The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

The SEC Blog: Thank them for their service

160 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC Staff

On first glance, they would appear to have little in common beyond their shared backgrounds as major college student-athletes.

TJ Soyoye, the former Missouri power forward, is a native of Lagos, Nigeria. He started for two years for the Tigers after arriving from junior college.

Sarah Edwards, the former Tennessee guard, is from Sevierville, Tenn. She had to convince the legendary Pat Summitt to let her join the Lady Vols, who were coming off three straight national titles, as a walk-on.

Kody Bliss, the former Auburn punter, played his high school football in Brentwood, Tenn. He was an All-SEC performer on the Plains.

For each of them, their college experience served as a memorable means toward a more meaningful end, as prologue to a vital career today as a professional. Just not as a professional athlete.

Bliss never punted in the NFL, though he had a cup of coffee in the CFL. Edwards never attempted to make a WNBA roster. Soyoye didn't spend a minute in the NBA but did play basketball for two years professionally in Spain. Instead of making names for themselves in the sports world, they're making a bigger impact on the world at a time when sports have stopped.

You can call each of them "Doctor," and you should thank them for putting themselves on the line in the fight against COVID-19.

They each work in a hospital emergency room when those are even more dangerous places than usual thanks to the coronavirus. Soyoye is in Columbus, Ga.; Edwards in Charlotte, N.C.; Bliss in Baton Rouge, La.

If there's a silver lining at this dark moment in our history, it's the emerging stories of heroes like these appearing regularly on local and national news. No strangers to publicity from their athletic careers, Soyoye, Edwards and Bliss find themselves in the spotlight in a new and far more important way.

In addition to local newspaper and online stories about their courage in the face of the current pandemic, Soyoye, Edwards and Bliss have been featured by Marty Smith of ESPN and the SEC Network on his inspiring "Sidelines to Frontlines" series.

Read and watch their stories, and a common thread emerges. There is something different about student-athletes in general and these former student-athletes in particular. At its heart, that unique quality revolves around a ready-willing-and-able approach to a crisis, big or small.

"This is the call," Soyoye told Smith. "This is what I signed up for." It's a call to service inspired by Soyoye's father, who was a traditional healer in their native Nigeria.

Bliss offered this perspective: "I want to be the first one into every room." He carries that take-charge attitude into every shift despite testing positive for coronavirus in February and spending two weeks in quarantine. As soon as possible, he went back to work.

Like her fellow medical professionals, Edwards looks at her hospital shifts, as hectic and unpredictable as they may be, as an opportunity.

"It truly is a privilege for me to take care of people," she told VFL Films, the broadcasting arm of University of Tennessee athletics. "I don't take that lightly."

Edwards in particular personifies the benefits of playing team sports in college at the highest level regardless of playing time or personal accolades. She was featured in the introduction of Sports Illustrated's college basketball preseason issue as a true freshman because of her determination to earn a rare walk-on spot on UT's deep and talented roster. Her playing time may have been limited, but the lessons she learned with the Lady Vols weren't.

Playing for the Hall of Famer Summitt "was the hardest thing I've ever done," Edwards said. "That's the truth. She was a very demanding person. She expected a lot out of you. But it was also the best thing I've ever done."

As a result of that experience, Edwards said, "I understand the value of hard work."

It's a student-athlete thing, especially at the schools that make up the SEC. You don't get here and stay here and turn your experience here into a meaningful career beyond athletics without that work ethic. See Soyoye, Edwards and Bliss. At a time when they're needed more than ever, they stand out. They don't stand alone.