Edward Cheatham: The ManagerBy Edward Cheatham
Edward Cheatham concluded his fifth year at the University of Notre Dame and fourth on the Irish Track Team. He graduated in 2019 with a BA and in 2020 with a MSBA. He hails from Manlius, N.Y.
I didn’t really know Notre Dame existed when I was a senior in high school. In fact, if it wasn’t for me having seen the monogram on my high school band director’s wall, I would have never gone to the information session.
I was an athlete in high school. While on the track team, we won every Section III team title and I went to states several times on the 4 x 400m relay. We were a strong team, filled with soon-to-be D1 talents. However, I was not one of them – far from it. Choosing a school was mostly an academic decision.
I was interested in very small, northeastern, liberal arts schools. And I got accepted to my favorite. It seemed like easy choice to make. Every passing day I thought, “Tomorrow, I’ll accept. Tomorrow, I’ll decide.” But I never did. In fact, I waited until the hour before the deadline to make a decision.
The reality was, as I started to research Notre Dame, I realized it had qualities I didn’t even know were important to me: an academic culture that fostered supporting fellow students, a strong sense of community that extended to its alumni and beyond and an integration of faith into the curriculum and culture.
I had to make a choice. Go with a college that’s familiar, where I’d be able to do the sport I had fallen in love with, or make a leap of faith. Leave the comfortable behind for a school that was unfamiliar in almost every way.
So at 11 p.m., I leapt.
My first semester was good. Bumpy, as major transitions often are, but I made friends and enjoyed my classes. There was something missing though. Maybe it was seeing the varsity team running around campus, or looking at the posts of my high school teammates with their new collegiate teams on Instagram, or maybe I finally realized how much I really loved the sport. I needed track back in my life.
Deciding there would be no harm in trying to walk-on, I went in and talked with Coach Sean Carlson (the coach who headed recruiting at the time). Looking at my times in high school, it was clear that I wasn’t going to meet the standards to walk on, especially as a sprinter. But he would give me the opportunity to try out as an 800m runner if I was able to do the type of workouts he would expect a freshman to do.
“Other than that, you could ask to be a manager,” he added in an offhanded way towards the end of our conversation.
I made a note of that but didn’t follow the thought further, I was too eager to start trying some of these workouts. Reader, if you ever want to feel slow, do varsity track workouts when you are not in the proper shape.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but by this time, I was slow as dirt. I remember writing an email to Coach Carlson telling him that I was nowhere near able to do the workouts he prescribed. But before sending, I remembered Coach Carlson’s comment about managers. Quickly forming a Plan B, I asked if there was a need for any. He directed me to the sprints coach and head coach at the time, Coach Alan Turner, who could use one.
I was late to my first day as a manager (though to be fair, nobody told me when practice was). I remember walking in and Coach Jones shoving a watch in my hands, saying “They’re doing 350s. Time them.”
I was so thrown off by being asked to administer a workout that I gave what was the most confusing “s-set, uh…go.” A couple of them stumbled on the line before sprinting out.
Immediately, I was awed. They moved as if our current understanding of biomechanics simply did not apply to them. Their motions were fluid but powerful displaying a level of athleticism far beyond what I was capable of.
You can imagine how intimidated I was when I met the team afterwards, but I was surprised at how welcoming they were. They asked me about my studies and my experience with track, and looped me into conversations like I had been on the team all year. I realized that the thing I was missing wasn’t just track, but also the community around it.
The months that followed taught me more about track than I thought there was to learn. I asked the coaches questions about everything. “Why do they do that drill? What’s your thinking behind that workout? Why is this more efficient for hurdling?” Coach Turner answered every question, often going into more detail than I initially asked.
My eagerness, curiosity and enthusiasm lead me to become the first manager to travel to the ACC Championships in Tallahassee at the end of the semester. When we got back, I loaded my dad’s truck to move out for the summer.
Before we left campus, I had my dad drive me to the indoor track. I had one more thing to do before I left. I went to the record board inside Loftus and updated the broken records from the weekend. That was the best part of that job, updating those records. Knowing I contributed (albeit in a small way) to the history of the program was why I loved being a manager.
Before I was a manager, I knew sprinting as simply fast running. After that first semester, I had a new definition: Sprinting is a concert of carefully drilled and refined motions that, together, make up a dynamic means of efficiently moving the body in the fastest sustained forward motion possible. Once I had a more mature understanding of what sprinting actually was, and how one should train if they want to do it well, I started hearing a voice in the back of my head whispering, “I can do this.”
