Column: The web of support

Published 2:01 pm Friday, March 22, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

I was barely two steps out of church on Sunday when a text from my mom popped up on my phone.

“Pray for Micah.”

I immediately opened the ESPN app to the SEC Championship game between Florida and Auburn to the zoomed-out shot of Gators center Micah Handlogten surrounded by coaches, trainers and a stretcher.

Bridgestone Arena and the sports world stood still, aware of the seriousness of the injury. Florida players cried on the bench. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl led the Tigers in a team prayer.

But for me, Handlogten’s injury hit even harder.

Micah Handlogten (back row, third from left) and I standing next to each other after a charity event at our high school, SouthLake Christian Academy. (Contributed)

Some of you may know that I was a basketball manager for six years from seventh grade to my senior year at SouthLake Christian Academy in North Carolina. During my senior season, Handlogten was my teammate, joining the varsity team as a freshman.

That year, we became good friends. We were roommates during our Christmas break tournament. I drafted him for my team during our All-Star charity scrimmage. We even carpooled on occasion, with his massive, lanky 6-foot frame occupying the backseat of my mom’s minivan.

Our families are close friends as well. His mom Danielle was my history teacher for two-and-a-half years. I graduated with his sister Mia, and she and her older sister Hailey played girls basketball while I managed the boys team.

Just three-and-a-half weeks ago, my brother, my parents and I watched him and Florida play against Alabama. It was the first time I’ve seen my friend play live since he graduated from SouthLake and he earned a rebound to send the game to overtime.

My parents, my brother Zach and me with Micah Handlogten after Alabama defeated Florida on Feb. 21. (Contributed)

All of those thoughts rolled through my head throughout what was supposed to be a joyous day. My alma mater Samford was set to learn their opponent for their first NCAA Tournament game in my lifetime at a massive selection show party in Edgewood, and Alabama and my childhood favorite team Iowa State would join them as guaranteed top-four seeds.

All I could think about was praying for my friend Micah.

As I sat there with my thoughts with the Handlogten family, it made me think about the human side of moments like this.

If you’re around sports long enough, chances are you’ll witness a traumatic injury. It’s an unfortunate fact of the games that we love that they can lead to injuries.

Just this year, I witnessed an Enterprise volleyball player go down in the Elite Eight against Spain Park with a serious knee injury less than 10 feet away from me, a Florence football player carted off from a playoff game at Thompson in an ambulance and Pelham’s Karma Wynn tear her ACL in sub-regionals and come back in the game.

Sadly, it wasn’t even the first time someone I had a connection to go down with an injury. In my senior year, one of my senior classmates tore his ACL right in front of me at basketball practice. I’ve lost count of the number of classmates I’ve seen go down on the SouthLake football turf with concussions or non-contact injuries, including my own brother.

Beyond that, I ran in a cross-country meet where a runner from another team died in one of the girls races. It was one of the most traumatizing experiences in my life, and our team wore ribbons in her honor the rest of the season.

In each of those moments, time stood still for me and everyone else who knew the player who was hurt. The only thing we could think about was praying for their health, healing and safety.

The thing is, every time you see someone injured, no matter if they’re the star player or nameless to you, there are people watching who care for them and are hurting with them.

Behind every athlete is a web of support, of family, friends, teammates, coaches, classmates, colleagues and more, who are deeply invested whenever they step on the court. Their success is shared, their losses as well, and their pain is multiplied through every spindle of that web.

This time, it was my turn to be a tiny spindle in Handlogten’s web. However, with the high-profile nature of the matchup and severity of the injury, I got to see the true extent of the lives he has impacted.

A simple X post I sent asking for prayers has earned over 200 likes, mainly from Florida fans who I’ve never interacted with on social media or real life. From my friends and family to the Gators fanbase and beyond, I saw photos and heard stories about what Handlogten has meant to them.

His name was mentioned during the ESPN halftime report of the UAB-Temple game that followed, as well as the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, seen by millions across the nation awaiting the fates of their favorite teams, including me, standing on a street in Edgewood surrounded by Samford fans.

In a touching gesture, Pearl and multiple members of the Auburn basketball team made a video sending their support to Handlogten before leaving for the NCAA Tournament.

It was a wave of support I’ve rarely seen in my decade-plus of watching sports, from Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s heart attack to Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis’ injury last year to former Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware, who had a leg injury very similar to Handlogten’s in the NCAA Tournament.

When I listened to Ware’s injury on the radio of my parent’s car in middle school, I’m pretty sure my first thought wasn’t about how his family was coping with the horrifying incident.

Handlogten is doing well, recovering from a successful surgery and in good spirits with his family and friends by his side. He has a long road ahead of him, but he should make a full recovery and certainly feels the power of any prayers that have been sent his way.

If I’ve learned anything from this situation, it’s to never underestimate the value of a life. Every person you see, not just on the sports field but in life, has a story and have people who care about them.

Even as someone who cherishes the human side of sports, I wish it didn’t take my friend suffering a traumatic injury to realize this. My prayer is that you realize it now too.

Invest in the people around you. Cherish the relationships that you have. And most importantly, treat every person you see like they’re the most important person to you, because they are for someone else.