» 6/13/13 - Teammates on and off the field
By Michelle Hiskey
Luke Skywalker flew the Millennium Falcon across galaxies. Jason sailed the Argo through mythic seas.
Kevin Austin is driving a 1984 RV named Honey across 4,200 miles to the schools of NCAA Divisions III’s University Athletic Association.
The destiny of this 59-year-old retiree – the Golden Fleece, if you will – is to journey for six weeks into the heart of his heroes, the multi-disciplined and highly focused athletes of the UAA, and blog to the world about what he discovers.
Division III offers no athletically related financial aid, so his subjects play out of personal passion for their sport. Likewise, Austin – self-described as “5-foot-6, 200 pounds, bad right knee, huge eyebrows, dancing eyes” – has poured his own quirky admiration and energy into his road trip.
“Who would care about these kids who go to the best universities in the country and play sports purely for the love of the game?” Austin said. Tuition runs as high as $50,000, although many have some form of academic assistance.
“But why hold that against them? I want to write a book, and I like road trips, adventure, academics and college campuses.”
Now halfway through his adventure, his blog features compelling stories and color far from mainstream media, sometimes even the campus media.
In Pittsburgh, Austin learned from a parent that student-athlete Scott Gerfen “was a little taken aback on his first road trip with the (Carnegie Mellon soccer) team when an argument broke out in the airport about quantum mechanics.”
In Cleveland, Austin met Case Western Reserve goalie Anna Kennedy, bald from cancer treatments, but still in the net. Opponents shook her hand before the match, a ritual that Austin saw more deeply as “a transcendent moment of care.”
At Rochester, Austin attended a graduate level course on the films of Andy Warhol with softball player Lindsay Macaluso. “Among the Birkenstocks and bears, she was the only student wearing the deep blue and yellow warm-ups,” he wrote. “Like Warhol, Lindsay has range.”
Austin does, too. At each campus stop he pesters librarians with questions, too. He is as fascinated by special collections as he is by Field Turf.
Austin became intrigued by this conference that includes Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Chicago, Emory, New York University, Rochester and Washington (St. Louis) because its teams are linked not by geography but through the colleges’ status as private urban research institutions. No other Division III conference racks up SkyMiles like the UAA.
“His road trip is unique, just as the UAA is unique,” said UAA Executive Director Dick Rasmussen, a former Rochester football and baseball coach who helped organize the league in 1987.
About 15 years ago, Austin was a page designer at the Atlanta Journal Constitution when he saw an agate (small print) score from an Emory University-NYU game. Searching, he discovered the UAA.
“Every one is my favorite,” Austin writes of the conference members, though his family ties are deeper at some.
His father had gone to Carnegie Tech, a forerunner of Carnegie Mellon.
His son would graduate from NYU in 2008, although not play a sport.
Austin had attended Western Reserve Academy, the Ohio prep school where what would become Case Western Reserve was founded in 1826. In Atlanta, he lived about three miles from Emory.
In 2009, Austin retired from journalism after 28 years and began planning his “2010 UAA Ultimate Road Trip.” He set out in late September, an echo of the UAA’s humble starts.
“We didn’t fit the standard model,” Rasmussen recalled. “We were different and other people thought this was something that we’d try and it won’t work.”
At NYU, he parked “Honey” – named for its now-defunct manufacturer – on a street in Greenwich Village in front of the NYU athletics center.
He unveiled a banner: “UAA Story Catcher” and started gathering autographs and tales from students about their athletes and teams.
“We always have big vehicles here shooting movies, and we have people walking backward with earrings hanging out of their eyes and no one gives a second look, so Kevin wasn’t so out of place here as he might be in Rochester,” NYU assistant athletic director Jeffrey Bernstein said.
“Don’t get me wrong, Kevin can grate on you. He’s a pest, but a lovable pest. He’s offbeat like everyone here. Even if he’s strange, people like strange people in New York.”
Austin’s choice of a vehicle from 1984 – the era of the UAA’s launch “so that seemed like a good fit” – has become the story at times.
On the New Jersey Turnpike, “I heard a loud cracking sound after we went over a bump, and the 354 Ford engine suddenly sounded like a nitro-fuel dragster,” he wrote.
Soon after in a tire shop, Austin conducted a phone interview with NYU President John Sexton in Abu Dhabi, where Sexton teaches a class 12 times a year.
“Deep down, I’m basically a cliché: a retired person in an RV that I bought on eBay for $4,000 from three dudes who had used it to travel around the East Coast.”
Austin is writing a book about this season on the brink of academic and athletics excellence as well as automotive disaster. He has no contract, no agents, no sponsors. Basically he’s like the UAA, as described by NYU senior associate athletic director Janice M. Quinn: “Very little ego, zero money and virtual anonymity.”
The latter, with his efforts, could change. Austin’s trip and blog is his way of applauding the young adults he sees as mining the purest vein of academic and athletics excellence.
“Dogs, parents, athletes, little kids all mixing it up amid the red brick modern gabled gothic dorms that ring the stadium,” he wrote from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. “Lots of grass and trees starting to turn colors and a clear blue day. This is why I’m making this trip.”
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga., and a former Division I golfer at Duke.