Football places Vanderbilt's Oren Burks in position to tackle society's pressing questions
Years before talk of the student-athlete voice dominated conversations in the NCAA, a new magazine called Champion made clear those athletes would always come first.
Champion was introduced at the 2008 NCAA Convention, and on its cover was a Division II college athlete outfitted in Barry red, a soccer ball resting on her hip and the Miami skyline beyond her shoulders. Maya Ozery’s image on that cover sent a message: No matter what the NCAA stands for, it always stands behind student-athletes.
Champion, as envisioned, would replace the NCAA News, a biweekly newspaper that often made the business of the Association its front-page focus. Rights agreements. Committee decisions. The dense developments shaping the daily lives of presidents and athletics directors led each issue. By 2008, that news was best managed by ncaa.org.
Champion, though, would be for reminding athletics administrators, college presidents, faculty athletics representatives and college athletes why they do what they do. And today, as Champion’s influence has expanded, it even tries to help shape the public discourse surrounding college sports.
We wanted the first cover to reflect that Champion promotes exemplary young people with positive stories to tell. It was important to showcase the full range of NCAA participants, not only those at the top of Division I. Our selection ended up being a Division II women’s soccer player. She was a solid athlete, a high-quality student and a passionate activist for women’s sports in her native Israel. In other words, she was a perfect choice to set the tone for our new magazine. Many subsequent covers possessed more artistic sizzle than Volume 1, Issue 1, but they have all carried that same message: College sports succeeds in building complete people.” – David Pickle, founding executive editor, 2008-13
This cover of Champion has a great old-school feel. The image harkens back to an era from the 1940s to the 1970s when magazines such as Life and Sports Illustrated posed athletes to appear as if they were in motion, a photography genre known as Huck ’n’ Buck. Graham has the ball tucked away in a running pose with the school’s Little Giants moniker clearly visible on the press box. We were in our first year of publishing the magazine, and the image represented to me that Champion readers could expect the unexpected from our staff.” ‑ Greg Johnson, associate editor
Then: While competing for Division III national-title contender Washington College, Kielek also was preparing to become a physician’s assistant and completing an internship with team physician Fred Lohr, during which Kielek participated in surgeries and patient consultations.
Now: After graduating from the physician’s assistant program at Towson, Kielek gained an interest in critical care medicine during his first rotation in Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s surgical intensive care unit and its renowned burn intensive care unit. “I loved the excitement, critical thinking and teamwork involved with such a discipline of medicine,” he said. It led him to a critical care physician’s assistant position in the MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center intensive care unit in Baltimore, where he has worked for the past five years.
Then: Williams grew up in Jamaica, and in high school was introduced to the hurdles by track coach Lennox Graham, who was then hired to be Johnson C. Smith’s track coach in 2007. By the time Champion featured her, Williams was already a two-time Division II national champion in the 60-meter hurdles and a national champion in the 100-meter hurdles while holding a 3.7 GPA in biology.
Now: Williams competed for the Jamaican national team and qualified for the 2012 Summer Games in London, where she narrowly missed qualifying for the finals. Despite a knee injury that she worried could end her bid for a return, Williams qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, besting her sister — world champion Danielle Williams — in the trial. She settled for another agonizingly close race in the semifinal, this time just 0.04 of a second from advancing to the final.
Then: O’Donnell, who at 16 became the youngest player to make the U.S. national team, was already a two-time All-American and member of a national championship team by the start of her junior year in college.
Now: O’Donnell (now Katie Bam) graduated in 2013 with a family science degree and returned to Maryland as an assistant coach in 2017. She was the Atlantic Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year four times, won two national titles, was named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 2010 and competed in two Olympics. She left Maryland with school records for goals (99), points (306) and assists (108).
While all Champion covers are special, one that sticks with me is a college rower stroking away under a sapphire sky. We — the art director and I — were in a separate trail boat, literally hanging onto photographer extraordinaire Jamie Schwaberow as he dangled over the water to snap the decisive shot. It makes me appreciate how fortunate the NCAA is to have Schwaberow and his colleagues at Clarkson Creative at our disposal. They have photographed every NCAA championship since 1996 and are among the best sports photographers in the world. They consistently raise Champion’s profile.” ‑ Gary Brown, founding editor, 2008-13
Then: The 5-foot-6 Juarez was on her way to becoming the shortest player on Caltech’s 500 career rebounds list while also working on a Venus probe during her internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and contributing to the book “Thermodynamics for Dummies.”
