. Everyone knew their roles and just gelled. It built up and it all led to that Villanova game at home.

It was a top five matchup, and we’d never beaten them before. For us to take that next step we had to beat them. And I was really fired up because I’d gotten hurt against them earlier in the year, when I had a bad fall on a tough foul. When we came out firing against Nova, that was the loudest I’d ever heard the Cintas Center. It was crazy. I couldn’t hear myself think. It was so fun – it was even more fun than the Cincinnati game. There was no pressure. We all just played and had fun.

*

The season ended in disappointment when Wisconsin beat us in the tournament on a last-second shot. You know, I saw someone on Twitter recently asking which year was better, this one or last year, and I just couldn’t understand the question. Last season was an amazing team. It needs to get credit for what happened during the regular season, and getting the best seed Xavier had ever gotten.

A week or so after it happened, that Wisconsin shot was still on my mind. And I guess it’s always in the back of your mind. You can’t just file it away.

But it kind of developed the mindset for this year.

*

Coming into this season we needed to correct what we didn’t do last year. We needed to hone in on the details, pay attention to the little things. We needed to educate the new faces on the team. They knew about our program but they didn’t know the work it takes to really succeed in that program.

We had to show them how much is expected. Because we knew we did not want to lose like that again.

The first half of this year was interesting for me because we were winning, but we weren’t hitting on all cylinders. We were rough around the edges, and I had to meet to talk with Coach Mack and Coach Steele about what I could do to sacrifice for the team. That meant taking less shots and finding ways to distribute the ball more. I had to set up my teammates and sacrifice my scoring for the team.

Some games may have seemed like I was up and down, but I was just trying to figure it all out. And when I did – that’s when everything changed.

*

During the St. John’s game I was having one of my best games. I was finding my teammates, and because of that, I was able to beat my man one-on-one and score the ball, too. I was feeling great and I was seeing the floor well. My vision as a point guard was improving.

 I turned to my Dad, who was behind me. 'I think I messed it up,' I said.

Then it happened. I remember we were running a play called “5 Flat,” and the big man came up to hedge. I did an in-an-out where I drove the ball and I took the contact. I flipped up a crazy shot (I didn’t even know it went in until days later) and I went down and my leg went back. I grabbed my knee, but it wasn’t hurting. Instead, my leg was super-numb. I thought I’d broken my foot – and I turned to the bench and told them that. Once I was on the bench, I felt pain in the back of my leg.

I turned to my Dad, who was behind me. “I think I messed it up,” I said.

*

Now, I’ve never paid much attention to NBA Draft boards. But when you’re a potential first-round pick, which I’d been at the time, you’re going to hear about it. I remember some guys on the team seeing it somewhere, and telling me. It’s always been my goal to play in the NBA but I never paid attention to those mock drafts before.

It just so happened I was projected to be a first-round pick when I got injured. Minutes after I got hurt I had to see the trainer, and I tried to trick him and tell him I wasn’t hurting. But I wasn’t okay. I think he knew at the time what had happened – he just didn’t want to tell me then.

Later, when I saw the doctor, he told me I tore my ACL. I put my head down and just started crying. Coach Mack and Coach Steele came in to talk to me and I don’t remember what they said. I think they knew there was nothing at that time that could make me feel better. I worried about the team. I worried about my future.

Once again, I was having to sit out. No basketball.

Later I went to my room and had a reality check. I turned off my phone and just didn’t talk to anyone for a few days. I even questioned my faith a little bit. But as time passed, I talked to friends at Athletes in Action, and I realized that the path God laid out for me wasn’t as straight as I thought. There’s some zigzagging in there, and He just feels like I need to go through it.

Then Coach Mack talked to me again. “If this is the worst thing that happens to you in your life, then you’ve led a good life,” he said. And I knew he was right. I started to hear from other athletes, from Connecticut and Rhode Island and other places, who’ve come back from this injury better than before. I know I can do that too.

I knew that sitting around moaning about it wasn’t going to get me to the NBA. I had to get up. And I had to keep helping my team.

I was still feeling like I’d let them down. When they suffered through their six-game losing streak, I wondered what else I could do to help. I text Quentin Goodin all the time, telling him how good he is and trying to help keep his confidence up. I tell other people tips, things I see now on the court. You can see so much from the sidelines that you don’t realize when you’re playing.

And sometimes it’s better to hear suggestions from your teammate rather than from the coaches. So I’ve done that, too.

*

It’s makes me so happy to see this team gel at the right time. They’ve just clicked when they needed to. They’re making shots, and they’re more focused on the defensive end, where it all starts.

 I definitely feel good about our chances. We’ve been through a lot, and we’ve earned the right to want it more.

For me, I don’t want to set a timetable for when I come back. So many athletes rush to get back and they end up injuring themselves again. I want to come back when I’m mentally and physically ready. When I am, I’ll be back. I guess if I could wish, realistically, next January is when I’ll be ready. But right now, I’m just enjoying this year and this ride.

I get to sit back and be like a fan-player, but I still get as nervous as I would if I were playing.

I feel good about this next game. It’s going to go to who wants it more. And I definitely feel good about our chances. We’ve been through a lot, and we’ve earned the right to want it more.