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The Kelsey Griffin Story is a life journey symbolic of the character that can grow out of adversity, the faith that can replace doubt and the strength that often emerges from weakness. Kelsey Griffin’s Journey from Alaska to Nebraska and her hope, desire and perseverance to continue to live and to work in Australia is an interesting expedition that transcends her remarkable accomplishments – Nebraska’s first-ever Senior CLASS Award winner in any sport, the 2010 Nebraska Female Student-Athlete of the Year and First-Team All-America status on a team that won 32 games and earned a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. She was also the 2010 Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, plus a first-round WNBA Draft selection as well as the No. 3 overall pick.
All of that is nice, but none of it defines Griffin, a lightly recruited student-athlete who exemplifies what Connie Yori’s Nebraska Women’s Basketball Program signifies most – a standard of excellence that results from blood, sweat and tears. In a press conference Tuesday to promote Griffin’s return to Lincoln to have her No. 23 jersey retired, you couldn’t help but connect Griffin’s amazing journey to Wednesday night’s ceremony before Nebraska dominated Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Four Flights, 28 Hours, 9,000 Miles, Two Sunrises
Griffin took four flights and 28 hours to fly 9,000 miles from Australia to Lincoln where she joined 25 family members and close friends from Alaska, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and New York. “I’ve never seen the sun rise twice in one day, but I got to do that, so it was pretty exciting,” Griffin said, using a metaphor that mirrors her five-year experience at Nebraska, where she handled adversity and converted every heartbreak into the precious jewel of life she now feels.
Yori described Griffin as a “rare breed” and “the best player” she has ever had the privilege to coach. Nebraska’s tough-minded former National Coach of the Year also said fans have no idea how much adversity Griffin endured while she was in Lincoln and why her triumphs over such troubles are true testaments to having her jersey fly high in Pinnacle Bank Arena alongside those representing Karen Jennings and Maurtice Ivy.
The N-Sider asked Griffin to help us chronicle her journey. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of adversity personified and how Griffin trumped that adversity with patience, persistence and perseverance. (Kelsey’s personal thoughts are in black italic type):
Freshman Season: Kelsey was a starter, but hurt, homesick and wanted to leave before her roommate talked her out of it. She decided to pursue a medical career and a mono-like illness sapped a good share of her energy. "Megan Volk is the daughter of my high school basketball coach in Alaska and was my roommate at Nebraska. When I told her I wanted to go back home, she told me she was staying, was going to graduate and then going to Med School, and she did graduate from Med School at Creighton. She helped change my mind and kept me focused on why I was here.”
Sophomore Season: Kelsey struggles to breathe and an asthma-like condition doesn’t get any better when she breaks a rib and plays most of the season wearing a flak jacket. She’s so tough, she still takes 30 charges with that broken rib. “Unbelievable,” Yori said. Along with the physical fatigue, she learns her dad has cancer, causing her to sleep-walk through a game at Oklahoma. Again she’s unsure about continuing to play basketball. "I didn’t feel good all season long. I was worn out and didn’t have much left in me. Chelsea Aubry (now a teammate of Griffin’s with Bendigo Spirit in Australia) was a senior center when I was a sophomore. She talked me off the cliff of leaving and said when I felt better, I’d be glad I stayed."
Junior Season: Sickness and health continue to be life’s biggest obstacle course. Kelsey handles pressure like a perfectionist. Unfortunately, when she makes 9 of 12 field goals, the only ones she sees in her mind are the three she missed. “My mom kept me on track, but my dad was the one who talked me out of leaving at this stage. He kept asking me what I was going to gain if I came home and didn’t have anything to do. He wanted me to stay the course.”
Senior Season 1: Scratch that. During the summer, Kelsey breaks a foot and an ankle. It’s a complicated compound injury that puts her on the bench all season. “Even though I didn’t play in what should have been my senior season, this is when I grew up. I expended so much energy in my first three years and got so exhausted, I never was able to see the big picture. As a redshirt, I finally realized what Coach Yori was doing every day to make us all better. I gained perspective and had so much more energy than I had. I realized whatever Coach Yori said was never personal and always designed to help us.”
Senior Season 2: Two surgeries don’t solve the problem, so a last-ditch effort in June enables Griffin to return for a final season. She plays great, wins tons of national honors and becomes a first-round WNBA Draft choice even though she’d spent her college career not knowing the WNBA even existed. “After all the sickness and illness, I finally had a season that felt like a breath of fresh air. I realized the difference between physical and mental fatigue and was able to go all out all the time. If I hadn’t had that fourth-year redshirt, I don’t know if I would have had the stamina to help us go through the regular season unbeaten. I had so many people around me that supported me, just like I will tomorrow night. My family and friends will be there, plus coaches and teammates. No way does something like this happen without that support. They kept me on track and helped me get through all the adversity.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, Griffin was asked about the motivation that has helped her play four years in the WNBA after the Minnesota Lynx traded her to the Connecticut Sun. She also plays professionally in Australia during the WNBA off-season and hopes to continue to live there and eventually pursue a medical-related or corporate-related job after her playing career ends. Last year, Griffin started every game for the Sun and averaged 8.7 points and five rebounds.
Griffin said the reason she continues to compete professionally is because of the people she met and feels like she still represents. “Nebraska set the standard so high,” she said, citing the character and the type of people she got to “play and grow up with and learn from and be coached by.”
When Griffin graduated and went immediately into the WNBA, “I’d been spoiled,” she said. “It was quite shocking to me. I almost felt cheated.” She was not prepared to understand that other teams and players and coaches and professors and support staff don’t think and act like Nebraskans. But she’s adjusted now and is honored that her jersey will hang inside Pinnacle Bank Arena. “I’m pretty speechless,” she said. “It’s hard to put into words what this means. I’m hoping when the jersey’s up there, everyone knows who was a part of it. I got to do it with so many amazing people. That’s why it’s so special to me.”
Having her jersey retired “wasn’t even something that was on my radar,” Griffin said. “I knew I’d helped this school accomplish quite a bit, but I didn’t think I’d personally gone above and beyond like those players whose jerseys are already up there.”
Yori: Kelsey Griffin Kind of a Once in a Lifetime Player
She was wrong, of course.
“Kelsey’s kind of a once in a lifetime player,” Yori said. “I’ve coached a lot of really good players, but Kelsey’s the best. There’s no doubt she deserves to have her jersey hanging in the rafters. She’s one of the best ever to put the uniform on here, and she came out of nowhere. She came here with good talent and made herself great. I couldn’t ask for anybody to represent us better than Kelsey Griffin has in terms of effort, character and being a good teammate. When you talk about young people overcoming adversity, she’s such a role model for that.”
Griffin is also at the peak of her professional career under Ann Donovan, Connecticut’s Hall-of-Fame coach. Because of Griffin’s personal and professional growth, Wednesday’s jersey retirement means more than it would have at an earlier point in her career. “I’m in the happiest time of my life now, so to have this honor on top of it, I couldn’t ask for it to be any better timing,” she said.
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