Now: Juarez just completed the dissertation for her doctorate in mechanical engineering at Southern California, where she researched — now, hold onto your hat here — the relationship between structure and mechanical behavior in porous materials at the nano and micro length scales. A first-generation college student, Juarez also served on the Women in Engineering student advisory board and was involved with the Southern California Center for Engineering Diversity to help recruit and support students of color. One day, she dreams of starting her own engineering program in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. She now works as a materials and process engineer contractor for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where you’ll see some of her work launch into space on NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to the Jupiter moon sometime in the next decade.
Then: The youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist since Bobby Jones, Pan was regularly ranked among the top 10 amateurs in the world and could’ve turned professional — the typical path for top golfers in his native Taiwan — but chose to get his college education first. He posted a 3.5 GPA as a freshman.
Now: We can say we knew Pan before he started emerging as a hot professional prospect. In fact, the Pac-12 Network asked in 2015 if he might be golf’s next big thing. In 2013, Pan spent eight weeks as the top-ranked amateur golfer in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He completed his college career with a school-record eight victories. And in his first season on the PGA Tour last year, Pan earned $1.27 million with three top-10 finishes.
Then: Herendeen grew up to be a Paralympian after a blood clot led to the amputation of the lower half of his left leg shortly after his birth. He competed in five events at the 2012 London Games. As a swimmer for Division II UIndy, Herendeen inspired his teammates and often-incredulous opponents on his way to finishing seventh in school history in the 1,650-yard freestyle.
Now: Herendeen graduated from UIndy in 2016 and returned to the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro that year, where he finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke. He is now an assistant swimming coach at Mary Washington.
Then: What didn’t Kendall Spencer do in college? He was the 2012 Division I indoor long jump champion while majoring in psychology, double-minoring in business and sociology. And he was also chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and was the first college athlete to have a vote on the Division I Council.
Now: In 2015, Spencer spoke on a panel in Baltimore about the future of college sports. He arrived in the city in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody. Spencer had been working diligently in a lab for a year and a half, but emerging on this scene made him question whether the lab was the right place to make a difference. He dropped his plans to pursue neuroscience and started law school at Georgetown last semester. You can see him giving a Ted Talk about how athletes can voice their opinions from their platform.
Then: When Brady was diagnosed at birth with CHARGE syndrome, his doctors’ prognosis was scary for his parents. The doctors said Brady may never learn to walk, and even eating, drinking and hearing might be challenging. Brady went through 14 surgeries by age 7 and 20 to 30 trips to the emergency room. With those visits pulling Brady out of school, his parents inquired about Team IMPACT, a program designed to pair kids with college programs and make them part of the team. The Merrimack men’s soccer team gave Brady a place to goof off with the players. They took him apple picking, joined him for trick-or-treating on Halloween and simply made him feel like part of the team.
Now: Brady now takes weekly infusions of T cells to prop up his immune system — one of the many medical challenges he’s faced in his short life — but that doesn’t slow down this fifth-grader. Through Merrimack, soccer has become his love. He’s competing on a travel team, as well as a club team. “The fall is very busy for us,” says Brady’s mom, Cynthia Antaya. “His skills have just skyrocketed. He’s learned so much from the soccer players that they’ve now started to transfer over.” Brady is in his fifth year with the program, so players like goalkeeper Cody Russell have known him for their entire careers. “He’s got a whole host of medical issues that not many of them probably understand,” Cynthia says. “But they really encourage him anytime he’s going through a rough patch.”
