What it’s like as an NCAA athlete in Alabama

College sports are held in high regard by many, and, as a result, some athletes are treated like stars in their local communities. As Canadians we get a taste of that, but it cannot compare to our neighbours to the south. College sports in the US are on a totally different level. Millions of people, millions of dollars, and millions of hours are invested into American college sports every year.

What is it like to be an athlete directly involved in the phenomena that is NCAA sports, and to have the glory that comes with competing under that logo? I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Josh Berze, an athlete who is entering his second season of play as a member of the Samford Bulldogs Varsity Golf Team in Homewood, Alabama. Josh was born and raised in the city of Calgary, Alberta where he grew up a very successful multi-sport athlete. Some of his highlights include being a participant in the 2012 Junior Little League World Series in Taylor, Michigan, playing Bantam and Midget AAA hockey, and collecting multiple top-finishes as one of Alberta’s top junior golfers.

I sat down with Josh to find out what life has been like as an NCAA athlete in the state of Alabama.

How has the year been so far?

As a team we finished the fall season strong. We had a little bit of a rough patch in the middle of the season where we weren’t playing our best, but we finished the fall season strong with a 4th place finish at our final event of the season in Georgia. Since then, the early season rankings have come out, and we are not happy with where we sit, but this tournament has made our team eager to improve our ranking by continuing the solid play into the spring schedule as we look to make a run for the conference title this year.

Individually, I didn’t qualify to play in any team tournaments this fall as I had some rough qualifying rounds in August. However, since then, I feel I have shown better form as I am hitting the ball well, driving it well, hitting my irons well, and putting well which has allowed me to feel confident about the things I can accomplish this upcoming spring season.

How did you get into golf in the first place?

I feel like I had a unique upbringing in golf in that I really only played a couple times per year before I was in grade 8. I really had no interest in the game, and only went to play because I was forced to. However, once I began playing high-level hockey in grade 8, I felt like I needed a break, and golf was that break for me.

My dad purchased a membership for me at the local golf club by my house (Country Hills G&CC), and I began to bike there everyday after school to play and practice until the sun went down. I would do that everyday no matter the conditions, and this is where my love for the game really took shape.

You were a pretty good hockey player growing up and had opportunities to further your career at a junior level – but you chose golf instead. Why? Was that a difficult decision?

I played hockey at the Bantam AAA level, Midget AAA level, played a few games at the Junior A level, and attended two Western Hockey League (WHL) Camps hosted by the Swift Current Broncos. However, when it came down to golf and hockey I was really a “seasonal athlete”. What I mean by that is when it came time for hockey season that’s all I did, and I didn’t want anything to do with golf during that time. The same was true when it came time for golf season.

In Grade 12, I had a really strong final year playing Midget AAA and was signed to play with the Calgary Canucks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the following season. But a golf opportunity arose and honestly, I felt burnt out from hockey. I felt this golf opportunity was a unique one that I probably would not get another chance to pursue.

Even though it was a very difficult choice to make, I am happy with the decision I made because I love golf and everything that comes with it. I will always be thankful for the experiences I had in hockey: they have made me a better person, and taught me many life lessons that no other experiences could.

Why did you choose Samford?

I was lucky to attend Samford when I did. Initially, I began my college career in Kansas at the NAIA level with the dream of playing division 1 golf. Some unfortunate events occurred that led to the school shutting down its golf program, and I was then in a search for a new program. My coach at the time understood this was my goal, and helped me get into contact with a few different schools: Samford was one of those schools.

There were definitely a few things that stuck out about Samford that enticed me to compete for their team. Obviously, it is a division 1 school competing in a highly competitive conference and it’s one of the top-ranked schools in the South for academics. In terms of location, Birmingham, Alabama, but more specifically Homewood, Alabama where Samford is located is a beautiful spot to call home during your college career. We are close to all the big-time schools like Alabama, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia, which gives us the ability to compete on some of the most pristine courses in the country.  Everything just seemed to line up perfectly for me here at Samford, and it’s a great place to be.

What is it like living in Alabama?

Alabama is different, I can’t lie about that. People are different in the way they talk and dress, and the way they live their life is different than what I am used to. One reason I think it’s different is because Alabama sits in the “bible belt”, and people here are deeply committed to their faiths.

