How a Late Friend Inspired Me During a Difficult Time
Updated: May 25
I'm a big believer in taking risks in life. If you want something bad enough, you have to take chances and not always play it safe. I knew deciding to walk away from my full-time Sports Anchor job back in December of 2019 was taking a...pretty...big chance. But, as many of you know, the death of my friend and colleague Mitch Petrus, former Arkansas Razorback and Super Bowl champion, really spoke to me and was a huge reminder that not every day is guaranteed. It was time to go after my dream. When I stepped out of the newsroom for the last time, I was scared, but also, really excited for what was waiting for me. What I didn't know at the time was that a pandemic was also on the horizon.
For the following two months, I fully concentrated on my play-by-play work for Little Rock Trojans Men's and Women's Basketball. No longer having to pull double-duty at the news station allowed me more time to critique my work, learn where I had to improve in my broadcasting as the season went on, and find stories and information to use for the broadcasts. If I was going to advance my play-by-play career, I knew I had to knock it out of the park every single game I called for the Trojans. And I am thankful that was the case looking back on it over a year later.
Following the Trojan men's win over Louisiana to clinch the Sun Belt title, it was time to turn the attention to baseball. I love baseball as much as basketball and I was beyond ecstatic to start calling games from Gary Hogan Field. I started writing up scouting reports on every Trojan player and putting together notes for the other Sun Belt Baseball programs. At the same time though, something that would engulf the whole globe was starting to take shape. As the days went on, more and more cases of the Coronavirus started showing up in the news and I started to get worried. Eventually my worst fears came true. I was sitting in my apartment, and I got the Twitter alert that the NCAA announced the college baseball season was canceled. Though not surprised, given that other tournaments and sports had also been shut down in the days prior, the reality set in: I was officially out of work.
For weeks, I contemplated what I wanted to do. Did I want to stay in Little Rock and see if the virus would very soon go away and things would go back to normal? Eventually after playing out different possible scenarios and monitoring some things, I ultimately decided what was best: to say "so long" to the place I called home for three-and-a-half years and head back home to Oregon.
We're all going to be faced with tremendous adversity at some point in our lives, and for me how you respond to adversity makes a big difference. I could've just moved back to Oregon and sulked because baseball was canceled, sports were shut down, etc. But it's always best to tackle adversity head on. "What's the best way to be productive while sports aren't going on?" I began reaching out to many in the industry to get their insight, advice, and critiques on my work. The words that I got from the multiple network, college and NBA broadcasters who I had the honor to share conversations with are words that I will live by for the rest of my career. Networking also allowed me to get my stuff in front of important eyes.
The down time also gave me a chance to evaluate myself personally and socially and make changes, grow closer to family, take time away from social media (seven months to be exact and it, trust me, for a time, it was worth it), get back to old hobbies, etc. As I said, I try to make tough situations a little better and, although I wasn't calling sports, I still used the down time to my advantage.
Fast forward to September and the announcement was made: "The NCAA will allow basketball programs to start play on November 25th." As soon as I saw that press release drop, I immediately got to work. I began sending out my basketball play-by-play reel to a ton of Division I, DII and DIII programs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, even a few in Northern California. I was just hoping for a bite.
Around the same time, the staff at Little Rock asked if I had any interest in coming back to Arkansas to be their ESPN+ play-by-play voice for a third season (We even talked about the possibility of calling their games remotely from here in Portland). While I was extremely flattered, I, ultimately, decided not to return to the Arkansas capital city and go back to the athletic department I'll always be loyal to. I didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to possibly call games for a network. At the time, it wasn't a guarantee, but I knew there was a small chance, and I didn't want to miss out if my phone rang one day and an opportunity to call a game(s) at the network level became available. I was agai taking a risk by turning down a for-sure play-by-play opportunity, but it was another chance I had to take.
As the basketball season drew closer, I would get one of three responses from teams: Either no response, "Thanks but we already have someone," or basically "We really like your stuff...But we're gonna go with someone else." There were a few programs who said they'd keep me in mind if a fill-in was needed, but who knows if a chance was going to become available.
When basketball season got underway, the sadness started to set in. I got really frustrated. Basketball games were being played and I wasn't calling them. It didn't take a long time to get to a point where I had lost motivation, I had lost complete confidence in myself, I gained weight, ate a lot, didn't exercise really at all, didn't feel any day had a purpose, just sat around all day because I just, again, had no motivation and didn't care. I felt defeated.
I started to doubt myself and wonder if I wasn't cut out for it. I went back-and-forth with myself wondering if I had made a mistake deciding not to return to a guaranteed play-by-play gig back in Arkansas. Each game I watched on TV, I continued to get more and more down and feel more and more defeated. I had completely lost sight of the values I held months earlier of "staying positive, making any bad situation better, staying antsy" etc. At that time, I began to start looking at other jobs in different career fields because I felt I had lost the challenge of achieving my dream...and that got me down even more. I was ready to just call it quits and just say "I tried and failed. Just gotta accept it and move on with my life."