I don’t know how I was able to rationalize that thought. Some of the athletes I worked with had national titles and would become Olympians and World Champions. I was a manager. But I knew that if I wanted to, maybe by my senior year I could be the slow leg of the 4x400m relay. But would all the work I would need to put in and the little I would get out be worth losing my job? And, more importantly, would I be able to make more of an impact on team success as a sub-par 400m runner than a manager? Eventually, I decided there was no harm in trying.
So that summer, I trained. Up at 5 a.m., go to the YMCA at 5:30 to lift, shower and head to work, after work run with my sister Shauna and my high school teammate Connor, go to bed, repeat Monday through Friday until school started.
When I asked Coach Turner for an opportunity to walk on, he was far from surprised. In fact, it might have been expected. What I was not expecting, however, was there to be someone else at my tryout.
Also a sophomore, Zach Zajdel was from the Syracuse area like me, but we didn’t know each other. Though thrown by his presence, I was confident I would be able to compete with him. Over the next two weeks, Zach proceeded to make me look like Shaquille O’Neal on a fast break. A former soccer player, his foot speed and strength put him ahead of me in nearly every assessment.
Somehow, at the end of those two weeks, Coach Turner gave me a chance to prove myself on the team. I got an email one afternoon about onboarding as a student-athlete. I called my mom immediately, both of us in awe that I was officially a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame.
Walking on made sophomore year more difficult that freshmen year. But one of the things that kept me going was Zach. He would become a perfect foil. Every practice, every lift, every set and every rep he was there, sometimes just ahead of me and other times right on my heels. All the things I was bad at, he was good at, thus making me better.
Even so, by the end of the year, I could be considered…underwhelming. Honestly, I was expecting to be cut. When Coach Turner sat me down at our last practice, I was waiting for those words. But they weren’t the words I got.
“I know this year wasn’t what you wanted, but you’re invited to come back if you want to,” he said, seeing something in me I had failed to see in myself.
Last Man Standing
Junior year, I started to improve steadily, running 400m times under 49 seconds. Nothing groundbreaking, but still significant progress. Then, due to an unfortunate series of injuries amongst the 400m runners, I was the only completely healthy 400m runner by the end of the indoor season. Thus, I got the one position that was reserved for the fastest 400m runner on the team: the second leg of the Men’s Distance Medley Relay, my favorite event in all of track and field.
I had gone from an alternate on the 4x400m to a relay that was aiming to qualify for nationals in the span of a month.
We run Notre Dame’s DMR three times a year, the first to qualify for nationals and the other two at championship meets. In other words, each time we run it, we are trying to run against the fastest times in the nation. I, a former manager and walk on, was trying to run against the fastest times in the nation.
Near paralyzing nerves are what I remember from my first race. My three teammates (Jacob Dumford, Elijah Silva, and Yared Nuguse) and Coach Carlson did their best to get me mentally ready, but I still clearly jittery with nerves. It would have stayed that way had Coach Carlson not unexpectedly patted me on the back and said the one phrase I needed to hear.
Have fun? The idea of letting loose and having fun in the most important race of my life was so ludicrous that I couldn’t help but smile. The nerves seemed to disperse after that.
When I took the baton from Jacob that day, he was obviously too tired to yell. But the intensity in his eyes told me to run like I had never run before.
Did I do the best I could? Yes. Did I get passed? You betcha. But I don’t think I had ever enjoyed a race as much, or run as hard, as I did then.
Handing the baton off, I nearly collapsed. Immediately, I was afraid I had run a 50 or worse. I felt a hard slap on my back as Coach Carlson passed me with a smile on his face.
He yelled, “Good job! 47.8.”
The relief was immediate. It was later that meet when Jacob walked over to us and said, “You know that was a school record, right?”
I froze, and he smiled. “Never thought you’d be up there, did you?”
He was right about that. The record board I had once taken so much pride in updating would now have my name on it.
In the days we were in College Station before the NCAA Championships, I had to keep telling myself, “I belong here. If I’m here, I belong here.” It was easy to think otherwise. Months ago I was the slowest 400m runner on the team. Now I was amongst the giants of the sport, athletes that would break national and world records that very meet.
When our race started, and I got the baton, I stopped thinking. I just…ran. At the finish, Yared Nuguse (our anchor leg) was battling Stanford for second. Then he passed in the final straightaway. Second place? Did we get second place?!
I could not believe it. This team that I was a small part in proving that it was the second-fastest team in the nation!? How does a manager become an All-American?
That night, after the interviews were given, crying parents were hugged, and celebrations were had, I noticed an unexpected feeling. I was immensely and overwhelmingly unsatisfied. What we had achieved wasn’t enough.
