The short distance of less than two miles from Haskell, formerly Haskell Institute and Haskell Indian Junior College, to the nearby University of Kansas, however, is one much less frequently traveled, especially for American Indian student-athletes.
Phil Stand (Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska) has recently taken that two-mile journey, transforming from Fightin’ Indian to Jayhawk, and joining only a handful of other extraordinary Native athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills.
In late July I met this young man at the national Phi Sigma Nu conference hosted at Haskell, and was able to be a firsthand witness to someone who not only stands out in a crowd – admittedly, at 6’6 and 265 pounds, that isn’t difficult – but clearly has a genuine concern for others. This was demonstrated in the comments he made to me regarding his partner Pam Tso (Navajo) who formerly was a student-athlete (track & volleyball) at Haskell and is now pursuing her graduate degree while working as an Operations Coach for Nike.
“The transitions with athletics and school get tough at times, but I am lucky to have a teammate that is there for me in all aspects of life,” Stand told me. “She is a very strong Native woman who is always by my side with encouragement and strength. I admire her strong work-ethic and outlook and how she appreciates little things. She’s a very positive influence on my life and a humble leader.”
Stand has similar praise for his older brother Ian, and in fact, for everyone in his his large circle of family, friends and acquaintances. Stand embodies the Sauk (Sac & Fox) language term Kimachipena (Let’s Come Together).
After Stand and I spoke of the importance of his tribal language and the blessings that those around him have been to his life, I went to researching his achievements and came across an interview from two years earlier that fully spoke to his feelings and outlooks prior to making the leap from Haskell to KU. (The entire interview and photos can be accessed here: nativestronginc.squarespace.com.) In reaching out to the author, a former classmate of Stand’s, I quickly realized her story was no less intriguing. Rhonda Tree-Mangan is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. At the age of 36 she packed up her husband and three children and moved from Colorado to Lawrence, Kansas in order to fulfill her goal of completing her university degree and, in an even more extraordinary feat of will, competing in her final year of eligibility as a collegiate volleyball player.
After graduating from high school in 1994, Tree played volleyball for two seasons at Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas and then enrolled at Hastings College in Nebraska, where she would remain for one season. It would be 15 years before she would see a college classroom or court again. During her “time off” she got married, had three beautiful children, and also became involved in the worlds of fitness, modeling and photography. And then she became one of only a small number of individuals her age to compete in collegiate athletics while leading Haskell’s volleyball squad to its first ever post-season berth and being named to the all-tournament team.
Though Tree’s collegiate playing days are now behind her, Stand has one last year of competition ahead. After making the switch from NAIA Haskell, where he earned Academic All-American honors and a national top 25 ranking in throwing events (hammer, discus and shot put), not to mention the hanging of he and his brother’s names in the rafters of the university’s Coffin Sport Complex, he took a redshirt year at KU in preparation for this season. Having never competed in track & field prior to coming to Haskell, he credits long time HINU coach and staff member Al Gipp with encouraging him.
Like other current indigenous NCAA athletes, such as Bronson Koenig (Wisconsin), Mariah Miles (Utah State), Savannah Waters (University of Central Oklahoma) and Derek Willis (Kentucky), Stand knows well the responsibility his status as an NCAA athlete at a premier university carries and the importance of seizing this unique moment to continue to make an impact on the lives of others.
As he explained, “I wouldn’t be here if it were not for the generosity of others and the faith that they have placed in me.”
So as Stand enters KU’s new track facility (Rock Chalk Park) this year ready to compete against the nation’s best, while also focusing on the completion of his graduate degree, everyone in Indian country might consider saying a short prayer for this young man who excels in the classroom, shows respect for women, gives back to his community, cares about tribal traditions and lives his life in a humble way. While he will be wearing Jayhawk Red (Crimson) & Blue this year, don’t think for a minute that the Purple and Gold of Haskell and all its accompanying history won’t be accompanying him as he steps out into the circle…. and makes all of Indian country proud.