It's funny though how one person impacts your life multiple times. One night, I was laying in bed and couldn't sleep. I was then on my computer and I came across a Razorback Football segment I had done with Mitch Petrus from my time at FOX16. The segment began with Mitch trying to impersonate me while covering a high school football game two nights before. He had no idea I had put that in the beginning of the show. He then burst out into laughter live on the air as he realized he was busted and didn't think I would catch it. I then chuckled as I watched and then I remembered how fun filming those segments were and how funny and upbeat of a dude he was.
That then made me think back to a conversation he and I once had. Mitch told me, after I had called a high school football championship game years ago, that he thought I was really good and that I was destined for bigger things outside of Arkansas. When that memory came back to me, I came to the realization that if Mitch saw what I had become during that time, he'd be frustrated, not with me failing to getting a play-by-play gig, but with me giving up so easily and not making the most of everyday and doing every possible thing to better myself. That dude absolutely made sure to live everyday to the fullest until his passing and I had abandoned those values and knew I would probably be letting him down. That, along with some strong words from family, was the kick in the ass I needed. It was time to start turning things around.
Even though the work still wasn't coming in, I made it a priority everyday to be productive and accomplish something. I started exercising longer and longer each day, ate a whole lot less and better, started watching games to learn more from professional play-by-play broadcasters on how I can improve my calls, kept preparing in case someone ever called and needed someone to call a game, overall just have a positive outlook each and every day. And you know, it's funny how a different outlook and thinking positively can change things.
It was a few days before Christmas, and I had just gotten home from a run when I sat down to have a post-workout snack when I checked my phone. There displayed on the screen was a text message from the same executive at Pac-12 Network I had chatted with back in the summer. “Any chance you’d be available to work a game on New Year's Day in Corvallis?” Obviously, I replied as quickly as I could. It was a moment I had been hoping would happen for what felt like an eternity. But it was finally going to happen: New Year's Day, I was going to be calling a Top 25 women’s basketball showdown between Oregon State and UCLA. From being out of play-by-play work, to struggling to get opportunities with programs, getting down, losing confidence and thinking that moment was never going to happen, believe me when I say it was easily one of the best Christmas presents I have ever gotten.
That was the ultimate confidence boost I needed. If a network was asking me to call not just a basketball game, but a Top 25 game, that was the moment I knew everything was going to be okay.
Unfortunately that game would later be canceled due to Covid issues within the Beavers program, but while disappointing, I made sure I was ready for when they would, hopefully, schedule me for another game broadcast. I didn’t have to wait that long. But, it would be the same story. Each game I would be on the schedule to call for the network would be impacted because of Covid issues with one of the teams playing.
Although the basketball broadcasts wouldn’t happen during the season, I made sure to keep the same positive attitude and remain antsy to make it known I would be down to call other sports as well. Thankfully, the Pac-12 Network gave me opportunities to grow by calling volleyball and lacrosse games. I've always preached that versatility is extremely vital in this industry and you have to take advantage of the opportunities when they come.
And then the big opportunity came when I was assigned to call a pivotal Top 25 baseball series between at the time #7 Oregon and #15 Stanford, a match-up of two teams in the hunt for a Pac-12 title. At the conclusion of the Sunday matinee (a 12 inning marathon by the way), I just sat up in the broadcast booth just staring at the field inside PK Park and just reflecting on everything I've been through in the past year to get to that high point in my life and my career. Just six months earlier, a chubby me would just sit around and do nothing but feel sorry for myself, feeling life wasn't fair and that the world was against me. But just a change of mindset brought on by a late friend's drive for life set in motion a big turnaround. Roy Philpott of ESPN told me right after I moved back home to Oregon when the Pandemic first started that everything happens for a reason. And in hindsight, he was 100 percent right. If you would've told me back in March or in November when all I did was sit on the couch feeling defeated day after day "Ben you'll soon be calling a huge top 25 series on a network", no way...and I mean NO WAY I would've believed you, not in the slightest.
It was a year filled with MANY ups and downs. I wouldn't have gotten through it if it wasn't for the influence of Mitch, of course the love and support of my family and close ones, and regaining that determination that I had briefly lost during the fall of 2020. And that's what I would probably preach the most: live every day to the fullest and have a positive outlook, even when it's, at times, hard when life puts many difficult obstacles in front of you. As hard as the last 14 months have been, it changed me as a person and those struggles taught me values that I will always practice and preach for an eternity.
And you better believe I still keep a photo of 'chubby me' on my phone as a reminder to never become that person again.
[Side Note: Another great life lesson I learned from this year came from watching an interview with Mark Calaway, also known as "The Undertaker" in WWE. He said "the toes you step on on the way to the top are connected to the asses you'll have to kiss on the way back down." Basically always treat people the way you want to be treated. Relationships matter.]