Somehow, some way Nate Austin rose above it all and put in a heroic effort this week.
Austin had two blocked shots in the final 25 seconds to help BYU defeat No. 25 ranked Gonzaga at The Kennel on Thursday. It was highlight material in a hard-fought dramatic ending to a big West Coast Conference game.
Austin, you see is a survivor, a fighter.
He’s also a refugee.
He’s also a recovering victim of a Utah-BYU rivalry game. You know, the one that on Monday Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said was so toxic and had become so unsafe he had to cancel the series.
It’s hard to pinpoint any BYU or Utah player who has actually been seriously injured in this rivalry game. I can’t remember a particular incident from which a player was “unsafely” hurt by its “toxicity.
Except Austin. Kinda.
You may remember Dec. 10, 2014, in the Marriott Center, Austin soaked in all the pregame emotion and hype like all players on both sides do. In warmups, he tweaked his hamstring muscle. Then the game began. Austin didn’t last but seconds after the opening tipoff. That injury cost him the rest of the season; he never came back. He watched his team go 25-10 but his role was relegated to cheerleader.
That darned rough and toxic Utah-BYU game.
After months of rehabilitation, a year of patiently waiting, pondering whether to return to basketball and his senior year as a walk-on, Austin decided to pay his own way and return for his love of the game. He did so for his teammates and coaches. He didn’t want to let go. He didn’t want that crazy injury in the Utah game to define his career.
Often a whipping boy for critics in BYU losses, often torn down because he is not this or that, or a prolific scorer, Austin returned to Dave Rose with the things he could do, the things he did best: show up with a great attitude, work hard, use his knowledge of the defense, rebound, collect fouls, make a few shots and block some when provided the moment.
In a week that began with some white flag waving, pontificating, creative posturing that left many locally and around the country scratching their heads, Nate Austin had a chance to just get on with the game and make a difference against Gonzaga. And he did.
Austin came back in that game after having to pass concussion protocol from a hit he took in the first half.
Austin is a consummate team player. He’s not a quitter. He’s not afraid. He doesn’t back down. He brings everything he has every day, every night and if it isn’t good enough, he just gets on to the next game, the next task.
He’s the kind of player that puts on a hard hat and carries his lunch pail to work. He punches in and lays it all on the line. Every day. Every time.
Coaches, administrators and athletes can learn from Austin. Nothing’s more important than the game, the love of playing, putting in the effort, giving your all regardless of stardom, politics, agendas and egos. He supersedes the narcissism and elitism that laces major college athletics. Folks today build ivory towers, take selfies, make it about who they are. Austin is just about playing.
To Austin, it isn’t about playing in The Kennel, the WCC, the Pac-12 or Marriott Center. The court is the same length (94 feet), the rim is the same height (10 feet) and the requirement to participate is the same: have the will.
Austin blocked a shot with 25 seconds to play, thwarting a crucial Gonzaga offensive possession. After Chase Fischer tracked down the block, Austin jumped from out of bounds in time to receive Fischer’s possession-saving pass.
With seconds to play Gonzaga star Kyle Wiltjer got off a desperation shot over Kyle Collinsworth. While the orb made its way to the rim, Austin raced over from the opposite side of the key and with perfect timing, swatted the ball away. He then chased it down and drew a foul with eight-tenths of a second to preserve BYU’s 69-68 win.
It’s why you play the game.
It’s why you don’t archive opportunities.
It’s why you race forward. And don’t retreat.
For Austin, his block of Wiltjer became the defining moment of his career.