Getting a four-time Olympic gold medalist on the cover was a unique adventure. Two kiddie pools we shipped for use as props got lost in the university mail system. Drought-stricken California got rain the day of the shoot, forcing us indoors. Our backup plan, Memorial Stadium, was booked by a Polish-American Innovation Week convention. We resorted to Plan C: a concrete bunker storeroom under the stadium’s bleachers. Then, as Franklin dipped her toe into the pool’s water, the fire alarm sounded. Fortunately, the resulting cover shot was worth all the trouble. And the story behind it is one of Champion’s most entertaining.” ‑ Brian Hendrickson, executive editor
Then: Suarez’s baseball career was interrupted by a leukemia diagnosis that led to a bone disease — a side effect of his medication — and two hip replacement surgeries. Learning about his procedures inspired him to pursue a career in medicine. With his love for baseball constantly motivating him, Suarez returned to the mound for one season, posting a 4-1 record.
Now: Suarez graduated from Rowan with a 3.815 GPA. He left baseball behind, choosing not to delay graduation to get one more season on the mound. Instead, the spring after graduation Suarez backpacked through Europe with his girlfriend, visiting 13 cities — including Rome, Amsterdam and Barcelona, Spain. Had he not been so determined to return to baseball, it may not have been possible. “At the time,” he says, “I didn’t realize how much baseball was helping with my recovery and helping me get to where I’m at right now. I don’t think I would’ve rehabbed as hard as I did or pushed myself as hard as I did.” Suarez is now a medical student at Rowan, and he hopes to become a pediatric oncologist.
You never know where a good story will take you. We were so moved by this woman’s fight against human trafficking that our small crew — a writer, photographer and art director — trekked halfway across the Pacific Ocean to feature her on our cover. Bradley was studying international peace-building and playing soccer at Brigham Young-Hawaii, located in the coastal town of Laie on Oahu’s north shore. Needless to say, a photo shoot in paradise does not disappoint: The postcard-perfect images of Bradley — standing on the locals’ favorite beach, with the red of her Seasiders uniform popping against the sparkling blue water and light sand — were vibrant and memorable. Just like Bradley.” ‑ Rachel Stark, assistant editor
So many images stick with me from the story I wrote about Josh Speidel, the men’s basketball player who committed to Vermont and then, six months later, suffered debilitating brain damage in a car accident. The coach who came to his hospital bedside while Josh was still in a coma and promised his scholarship would be waiting for him. The parents who challenged their son to regain consciousness, then to think, walk, talk and try to shoot. The team that welcomed Speidel when he made it to campus, just one year later than planned. We photographed Josh flanked by his team for a reason: Vermont has never left his side.” ‑ Amy Wimmer Schwarb, editor
Then: Davis started going blind his freshman year in college as a result of Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which threatened to end his running career. His junior year he returned to the track, where he found he could make out the contrast of the lines marking the lanes. Then, in a show of teamwork and sportsmanship during Davis’ senior year, teammate Kyle Hamel ran by his side as a guide in the conference meet, so Davis could finish one last collegiate cross country race.
Now: Davis won the 5,000-meter run at the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials to earn a spot on the U.S. team for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, where he finished eighth. He also finished 10th in the games in the 1,500. But perhaps he ran in the wrong event: At the California International Marathon in December 2016, Davis ran the course in 2:31.48, besting the gold-medal time set at the Paralympics by 29 seconds.
It’s rare to find a piece built around a single moment — a split-second decision, even — that can successfully translate to a broader narrative. My colleague Greg Johnson built a cover story around such a moment: a college rifle shooter who reported herself for a misfire, a choice that might have cost her team a national championship. That moment was the entry point into her life story, which simultaneously educated readers about a sport that remains relatively obscure in college athletics. I’m drawn to articles that take chances with structure in lieu of a formulaic approach. They don’t always work, but this one hit the bull’s-eye.” ‑ Brian Burnsed, associate editor
Picking a favorite cover, for me, is like picking my favorite son or daughter — whoa — not supposed to have one, right? Having art-directed all but one cover, I’ve met some special student-atheletes, each with a unique story. Which one stands out? I honestly can’t say. I have great memories — like sneaking into Washington’s library to snap a few frames (Summer 2012) or getting lost in the woods in Bloomington, Indiana, in search of the quarry used in the movie ‘Breaking Away’ (Summer 2011). The stories behind the covers are what I recall most fondly. So, my favorite? It’s got to be the next one.” ‑ Arnel Reynon, creative director