Ever heard of Warren Alfson?
Probably not, but his decision in 1938 helped give several Elon Phoenix athletes an extra year of college athletics participation.
Alfson, a sophomore member of the Nebraska University football team at the time, decided to take a year to just practice and not play because there were too many good players ahead of him, therefore gaining an extra year of playing eligibility in the process. When he returned in 1939 after a year of practice, he was a second-team All-American that season and first team All-American in 1940.
Alfson is recognized as likely the first redshirt in college athletics history.
Several student-athletes have taken the path that he did, earning an extra season of play due to injury, a transfer or just taking a year to get better, like Alfson. Among them are six Elon athletes -- women’s basketball guard Kallie Hovatter, men’s basketball guard Josh Bonney, football linebacker Jonathan Spain, baseball pitcher John Antonelli and cross country runners Sean Magee and Julie Hart -- whose stories are tales of waiting, improving and blossoming as college athletes.
Why one would redshirt
Hovatter had to deal with NCAA rules. She started her university career at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, but transferred to Elon after her first season because she was dissatisfied with her spot with the Hawks.
Hovatter hails from the “very, very rural” town of Mt. Jackson, Va., and says the big city atmosphere of Philadelphia shocked her. St. Joe’s did not offer courses in her preferred major (communications), and the style of basketball that the Hawks played was “slow” compared to her self-described “up-tempo, high energy” style of play.
“If you’re not really happy in a student world and in a basketball world, you really can’t be made happy at all,” she says.
She had to sit out a season because of an NCAA rule which says baseball, basketball, men’s ice hockey and football players that are transferring from four-year schools to other four-year institutions are required to sit out, with a few exceptions, mostly for football players.
“I knew that I was going to have to sit a year,” she said. “That was the biggest thing. I thought, ‘Wow, am I really going to be able to do this?’”
Bonney, Magee and Hart were dealing with injuries and decided to take the redshirt option.
Magee had raced one official race, the Elon Invitational, in the fall of his freshman year and posted a time of 25:36, the fourth-best time in school history. He then suffered a stress fracture in his femur, a fairly serious injury for a runner. Redshirting became attractive to him.
“We knew we had that option, and we were playing it by ear to see if I could come back,” he said. “It ended up becoming clear that I couldn’t for that season. We just thought we might as well redshirt instead of just losing a season where I didn’t do anything.”
Hart suffered a similar injury, a stress reaction in her leg. She sat out for four weeks and decided it would just be easier to redshirt and get an extra year.
Bonney tried to avoid redshirting, but his ankle injury suffered two games into the 2010-2011 season was too severe to play with, so he also took the option.
“At one point, before I knew the severity of my injury, I was trying not to redshirt, but I would not have been back until the last month of the season, so it just didn’t make too much sense to waste that whole year when I could have had another one to play,” he says.
Spain was injured before he came to Elon, and had undergone surgery the February before he arrived. To be safe, the redshirt was still applied to him.
“From the start, it was the depth of the linebackers,” Spain says.
He came in at middle linebacker in 2010 behind then-junior Joshua Jones and then-senior Lionel Shoffner. “When they recruited me, they said it would be my redshirt year, and I had had surgery in February, so they said, ‘This is going to be your redshirt year, your development year.’ So I went into it knowing I was going to redshirt.”
Antonelli went through a similar situation.
“After my senior year of high school, I had a stress fracture and two bulging disks in my back, so I was recovering and getting stronger the first half of freshman year,” Antonelli says. “I was healthy by the season but by that point would not have gotten many innings, so they wanted me to be here another year.”
Toughing it out
During her year off, Hovatter was not allowed to travel with the team, something she wishes she was able to do.
“When you travel, that’s when you really get to know your teammates,” she says. “When you’re on the bus and when you’re in the really tight hotel rooms and you get to room with one another and get to eat, all of that is all team bonding, all team stuff. And I wasn’t able to do that, and that really kind of hurt.”
Spain says some of the redshirts on the football team traveled, but he did not.