Besides that, people are laid back here, and are extremely personable and nice individuals. People say that Canadians are nice, which they are, but I truly feel the same way about Alabamians. Everyone is so friendly, and they always ask how your day is going. It’s just common courtesy around here to get to know a person before you start doing business with them.

I still feel like I stick out like a sore thumb when I talk sometimes. I use certain slang being born and raised in Canada, that they have a hard time comprehending sometimes. They like to say “y’all”, where in my case I say “eh” like any Canadian would, and they definitely get a good chuckle out of that. It’s been really cool to interact with these guys and learn how they live.

However, they love hearing about my experiences too, being Canadian and what it’s like to grow up there. I love sharing my experiences with them because I feel proud to be Canadian, I feel proud to be from Western Canada, and I feel proud to be a Calgary native.

If you could tell someone what they need to do to be a successful as an athlete in college, what would you tell them?

I would tell them to set their priorities. Figure out what exactly is important to you, and where you want to take your life. For me, everything I do is to improve my golf game, and I am going to do anything and everything to make that happen. To me there is a “trickle-down effect” at play here because even though golf is my number one priority, I have to ensure I am taking care of everything else, so I can perform at my top level when I need to. That means practicing hard and with a purpose, working out consistently, and making sure my homework is done well and on time. I try to get my homework done early, especially when I know I have a tournament coming up because it frees my mind up and I usually play better.

I recognize that college is supposed to be a fun part of your life, and there is a time and place to go out and have fun with your buddies. But, you can’t prioritize having fun over your goals. At the end of the day I am here to play golf and become the best golfer I can possibly be.

I know your Head Coach, Al Del Greco, is a former kicker in the NFL who played 17 seasons. What has it been like having him as a coach?

Coach Al has been a huge influence for me. Knowing that he had great success in the NFL really makes you pay attention to him when he talks because you know he’s a guy who knows how to become successful. He’s played on the biggest stages, having competed in Super Bowls, and it’s reassuring to know we have a coach who has first-hand experience in what it’s like to be at the top of the professional sports world.

He’s a quiet coach, but when he does say something you know you better listen and take it to heart. He has really taught me a lot about the game, and the areas I need to improve upon should I hope to have success. Coach Al has been pivotal in my learning process and has helped me realize how I will become the best golfer I can be.

How are you treated as a varsity athlete, compared to the other varsity athletes on campus?  

I think about this a lot, in terms of how our team compares to other teams on campus. First of all, the football team is in their own world: they have their own facilities, their own gym, their own athletic therapists, their own rehab programs, essentially everything they could want they have direct access to. All the other teams share the facilities on campus. We share therapists, trainers, advisers, tutors, and everything else that is available to athletes on campus.

The biggest thing is knowing when to use these resources. All teams have their designated times to use these resources, and the availability given to them is pretty much equal for all teams. Our team has 10 guys, and we have one designated trainer for our team; he is really knowledgeable about the body and works us hard in the areas we need to develop to become better players.

Around campus the other athletes recognize how difficult golf is. A lot of the other athletes play golf in their spare time and ask members of our team multiple questions about how they can improve their games. During class the other day, I had a member of the football team come up to me and explain to me how insane he thinks it is that golfers think about landing their ball on a certain portion of the green, so that their ball spins a specific way in order to get closer to the hole. I appreciate that other athletes around our campus are recognizing that golf is a difficult sport and requires many unique skills.

What is next for you, and what do want to do after your time at Samford?

Our spring season starts in February, and we will be playing 6 to 7 tournaments during our spring schedule. Our biggest tournament will be the conference championships in late April in Pinehurst, North Carolina – that’s a trip you want to be a part of.  Technically, spring is our main season, and you want to make sure you are ready to go when February hits. Our goal as team is to win a conference championship because from there it allows us to move on to playoffs, and potentially battle for a national championship.  

Academically, I am majoring in sports management, and the goal is to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in that. Athletically, I want to finish my career here at Samford with both an individual and team conference championship. Upon graduating, I want to give professional golf a shot and see how far that can take me. I want to compete at the highest level possible, and I want to win at the highest level possible. It’s all a process, and as long as you trust that process, I believe everything will work out in the end.

Josh is an outstanding athlete and I look forward to watching him achieve great success in the future, no matter where he decides to take his life next.

Sebastian Farkas is a third year Politics student and the Sports and Wellness Editor of The Athenaeum