What's On My Mind
by David Smith

February 18, 2014

Uncommon Will

No deception here.  I am new to squash.  A longtime tennis fan, my squash experience is limited to reading the Daily Squash Report and to standing in the greatest free “seats” in all of sport---behind the front wall at the Tournament of Champions in Grand Central Station.  I spent several hours there this past month waiting to see Nicol David from right behind the glass.   Seeing the best of squash, or any sport, work at their craft from just a feet away is a rare treat. 

My behind the wall vantage point left me fascinated not only by the skill of these professionals, but also by their motivation.   What drives them to compete at such a high level, embracing the inherent work that is required to reach that level, while they fight for prize money that is a small fraction of the money available in the marquee sports?  Clearly it is not the money.  It is not the fame as few achieve the notoriety that David has reached.  Surely each has their own motivation, their own will to succeed.  And it is in that motivation, that will, that the best stories in sport often lie.

This past November, on a cold night in East Lansing, Michigan, such a story unfolded in a women’s collegiate basketball game.   The seeming innocuous occurrence of a player checking in to a game would not normally be an occasion for focus and fanfare, but on this particular occasion the event was celebrated in the arena, outside the arena, and in social media.   Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst and men’s basketball celebrity, reached into the women’s game and marked the occasion as it happened to his 640,000 twitter followers:

“Michigan State's Madison Williams playing tonight for the first time since 2011. @madiwill40 Toughness and perseverance!”

Williams was a highly recruited player in high school.  A physically imposing 6’7” McDonald’s All-American, it was widely expected that she would make a huge impact for Suzy Merchant’s Spartans when she arrived on campus in 2010.   But before she ever set foot onto the court in a game for the Spartans, tragedy struck. 

During an intra-squad scrimmage, just before the start of her first season, Williams tore the ACL in her right knee—a common, but devastating injury.  Her freshman year was a washout.  The prescription for recovery was one seen too often with knee injuries:

A year of rehab.
Intense personal commitment. 

For one with so much talent and physical gifts, it was most likely easy for her to dedicate herself to the effort that would be required to get back on the court.    And get back on the court she did the following year. 

For three games.

In the third game of 2012 season, lightning struck again.  It just struck the other knee.   Madison Williams went down with a torn ACL in her left knee.    Her second season was now a washout.

Nurtured along by her teammates, a caring coach, a loving family, and in no small part by her strong faith, Williams began the long journey back for a second time.   Same prescription:

A year of rehab.
Intense personal commitment. 

Even her most dedicated friends and fans surely had to wonder if Madi would return to the court once the painful recovery process was over.   But, this is a story of uncommon courage and commitment.  Like her twitter handle, @MadiWill40, those around her had to know that those words would be prophetic and that Madi Will and Madi would.  

The Spartans and Williams approached the 2012 season with great anticipation.   After all, both knees were done.   No more knees, right?  Yet, again, in what surely must have been a true test of her faith, lighting struck once again.   Before the 2012 season could even begin, Williams suffered a third ligament injury---another partial tear in her left ACL.  By now, you know what came next:

A year of rehab.
Intense Personal commitment.  No, Uncommon commitment.

How easy would it have been to walk away?   What could drive a young player to the type of commitment required to get back on the court after her third knee injury?   It is certainly not the prospect of riches in the professional women’s league.  The maximum salary in the WNBA is $101,500.   Her education was far more critical to her success in life than basketball would be.  Yet somehow, Madi found the will within to fight through one more year of pain to play the game that she loves so much. 

On November 23, 2013, culminating three years of work and three knee surgeries, Madison Williams checked into a game for Michigan State.  This seemingly small event inspired people far beyond the Spartan fan base.  She demonstrated what could be accomplished through faith, commitment and effort—through pure will.  

Uncommon Will.

Williams still has a long way to go.   Her coach is carefully managing her court time as she works her way back into playing shape.   Three years is a long time to be off the court.  There are flashes of brilliance that demonstrate what can be as Williams works her way through this year and points toward what will be her final year of eligibility.   In the process, Williams has provided a personal human parable that transcends sports, age, and gender.   

Life after basketball for Williams will be interesting to watch.  She has set her personal bar quite high indeed.   I expect her accomplishments in life to be significant.  You see, she has an uncommon will.   She has Madi Will. 

Madison Williams waits to check into her first game in over two years. 

David Smith is a Long Island-exiled Medical Device executive of questionable humor and talent, whose unrestrained passion for Chardonnay and San Francisco is only surpassed by his love of the Michigan State Spartans.

What's On My Mind is a column by rotating authors.
Contact DailySquashReport@gmail.com

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