All six were able to practice with their respective teams in different ways. Hovatter would practice with the team as a regular player. Antonelli and the other redshirt pitchers had throwing programs designed for them. Spain participated on the scout team in practice under then-head coach Pete Lembo. Magee, Bonney and Hart all participated in rehabilitation exercises for their injuries.
“Most of the rehab process is in the training room, unfortunately, getting up early, getting in there,” Bonney says. “And when practice time finally rolled around, (head coach Matt Matheny) let me do limited action and I would do drills that were more rehab drills until he felt like I was ready to go 100 percent, and then I would start doing full practices.”
Hovatter tried to take advantage of the practice time to improve her own game.
“I really developed the mind, as a player, of, if I’m not going to be able to play in games, I’m going to treat practice like games,” she says. “And I’m gonna make my teammates work. I’m going to make sure they know that next year, I’m going to be playing with them.”
Magee speaks to the difficulty of not being able to participate even in practice.
“It can be hard at times, it can be a little weird,” he says. “I never ever felt that I was not ‘one of the guys.’ But it was sometimes frustrating when I would have to watch them do a workout or practice would finish, and I would watch them, and then I would have to go swim alone, do something like that.”
Bonney had played a solid sophomore year in 2009-2010, averaging 5.7 points and 15.2 minutes per contest in 32 games. The year off slowed him down a little bit, he says.
“It kinda messed up the flow of things,” he says. “It’s never good to take a year off of what you do. I couldn’t really do anything about the injury and I wouldn’t have been effective if I tried to play hurt, so it ended up being the best decision for me.”
Antonelli says the year off was great for him.
“It gives you a full year to really grow and continue to get better as a player because you have a whole year to work with the coaches, work in the weight room, get stronger, get bigger,” the pitcher says. “It’s hard watching everyone play knowing you want to be in there, but in the long run, it’s really beneficial. You get to be here five years.”
One interesting side of being a collegiate redshirt is having five years to complete your academic career.
[quote]I really developed the mind, as a player, of, if I’m not going to be able to play in games, I’m going to treat practice like games. And I’m gonna make my teammates work. I’m going to make sure they know that next year, I’m going to be playing with them. - Kallie Hovatter, Women's basketball senior guard[/quote]
Some athletes like to have the extra year to complete their studies. Antonelli, who wants to be an engineer, has used the fifth year already to help decide his path.
“It really allowed me to figure out what I want to do with classes, spread them out, not too much of a stressful year,” he says. “And really hopefully get a lot of stuff done for my major in time so that my fifth year isn’t too hard and I can really focus on baseball and what I want to do with my future after that.”
Spain agrees, citing the busy schedule of a college athlete.
“It’s awesome because you can take 12 credits instead of 16 during the football season,” he says. “You practice every day, so it’s a big load for 16 credits. So that other semester that you have is really helpful. You can drop some classes if it’s too big of a load. So it gives you some flexibility in the classroom as well.”
Despite having that extra year, Bonney says it was his goal to finish his degree in four years, so he will finish his music technology and communications science double major in four years, graduating this May.
“My goal has always been to graduate in four years no matter what,” he says. “I’ll just have another year to come back and take any other classes that I want to take, so that’s the route that I went about approaching it. I wanted to make sure that I had all my options open and I was definitely going to graduate in my four years like I planned, so it worked out for me.”
Magee, also a music technology major, and Hart, who is majoring in strategic communications, are contemplating taking advantage of their fifth year.
“I don’t know yet,” Magee says. “I think it would be pretty cool. You have so much experience. For any sport, not only that experience, but you’ve practiced an extra year. You have a leg up. It takes some pressure off of school work during these four years where you don’t have so much pressure to finish everything. So that’s nice and it helps me stay more relaxed. If I had that fifth year, where I had a lighter course load, I could focus on what I’m going to do after this, what I’m going to do with my music or where I want to go.”
Hart also got hurt this past season and, because of that, will probably take the extra year in order to compete more.
“Right now, where I’m at, I’m very ambitious with running and I want to get faster and do better,” she says. “Right now, it’s a possibility that I would stay. Academically, I’m on track to graduate in time. I think I owe it to myself and owe it to the team to stay and compete.
