Spent beyond his borders, tears will flow freely when former Adams High School running back Shaq Vann summits next weekend.
But this climb won’t have anything to do with grinding out those tough yards on third and short. Won’t require bursting through that sliver of a hole between the guard and tackle. Won’t end with finding the end zone for the Eastern Michigan football team.
One final climb through a college football season awaits the 5-foot-10, 222-pound Vann, who’ll enter the 2019 season as a sixth-year guy. But before that climb commences comes another, one that allows Vann and his teammates to learn a whole lot more about themselves than they would on a practice field or meeting room back on campus.
The third week of July marks the Eastern Michigan seniors’ annual trip to Pikes Peak following a 7-6 season and trip to the Camellia Bowl in 2018. More success is expected this fall in Ypsilanti, and more from veterans like Vann, a three-time team captain.
How much more? The next layer of that focus foundation will be laid during a 12-hour hike up Pikes Peak next weekend. It’s a senior tradition at Eastern Michigan to scale the 14,115-foot mountain, the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rockies just outside Colorado Springs, Colo., in Pikes National Forest.
“It’s definitely a crazy trip,” said Vann, who rushed for a team-high 590 yards with five touchdowns on 135 carries last season. “It’s an experience you can’t fake.”
An experience that brings out true and raw emotions. The group has a 3 a.m. wake-up call Saturday. Sixty minutes later, they have to be at the base of the mountain to begin the ascent. Climbers usually have to be off the mountain by a certain time every day in case summer storms roll through. For the next 13.5-miles stretched over 10-12 hours, each Eastern senior, be it a running back or lineman or linebacker or a first-year coach, will work as one up the mountain that has an elevation gain of 7,400 feet.
It’s the ultimate class field trip with head coach Chris Creighton, who’s taken each of his Eastern Michigan teams since he arrived in 2014 on the adventure.
Climbers are cautioned that they must be “able to navigate difficult terrain and able to perform high-cardio activity with low oxygen.”
It will be hard. It will get hot. Guys will start to feel dizzy and defeated. Some will need to sit and take a breath. Take in some water. Take in some colorful motivational words from teammates. But then, get moving. Quitting isn’t an option. Eventually, the snacks they pack run out. Water runs low. Guys have to find a way.
When the going gets tough this fall and the Eagles wonder if they can convert that fourth-and-goal, or get off the field defensively on third down, they’ll reference back to this trip for motivation. They did it then; they’ll do it now.
Hitting the proverbial wall at Pikes Peak is inevitable. Everyone hits it. Some sooner; others later. Vann hit it last summer during his first climb. He thought he’d do it no problem, until the problems kicked in. The mind games he played, telling himself that he could stop, that he didn’t have to keep going, that there was no shame in stopping.
But there is — from within.
“Oh, man, the whole time I was screaming, ‘Let’s get our second wind,’” Vann said. “Once you’re up there 10 hours, you can get a little crazy.”
Then there’s the wrench.
It’s another team motivational piece, sort of along the lines of the infamous “Turnover Chain” Miami (Fla.) employed. Except instead of some bling, the Eagles use a 51-pound wrench that players take turns carrying in their packs.
Why a wrench? It serves a constant reminder for the Eagles to “Close the Gap” on its opponents.
Every senior has to haul it for 45 minutes. Last year, Vann got it on Hour 10.
“I was OK until then,” he said. “But it just drains you. Once I gave it up, I was back to myself.”
Once Vann finished the climb, he let loose his emotions. It was stuff he’d never felt. Something different than scoring a touchdown or winning a close game in the final seconds. Different than picking up the pieces of a devastating Mid-American Conference loss. Something special. Something that screamed togetherness. The trolley ride down the mountain was euphoric.
“When some of the dudes hit the top, guys start crying,” Vann said. “It gets real emotional.”
It’s the ultimate test of endurance and of teamwork. Vann shouldn’t have to do it again. He’s done it. He’s graduated. He could take the experience and his diploma and move to the next phase of life. He can’t. He won’t.
More than football
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree was the ultimate college goal for Vann when he arrived at Eastern Michigan in the fall of 2014. A senior season at Adams saw Vann earn first team all-state honors a second consecutive season. He had one game in 2013 — against South Bend Saint Joseph — when he ran for 425 yards. He was good at the game, but he also wanted to be good in the classroom.
He earned a degree as a business major. He received his diploma in the spring. It sits in his mother’s house in South Bend, on display for her and his seven siblings and all to see.
“It was the least I could do, graduate from college,” Vann said. “You always think, football, football, football, but it’s special.”
Vann sat out his true freshman season as a traditional redshirt in 2014. He missed most of 2016 with a shoulder injury, which opened the sixth-season door. He had every reason to leave campus after earning his degree. He was done; he’d put in all the work on and off the field. That also included working part time at the school’s convocation center to earn some spending money.
Vann had more reasons to stay. Like one more year playing football. One more year to be around his girlfriend, senior Catherine Mittiga a fellow Adams graduate who runs track at Eastern. They’ve been together since high school. One more year to be a college kid. One year of graduate school.
Leave? Now? No way.
“I get a chance to do the thing that I love,” he said. “Education is an opportunity not to pass up.”
Returning also brings a third year as a team captain. That’s rare for a college athlete these days. Most serve one year, maybe two, then are gone. But Vann’s ready for another year as a main guy, a team guy, a voice, a leader.
It’s a well-earned role.
“The first thing you pick up on when you walk in that running backs room is the respect he has from his teammates,” said first-year running backs coach Sam Sewell. “When Shaq’s in the room, guys seek his advice. They want his voice. They want his opinion. People are drawn to him.
“He’s an Alpha in every sense of the word.”
Vann takes that title and that trust seriously. His teammates look to him every day for guidance. The old guys will look to him next weekend in Colorado. The young guys will look to him when fall camp commences next month. Every day, someone’s watching him work, waiting for him to offer a word of wisdom. Vann usually does.
At 23, he’s one of the oldest on the team. Teammates call him Old Man and Pops. But they always call him. Always.
“There’s definitely a pressure to set the example, always do things the right way,” he said. “You’re one of the faces of the program.”
Vann embraces that expectation. His sixth season is about to start. He can’t wait to do more, show play, play more, lead more. He knows this is his last go-round. This year might be it for football. Forever. So just like next weekend on the mountain, there’s no way he’s holding back.
“They’re going to see the whole package this year,” Vann said. “I’m super ready for this season.
“I’m built for this.”