ORLANDO – More often than not, real life stories don’t come neatly packaged with storybook endings. A moment’s hesitation can undo hours of preparation. In the blink of an eye, all can be lost. This afternoon at CFE Arena on the campus of the University of Central Florida, #BigBen went toe-to-toe with reality, and reality won out, in stunning fashion.
It was a cool, drizzly morning as #BigBen and his entourage pulled into the arena parking garage in a slate gray Nissan Pathfinder that matched the foreboding sky. In retrospect, the abysmal weather was an ominous omen of the horrors that were about to unfold.
The lead up to the main event went according to plan. #BigBen entered the empty arena an hour and a half prior to the starting gun, dressed comfortably in a black track suit, Beats by Dre delivering his get pumped mix straight to his ear drums, in the arms of his manager/father. He was relaxed and in good spirits, tossing out the occasional joke to lighten the mood. At the pre-race meeting and weigh in, tensions began to mount as the contestants sized each other up. Eye contact was clearly taboo, but surreptitious glances were exchanged as the opponents probed for weaknesses.
Shorty thereafter, the crowd started filing in for the undercard, an American conference basketball contest between two struggling sides, UCF and East Carolina. As the crowd swelled, distractions abounded. Thankfully, as silence can be an athlete’s worst enemy. Anxiety and nerves have been the undoing of even the all-time greats.
As the basketball game approached halftime, a feeling of collective anticipation in the arena became palpable. The combatants were escorted down into the tunnel as final preparations were made. A dance number and cheerleading ceremony stretched on for hours before finally giving way to the main event: The Inaugural UCF Baby Race.
At this point the crowd was buzzing, seemingly surging toward the court with uncontainable energy. Just before the contestants marched out onto the arena floor, MC John Evans gathered them together and said, “This is going to be monumental. Congratulations to all of you for being a part of it.” Truer words have never been spoken.
As the racers took their positions, poised at the start line, staring down the 10-foot-long race track that seemed to extend for 10 miles, flash bulbs popped and the crowd hushed. Evans read the introductions for racers 1 through 3 and then it was #BigBen’s time to shine.
“Weighing in at a Justin McBride-esque 25 pounds…he enjoys long crawls across the kitchen in search of dog bowls or open dishwasher doors…ladies and gentleman…#BigBen!!”
The crowd rejoiced.
With the festivities over, #BigBen got down to business, shedding his warm-ups and crouching in position at the start line. He bowed his head for just a moment, no doubt thinking back to all the long, hot days on the track leading up to this day. He bounced back onto his heels once, ready to catapult forward at the sound of the starting pistol.
But then, it happened. And by it, I mean nothing. At the start call, #BigBen froze. The crowd roared and racer 5 sprung out to a seemingly insurmountable lead before a tragic cone-related distraction stymied him inches from the finish line. Racer 2 sauntered to the finish, much like the tortoise in the classic fable, holding off a late charge from Racer 1.
Through it all, #BigBen remained frozen. It was over in a matter of seconds, but it seemed like hours, while also seeming like seconds. As the media swarmed racer 2, #BigBen collapsed into his manager’s arms, completely spent. Beyond the physical toll that not moving even an inch exacts, the emotional toll was devastating: opportunities lost and life-long dreams shattered.
“I’m sorry folks, but #BigBen can’t talk to you today,” his manager said when addressing the media after the race. “I mean literally, he’s not capable of talking. Come at us again in like 6 months. Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you. He won’t sleep well tonight that’s for sure. Mainly because he never sleeps well; I wager to say he’ll go to bed and wake up at least three times before you file this report. But, we’ll take a day to re-assess and then start grinding again on Monday. This wasn’t his last rodeo.”
While Team #BigBen circles the wagons, the whispers continue to grow louder. Have we seen the last of #BigBen on the racetrack? Can he regain his world-class form or was this indeed his last rodeo? Only time will tell.