THOUSANDS OF FEET IN THE AIR, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ATLANTA AND DALLAS -- I offer up the most unusual dateline of my writing career yet because, 24 hours ago, I had no idea I'd be putting up this post.
At the hour that his teammates were extending the surreal on Thursday afternoon -- gabbing with a media throng that has become obsessed with Florida Gulf Coast and gazing about the architectural Goliath that is Cowboys Stadium -- FGCU forward Nate Hicks was shuffling his way onto a Delta flight in Atlanta, headed for Dallas. Wearing a "Dunk City" T-shirt that was given to him the day before, an FGCU track jacket over it and a black backpack with the Atlantic Sun logo stitching, Hicks was eager to join the party.
The 21-year-old was a three-star player coming out of high school who'd transferred to FGCU from Georgia Tech last year.
"I was in the Rivals top 150 for one day," he said with a laugh.
He was recruited by Eagles coach Andy Enfield, who was at Florida State at the time. After wanting more playing time -- and mostly, to play for someone who recruited him -- Hicks opted for FGCU for Enfield and Enfield alone.
It seemed odd to see him boarding flight 1910 with his girlfriend, Corrine. The reason that Hicks was on my plane is because he cannot travel with the team. There's an NCAA rule that prevents redshirt transfers (who must sit out one season) from going with the group. So, no, he was not in Philadelphia last weekend as one of the best stories in NCAA tournament history unfolded.
Instead, he was at a restaurant/bar near FGCU's campus. He was there with Corrine, his high school sweetheart who goes to Florida State but made the five-and-a-half-hour drive down to watch with him. They went to the same spot for both FGCU games and wore the same clothes. Superstition and all that. Corrine is the only reason that he was on my plane to begin with. FGCU cannot pay for his travel, so they used her frequent-flyer miles to pay for the trip. Once Hicks' team earned its way into the Sweet 16, he and Corrine immediately said, "We're going!" -- meaning they'd be going to Dallas. They couldn't miss another game. This agreement came as they celebrated amid the on-campus party scene, the place just packed for the biggest celebration in the young school's history.
"And then the party moved out to the beach afterwards," Hicks said, in an inadvertent attempt to make me not feel bad about his current predicament.
Then Monday morning came, and reality set in. How would they be able to make it to Dallas? They debated for the next two days. The couple thought about making the 18-hour drive from Fort Myers to the middle of Texas. On Tuesday night around 10 p.m., they opted to burn up the miles and go by plane. The tickets, otherwise, would have cost about $900 apiece. Hicks drove to Orlando on Wednesday night, stayed with a UCF friend and then hopped a flight to Atlanta on Thursday morning. Corrine met him at the Atlanta airport.
So we're on this plane together, chatting about the bittersweet experience from last week. Hey, at least now he'll get to spend a lot of time with his teammates.
Hicks: "No, I'll be staying with her family, just outside of Dallas."
Ah, because Hicks can't stay with the team, either. By NCAA rule, FGCU cannot pay for his lodging. So the only reason that these two are making their way to Dallas is because Corrine's family is in the area. Had FGCU gone to Indianapolis or D.C., then they'd be going to that same spot, wearing those same clothes, rooting thousands of miles away. So for two nights, Hicks will stay at Corrine's aunt and uncle's house. Come Saturday, he's gotta fly back and get ready for a school presentation. He's meeting with a partner on Monday to prepare for it.
If FGCU is in the Elite Eight, he'll be watching back in Florida.
"It just kinda sucks," Hicks said. "I understand their [NCAA] motive, trying to limit transfers as much as possible. But at the same time, it can seem a little unjust whenever groups like the band and the cheerleaders and spirit groups that are further away from the team than I am get to go."
He's thrilled FGCU has so much support, but it's curious that a player on scholarship is left to scramble like this in order to see his teammates play in person. To be with them. Hicks has to jump through eight hoops to experience this as if he belongs, which he does.
And, wait. I'm not done. It gets better. By better, I mean worse. Hicks cannot even ride the team bus from the hotel to Cowboys Stadium. He'll hitch a ride with Corrine's family. They'll park in a massive lot and trek in with the the fans who are newfound honks for Dunk City. His tickets are the players/guest variety; he had to actually be given them by a teammate. So on Friday night, he'll walk into the stadium, make the stroll all the way down to the court and, once an FGCU staffer clears it with an usher, Hicks will finally get to enjoy the game with his teammates. He'll be the one near the end of the bench with the suit on.
When it's over, win or lose, he'll have to head out through the main exits. No bus ride back to the team hotel.
And if this story doesn't frustrate you enough, know that Hicks' teammate, Jamail Jones, will have to watch it all back in Fort Myers. Like Hicks, he's a redshirt transfer (from Marquette). But he didn't have the flyer miles or the girlfriend with the family in Dallas. So he'll be watching, just like you, like he's not even a part of this run.