Friday, July 31, 2009

They Grow Up So Fast

TigerBlog remembers clearly when Ahmed El-Nokali had his first big game as a freshman on the Princeton basketball team and as such was brought to Jadwin Gym's Zanfrini Room for the postgame press conference.

The format then had the players requested come in and sit at various spots in the room, and the reporters were invited to talk to them informally, as if in a locker room setting. As El-Nokali sat at his spot, the first question asked of him was this: "So, what are you kid, Egyptian?" It certainly ranks in the Top 5 of questions TB has heard reporters ask.

As for John Mack, he strolled into TigerBlog HQ one day and asked if he could be a student-worker. The TB staff knew him as a top runner on the men's track team (eventually a 10-time Heptagonal champion and Roper Trophy winner; TigerBlog remembers watching him run in a qualifying heat at indoor Heps at Dartmouth prior to a basketball game and seeing two of the other four runners collide, leaving Mack to win by about 100 meters in a 400-meter race against the other two), and he became first a valuable addition to the office before spending four years working in the department. Today he is an Associate Athletic Director at Northwestern.

Mack emailed TB a few pictures from his recent wedding, including one of Mack with El-Nokali. It made TigerBlog think back to when the two were Princeton athletes, a time that doesn't seem all that long ago, let alone 10 years.

TigerBlog was 20 years old the first time he covered an event for the Trenton Times, a high school football game between Pennington and Academy of the New Church (Pennington won 22-0 after leading 6-0 at the half). After the game, TB interviewed a few players, high school kids who were two years younger than he was.

The first group of Princeton athletes that TB got to know well were the Kit Mueller-Matt Eastwick-Matt Henshon-George Leftwich basketball group, the Keith Elias football group and the Justin Tortolani-Scott Bacigalupo-Kevin Lowe lacrosse group. TB is only slightly older than they are, but it was still wild to see them at Reunions with wives and kids and thinning hair and the like.

When TB first started here and was writing player bios, they were for athletes born about 10 years after he was. It wasn't until the Class of 2003 that TB ran into athletes born after he'd graduated high school. TB really started to feel old when he was writing bios for players born after he'd graduated college.

This past year was also tough, when TigerBlog realized that he was talking to lacrosse players born after he'd first started covering games here.

What it really speaks to is the idea that the athletic experience at Princeton is a quick one for the athletes, four years that zoom by in what seems like minutes. TigerBlog has written any number of features about senior athletes across all sports, and it seems like they all start out saying the same thing: "I can't believe how fast four years has gone."

They've come and gone, thousands of Princeton athletes since the first time TB started chronicling their efforts. They leave here and go in whatever direction they choose, stopping along the path to get married, have kids, check in every now and then and show up at Reunions.

In their place is always the next generation, a group that gets younger and younger. The ones who leave and come back only five years have seen the entire roster turned over. TB has heard hundreds of "I don't know any of these players" comments through the years.

In the end, they're all Princeton athletes, participants in one of 38 sports. They do their share to sustain the excellence of the program, and they move on. Quicker than they think.

It's how a great tradition is sustained.

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