We were going to lose the two most experienced legs of our relay that year, making the future of the DMR uncertain. If that was the highlight of my career, then I’d be happy with that. But I knew as long as I kept running, I needed to find a path back to the national stage.
A Difficult Road Back
I entered my senior year apprehensive. We had a flurry of coaching and staff changes, including the departure of Coach Turner, and I was in a natural leadership position as the senior-most male sprinter on the team with Zach. Suddenly, I worried about ensuring a smooth transition, helping the freshmen adjust and making sure I had the credits I need to graduate. That’s not to mention looking for a job or possibly a graduate program.
The pressures of that year were enough to send me into a downward-spiraling depression. My responsibilities added pressures making me more depressed which made it more difficult to fulfill my responsibilities.
Two things got me through that time. One was a professor named Dr. Matt Kloser, who gave me the flexibility I needed to manage my work and extracurriculars. Having a teacher or professor that is aware of the pressures of students is so important to education in a time where we expect so much from students.
The second thing that got me through this time was track. Being able to fall back on the sport I love was a critical relief every day. I was motivated by the idea of being on that DMR again, and this time because I was the fastest, not because I was the last sprinter standing.
Going to Nationals seemed like a greater challenge. The teams we would be competing against included Wisconsin, who had two Australian Olympians, Oregon with their four athletes who could all run sub-four-minute miles and Stanford with their phenomenal anchor leg. Our rag tag group consisted of a freshman, a manager, and transfer, and a walk-on making up a DMR. We were just hoping to get our foot in the door
When it came time to qualify, the four of us did the only thing we could do. We ran with nothing to lose. What we thought would be a reach for a qualifying performance ended up being the second-fastest time in NCAA history and the fastest time that year.
We were not simply a scrappy group of runners. We were contenders for a national title. We won ACCs the next week, giving me my first championship.
When the national meet came, the atmosphere was familiar, and this time I knew I belonged, I didn’t have to tell myself. We stepped to the line knowing that many thought our earlier victories were a fluke and we would be run down by the traditional powerhouses.
Reader, I could give you a play by play of the race. But, I highly recommend you watch the video.
The thing about relays is when one leg has an off day, the others are there to pick them up. Dylan ran aggressively, but struggled with an experienced field, but that just gave me a drive to pass as many people as I could. This allowed Sam to better get us attached to that chase pack, and Yared the opportunity to work a lot of magic. Thus, all of us became national champions.
It was hard to process my emotions. I was still in my depression, but I had also achieved something I never dreamed of doing. That day was a turning point though. I started to master my depression and accept the differences I had hated.
First Lesson of the Pandemic
That season ended with some major events, I decided to come back to Notre Dame to get my masters and run for one more year. I graduated with a major and two minors and earned a scholarship. I was also awarded ACC Scholar-Athlete of the year for Indoor Track. And we designed the championship ring. It had its bittersweet moments too. Zach, for example, wouldn’t be coming back for a fifth year, meaning more of my motivation would have to come from my own drive.
The next season, I was dedicated to doing what I consider the hardest thing to do in sports: defending a title. Coach Pate (my sprints coach after Coach Turner) and I were in lock step in my training, allowing me to reach a level of athleticism that made me finally feel like a D1 athlete. As each meet passed, we kept refining knowing that I was about to produce a big performance. Then, we got to the ACC Championships, hosted by Notre Dame.
It would be my last meet in Loftus, on the five-year anniversary of the first time I had walked into the building as a high school senior, the building in which I had my first job in and my first collegiate meet. That weekend I ran the fastest open 400m race of my life (47.81), and split a 46 on the DMR. At the end of the meet I had the choice of not running the 4x400m relay. We weren’t expected to score in that event, and the coaches didn’t want to risk injury. But I had a feeling I needed to run that race, so I did.
It would end up being one of my best races. And the last race of my college career.
The NCAA would shut down less than two weeks later, 24 hours before the start of the National Meet. That was painful. I loved Track and Field, and to have the sport taken away when I was starting to blow up on the track was hard to process.
But it became a lesson in acceptance. You will be forced to move on from things when you aren’t ready to, and you will be justified in being upset at first. But being able to move on and make the most of a situation is how you grow.
As for the larger lesson here: When God asks you to take a leap of faith, take it. I gave up track because I felt moved to come here. Now, I have the highest award a collegiate runner can have, and in the most unorthodox manner.
My story does not happen if I shy away from taking the difficult path. It doesn’t happen if I don’t have faith that God doesn’t give you anything you cannot handle. It is this faith that has allowed me to be grounded in today’s tumult, and not worry about tomorrow’s outlook.
Reader, if you feel that you are being pulled to take a leap of faith, Jump. And do so Zealously.
May the road rise up to meet you,