Admire the athlete, but aspire to be the person

Legacies of Gustafson, Carleton and Hittner extend far beyond their decorated athletic careers

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Megan Gustafson (10) against the Michigan Wolverines Thursday, January 17, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

Mammas, let your babies grow up to be like Megan, Bridget or Becca.

Now that the Big Ten, Big 12 and Missouri Valley Conference basketball players of the year — Megan Gustafson, Bridget Carleton and Becca Hittner — all officially hail from programs in our own backyard, it’s time to crown the 2018-19 season the year of the woman in the state of Iowa as March Madness approaches.

Gustafson’s Hawkeyes captured the Big Ten Tournament championship last weekend. Carleton’s Cyclones reached the Big 12 finals before bowing out against top-ranked Baylor. Hittner’s Bulldogs are in the Missouri Valley Conference finals on Sunday. All three squads are ranked in the Top-25 and headed for the NCAA Tournament; all three players will again be up for a slew of All-American honors before all is said and done.

They didn’t arrive to much fanfare in Iowa City, Ames and Des Moines, respectively. Gustafson was a standout prep from Port Wing — a tiny, unincorporated community near the northern tip of Wisconsin. Carleton was a lightly-recruited athlete from Canada. Hittner chose Drake over a number of other MVC-level schools — nothing to scoff at, but also not exactly the likes of a Connecticut, Tennessee or Baylor.

And that’s the direction I’m headed in here. Too often, our society sees the statistics and the accolades of a superstar as a finished product and wants their child to become the “next” this or the “next” that. Truth be told, the odds of your son or daughter reaching an elite level of recognition and notoriety at the professional or even collegiate level are astronomical.

Impressionable young athletes can — and should — mimic this trio’s drive, though. Their demeanor. Their humility. Their selflessness.

Listen to what others have to say about Gustafson, who is arguably the most dominant basketball player — male or female — to ever wear a Hawkeye uniform. Teammates. Opposing coaches. The same goes for Carleton and Hittner, an academic All-American who carries a 3.96 grade point average in marketing.

A text sent by Gustafson to her teammates circulated on social media recently. She rallied the troops after a defeat that ended up knocking the Hawkeyes out of regular-season Big Ten title contention. In part, it read, “this loss doesn’t define us by any means, and for that matter, neither does getting a championship ring, regardless of whether or not we can get one. What matters is our attitudes, work ethic, and belief in each other. We are unbreakable as a team because of our determination to get up after we fall.”

This is more about the big picture; managing the controllable factors in athletics and, more importantly, life. Gustafson, Carleton and Hittner didn’t reach elite status by honing their individual skills to the detriment of their team. They’re a product of their programs: the coaches, the players around them, and the trust they’ve established within their own systems.

Admire their achievements. Recite their numbers. Point to the box scores and the brackets and cheer for the Hawkeyes, Cyclones and Bulldogs in the Big Dance later this month. It’s been a memorable season, and they most certainly deserve the attention.

When all is said and done, though, the leadership in their respective communities will be the legacy most worth noting. If you want your kids to be the “next” Megan, Bridget or Becca, make sure they emulate the demeanor and drive as people, rather than trying to replicate their decoration as athletes.

Long after their basketball careers are over, Gustafson, Carleton and Hittner will succeed in the real world based on the character that got them this far.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter

@MessengerSports

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