by: Jon R. LaFollette and Amy Wimmer Schwarb
As a fresh high school graduate embarking on college, he was faced with a choice: Keep a hard-earned athletic scholarship and accompanying spot on the soccer roster offered by Michigan State University, or risk his future and enroll instead at Indiana University, which had no guaranteed avenue for Kapsalis to pursue soccer but offered Kapsalis a chance to chase a goal that seemed just out of reach.
“It was grueling. Once you commit, it’s scary,” Kapsalis said of his decision-making process. “But I never wanted to look back and think, ‘What if?’”
Indiana was fresh off its first national championship under then-coach Jerry Yeagley, who would go on to lead the Hoosiers to five more titles before retiring in 2003. However, Yeagley had no need for Kapsalis – and told him so: seven seniors were returning from the Hoosiers’ championship team.
For Kapsalis, the choice between Indiana and Michigan State was a choice between following his heart and making a safe choice. Today, as a career businessman looking back on the decision he made more than 30 years ago, he still sees the chance he took on a student-athlete career at Indiana as a defining moment of his life.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I stuck to my core values, that I was true to myself, that I didn’t take shortcuts,” Kapsalis said. “What I learned about failure is that failure is a mindset. To me, failure would have been not trying.”
Kapsalis’ efforts at Indiana weren’t without reward. He won the lone available spot on the team, beating out roughly 20 other athletes. Redshirted as a freshman, he logged zero minutes of playing time, instead spending his time chasing stray balls and managing equipment. The next year, his first of eligibility, he played mop-up minutes in games already decided, and the year after that he missed the entire season after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his foot during practice.
Whitey’s struggles were indicative of the rest of the Hoosiers’ squad in 1986. For the first time in more than a decade, the team missed the NCAA tournament. The illustrious pedigree of IU soccer had fallen on hard times and entered the 1987 season unranked. But by then, Kapsalis had proven himself to the coach he admired, and Yeagley – in search of character and guidance for his floundering squad – named him a team captain.
Kapsalis didn’t stop there. When he didn’t start in the first five games, he approached the coaching staff and, he says, “told them I could be a contributor on the field.”
Yeagley shuffled the lineup. Kapsalis became a starter and flourished in the role. The team won the next 16 consecutive games, catapulting to a No. 1 in the national rankings. That season ended with a 2-1 loss to Clemson University in the regional finals.
The year after Kapsalis graduated, Indiana did reclaim its title as Division I national champions. Kapsalis, the undersized former redshirted freshman once told he wasn’t good enough to play Indiana soccer, remains friends with the former teammates and coaches who took a chance on him – and credits those relationships as among the most important in his life.
Photos submitted by Whitey Kapsalis, Indiana University