Both Magee and Hart were part of the Southern Conference Academic Honor Roll and received the SoCon Commissioner’s Medal for academics their first season.
Returning to the groove
When it was time for her to return to the course for the first time, Hart was different than most redshirts. She earned track SoCon all-freshman honors the year before in in the 800-meter run indoors and outdoors and both all-SoCon and SoCon all-freshman in the outdoor 1,500-meter run.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” she says. “I worked really hard when I was hurt in the pool, swimming and biking and I came back in early October and started training again really hard over winter, and came back for track. I got huge PRs and broke a few school records so I was really encouraged by that for the next year.”
But she was still thrown for a loop by her first event back, the College of Charleston Invitational Sept. 10, 2011.
“It was weird,” she says. “I was definitely nervous, but excited to get back out there, feeling good and everything. During track, that was the best I’ve ever felt racing and competing. It makes me more eager to get out there and race.”
Magee called his first race back, the same event as Hart’s, a “shock to the system.”
“It was definitely an adjustment,” he says. “You can practice, you can train and you can have that year of getting better, but when you come back, you’re still a freshman in terms of competing. It’s still a shock. Competition is always a whole new level than working out.”
In Hovatter’s first game for the Phoenix, as a sophomore on the court, she scored 11 points against Youngstown State University at home Nov. 13, 2009.
“I had so much energy, so much passion I was ready to release,” she says. “I know that game, I was all over the place. My energy was so out of control. But I finally found a way to fine-tune it, and from there, I was just, ‘Let’s go.’
Spain’s first contest as a Phoenix athlete was against a BCS-conference school, a game in which Elon was shellacked 45-14 Sept. 3, 2011, by Vanderbilt University.
“The first game against Vanderbilt, it was kinda eye-opening to what college football is like,” he says. “But after I got the rust knocked off, I starting playing better.”
[quote]It gives you a full year to really grow and continue to get better as a player because you have a whole year to work with the coaches, work in the weight room, get stronger, get bigger. It’s hard watching everyone play knowing you want to be in there, but in the long run, it’s really beneficial. You get to be here five years. - baseball redshirt freshman John Antonelli[/quote]
Antonelli says he did not have to deal with much rust, but when he made his first appearance on the mound for Elon this year, it was something he had not experienced in a while.
“The last time I had done that was my senior year of high school, so definitely got some jitters in there,” he says. “It’s a great feeling anytime you go out there. It never goes away. There’s not too much rust, but there’s definitely nothing like being in a real game for a team.”
He pitched two no-hit innings in relief of Phoenix starter junior pitcher Kyle Webb in a 7-1 victory over Akron University in the 2012 season opener Feb. 17.
Not a bad way to come back.
It’s all quite quirky
Some redshirts have a distinction among their teammates. On meet result sheets from this past season, Magee saw “Redshirt Freshman” next to his name, something he found funny.
“I guess it’s a little strange,” he says. “It was always funny because I’ve had ‘freshman’ by my name all this past season even though I’m a sophomore. We always joke about it (in my family). They’ll be talking about Elon as ‘the best five years’ of my life.”
He also says that he likes to talk about himself as part of last season’s freshman class.
“The freshmen this year are pretty cool,” he says. “They’re a pretty good class, so sometimes they like to talk about how they’re strong and how they’re a good class, so I talk about how I’m part of that class.”
Antonelli says some of his teammates pick on him like any other freshman.
“Occasionally, they try to throw me under the bus of being a freshman, doing some freshmen duties of cleaning the bus after the game,” he says. “But I try to sneak out of that and pull the ‘still a sophomore’ card.”
On the other end, Spain says practicing in the spring with the real team pushes a player beyond the “freshman stage.”
“(Rising junior linebacker) Chandler Wrightenberry and the other guys that didn’t redshirt, you’re still with that same group,” he says. “That’s your class. Redshirt freshman is way different than real freshman. Usually, I felt more mature than the true freshmen.”
