Monday, July 20, 2015

Steed Johnson: What Sean Karl and Tennessee Tennis Taught Me

Photo courtesy YourGameFace.com
Steed Johnson supported Sean Karl and his family throughout Sean's battle with cancer, which he lost last November. Johnson organized fundraising events, sold T-shirts and towels and provided a constant reminder that the tennis world was united in its support of the University of Tennessee student-athlete, who was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma during his senior year of high school.

Johnson, who played Division I tennis at Longwood University, completing his eligibility this year, contacted me about publishing his reflections on Sean's illness and the inspiration Sean and his Tennessee teammates provided in such a difficult situation. His tribute is below:

How I Became a “Vol For Life”

At this point, much of the tennis playing world has heard the name Sean Karl as well as bits and pieces of the journey this University of Tennessee tennis player endured. What a lot of the tennis playing world has not heard is the story of the journey his team endured with him. Sean Karl passed away in mid-November of 2014 and, to say the least, I was devastated to say goodbye to someone who had been my competition, my occasional teammate, and most importantly, my good friend. Little did I know when I made my way to Tennessee upon news of Sean’s passing that both the memorial and the weekend I spent with Sean’s family and teammates would change my perspective, not only on the sport of tennis but life, forever.

From a young age, those of us who play tennis competitively are often taught that it’s an individual sport and that we only have ourselves to rely on. We hear this from our parents, we hear it from our coaches and we even hear it from some of the greatest tennis players throughout the history of the sport. I myself was completely convinced of this all through juniors and then continued to think this way for three and a half years of college tennis. When you play tennis it is just you out there. There is no one else on the court besides your opponent. So when you lose, it seems like it’s all on you. When you win, it seems like it’s all on you. When you are having an off day, it seems like it’s all on you. Too often, there truly seems to be no one else to blame or to lean on when something goes bad or when you lose. There is only you. Or so I thought.

I played college tennis for Longwood University for four years. Throughout my time with Longwood’s division one program, I was pushed to my limits and was able to learn many lessons, all while being surrounded by exceptional people. But during much of that time, I felt something was missing. Every match I played I only relied on myself. Every problem I had, I relied on myself, and unfortunately it kept me from developing and reaching my full potential. Until November of 2014, I had always thought of my team as nothing more than a team of friends, unrelated but caring for each other. Three and a half years into my college career, I finally learned that this kind of thinking was not what a team or even tennis is truly about.

When I arrived in Knoxville for Sean’s celebration of life at Tennessee’s tennis facility, I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn’t know who would be there, how the event would turn out, or how I would handle everything. As I walked through the door of the facility, I was shocked. Pictures of Sean filled the room. They documented his life from a young boy all the way up to the collegiate tennis player he became. Surrounded by these memories, his teammates conversed with everyone who walked in the door. Dressed in their all orange warm-ups and looking as if they had suffered through more than a few sleepless nights, his teammates smiled and greeted the travelers who had made the trip to celebrate Sean’s life. As I would come to learn, this was the easiest of tasks the team had volunteered to do in the past months.

Once the celebration of Sean’s life officially started, I was not surprised to see his best friend, Maxx Lipman, speak. Maxx has known Sean for years and his speech was truly incredible. But when a good friend of mine, Brandon Fickey, stood to speak, I was surprised. Brandon has always been an awesome competitor and in his older years he became one of the more humble opponents I faced. I knew Brandon had played a vital role on the Tennessee team as well and that he served as captain in his senior year (2014-15). As Brandon spoke, and as he would continue to speak with me over the weekend, I learned that the show of unity when the entire team shaved their heads in Sean’s honor and the money they raised to help Sean’s family were just the tip of the iceberg. Over that weekend, I came to learn that there was so much more generosity and love than we, the outsiders, saw. And it’s this love and generosity that I want the nation to know about.

In Sean’s last months of life, he wanted to stay with his team in Knoxville instead of being at home in Nashville. Being the amazing parents they are, Laurie and Mike allowed Sean to do so and to this day will say it was one of the best decisions they ever made. At this stage in his cancer, Sean was too sick to stay alone, so Brandon opened his apartment to Sean and allowed him to live there for the remainder of his days. While living at Brandon’s, Sean still attended practices and watched from the sidelines as his team worked hard. He got mad if he ever had to miss a practice due to a doctor’s appointment. During the day, Sean had no alone time. Every person on the Tennessee team found time to spend with Sean, whether he was awake or asleep. Teammates would visit between classes and many would even go at night to study there, just to spend time with Sean. From what I heard, the apartment had a revolving door of friends always coming and going. I also learned the team had weekly meetings at the tennis center (which Sean never missed, even in his last days) to discuss their troubles and their concerns for Sean as well as to let him talk to them about what was on his mind. At the end of every meeting, the team would join hands and pray together. On weekends, one could find nearly all of the teammates over at Brandon’s apartment, either talking to Sean or watching television, just wanting to be near him. Laurie told me the team had been there for Sean as much as anyone and at times even refused to leave his side. During his last breaths, Sean was surrounded by his family and team, although I came to realize that, to Sean, family and team were one and the same. The Tennessee Men’s tennis team had become part of Sean’s family. They had been there through the good, the bad and the ugly and never gave up hope that Sean would win his battle with cancer. Throughout the journey with Sean, Brandon said he had learned how to fight and claimed that Sean had inspired him and his team much more than the team had inspired Sean, though I bet Sean would say otherwise. While spending time with Sean’s teammates and family I heard personal testimonies and stories about the vital role the team played in Sean’s life that will have to remain personal for now, for brevity’s sake. Before I left the memorial, I remember giving Laurie what she would call a “humongo hug”. She told me how amazing it was that I would come all this way for Sean. I was shocked that this woman, having just lost her son, was thanking me! And that’s when I realized that everything that had happened this November weekend had happened because of what Sean had done for his team and what they had done for him. What was amazing wasn’t that someone like me would drive all the way for Sean, but that Sean was the kind of person who could inspire me and countless others to drive any distance just to say goodbye.

As I gave my final farewells and walked away from the memorial to begin my journey home, I suddenly realized that the idea of tennis as an individual sport is an illusion. In an instant, Sean Karl and his team shattered that illusion for me. Throughout Sean’s battle, his team was there supporting him as he continued to support them. They were all in it together. It took me three and a half years of college tennis to finally realize that we are not alone out there on the courts, and I must give the credit to Sean Karl and the Tennessee Men’s tennis team. Without you all sharing your stories and allowing me to be a part of the journey, I would never have experienced my final semester of college tennis quite like I did. I would have continued to fully rely on myself and no one else, thinking I was all alone out there. But, the truth is, I was not alone because with me was a team that I will call my family for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Sean Karl and all of the Tennessee Men’s Tennis Team, for showing me what a team is all about. Thank you for opening my eyes to things I couldn’t see before. And thank you for making me a “Vol For Life.”


Alex Ho said...

Very inspiring story, Tennessee tennis sounds like a great group of young men