Spain saw his first season after the redshirt year pay dividends. The College Sports Journal named him to their all-freshman team of the best first-year players in the Football Championship Subdivision as he totaled 37 total tackles. SoCon coaches named him to the league’s all-freshman team for 2011.
“That was exciting,” he says. “I set goals every year, and that was one of my goals, to be a Freshman All-American, so it was exciting to see that goal come true.”
Hovatter took her redshirt year to transition from a big-city school that was St. Joe’s to the small-town college of Elon.
“I think my opportunity at St. Joe’s had its ups and downs, but it definitely has exposed me to more things that I probably would have never been exposed to before that I am right now at Elon,” she says. “Dealing with city-type people, dealing with a different team and a different system. I came to Elon and it was a different team, a different system, and I was able to come in and understand those things. It was definitely a learning experience and it’s something that I will always take with me and be thankful for the opportunity.”
Hovatter had the unique experience of playing for three different coaches in her four playing seasons, Cindy Griffin in her freshman year at St. Joe’s, Karen Barefoot in her sophomore and junior years at Elon and Charlotte Smith this past season.
“Most people don’t really know that,” she says. “I know some of the seniors here had the same thing. It’s definitely been hard sometimes, because each coach has had their different system and philosophy with the way they approach the game, and I think I’ve found a home here at Elon.”
Taking something away from it
[quote]If I would have played, I feel like I would have wasted a year playing special teams. I wanted to help the team, but I feel like individually, it helped me to grow as a person and as a player, to help my team more in the future. - football linebacker Jonathan Spain, freshman[/quote]
Spending a year watching, Spain learned a lot about college football.
“I learned the speed of the game is totally different, the X’s and O’s are more complicated and I learned from Josh Jones and Lionel how to play linebacker at the college level,” he says.
He says it was “the best thing” for his career.
“If I would have played, I feel like I would have wasted a year playing special teams,” he says. “I wanted to help the team, but I feel like individually, it helped me to grow as a person and as a player, to help my team more in the future.”
Hovatter had perhaps the most unique experience out of the six. She was not injured and she did not need a year to improve, yet the redshirt was applied to her because of NCAA rules. Although she did miss out on a lot of team experiences, such as games, she says she became closer with the other women on the basketball team.
“I got to know my teammates really well,” she says. “I became invested and personal with them off the court. It worked out good. It’s a double-edged sword. You have to sit and it sucks, but also you get to know and figure out more of this is how it’s going to be.”
Bonney initially struggled with being redshirted.
“It kind of sucks from the standpoint of you still practice, you still do everything, you’re not just able to help the team in the actual games, you just have to sit there and watch,” he says. “I had always been playing with them. But when you sit and you really can’t do anything about it, you see so much, so many aspects of the game that you don’t notice while you’re in the game playing. It helped translate into when I was actually playing again.”
Antonelli says he learned to not take the year “for granted.”
“I’ve talked to a bunch of guys, and they always say, ‘Use it to your advantage. I wish I could redshirt. I wish I could have that year to get better,’” he says. “That was my main thing, to use it as much as I can. I didn’t want to look back and wish that I had done more that year. It definitely helped me a whole lot.”
Pluses and minuses
With almost any decision, there are pros and cons to redshirting, as all six of these redshirts would agree.
“You kinda suck it up when it’s not going to well, and it kinda sucks to not be a part of it when it is going well,” Bonney says. “That’s basically how it was for me my redshirt year, I was just battling in between those two things the whole year. It ended up all working out in the end.”
For Magee, he says it will help him towards his goal of being a professional musician. He plays the piano and says he is learning to sing, skills that could be improved if he stays for the fifth year.
“That’s another reason why a potential fifth year for that kind of major is good, because this major is all about taking the time to get to know people, to put your foot in the door,” he says. “If I had that fifth year, where I had a lighter course load, I could focus on what I’m going to do after this, what I’m going to do with my music or where I want to go.”
Just like Warren Alfson 74 years ago, being a redshirt can be a positive experience that leads to a great career.
That is certainly what these six Phoenix student-athletes hope for anyway.