What happens when you start asking a total stranger all the right questions?

One of my favorite games to play is Connect The Dots. Not the game we played when we were kids, where you drew lines between numbered dots to form an image of a kitty or  Jack-In-A-Box. The version I like to play is with humans.

It’s pretty simple. When you meet someone new, you try to discover their dots and connect them to your own. This helps build a bridge or a common bond between two people. Note, I use the term ‘dots’ symbolically to represent someone’s key facts, personal history, experiences and friendships. I don’t usually draw lines connecting someones moles and freckles. Although I am not above it.

Madtown

Two weeks ago, after watching our local high school win a state championship at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, my daughter Ava and I attended a UW Madison track and cross-country reunion hosted by The National W Club. There were over 200 alumni gathered on the eve of the NCAA Cross Country National Championships in Madison. I saw dozens of former teammates and friends. But I also met new people. And we played Connect The Dots.

A Young Couple Walks Into A Bar…

Ava and I were standing near the entrance to the bar, when a nice looking young couple walked in. I recognized the woman immediately as Taylor Amann, a recent UW graduate and an All-American pole vaulter from Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisconsin.

I had connected with Taylor in the spring, after I saw her LinkedIn profile and recognized that I may be able to assist her with some career connections based on her interest in fashion and retail.

We had exchanged a few emails, but had never met in person. So I approached her and introduced myself. Taylor was very nice, and acted as if she totally remembered our email exchange. She talked about her great new job as a buyer at the UW Bookstore. We talked about the interesting challenges of transitioning from college to the real world, and discovering our new identities after the end of our athletic careers.

Plot Twist!

Then I started talking to her boyfriend. And that’s where things got really interesting. His name was Clay. And since we had never emailed each other before, I started playing Connect The Dots.

I asked him where he was from. He said Ohio. This was a very good start. Because Ohio is dot-rich territory for me. I asked Clay where he went to college. I learned that he was a recent graduated from Ohio State, where he also played football.

I asked, ‘Where in Ohio did you grow up?  He said, ‘Dublin.’ Boom! I said, ‘We lived in Dublin for seven years.’ I asked, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ He said, ‘Coffman.’

At this point I knew we would have at least 2 connections. Because my friend Mike Ulring is the principal at Coffman High School. And I figured that Ava’s former babysitter, Rachel Weber, would have been in high school with Clay.

But I kept asking questions.

I asked, ‘Where did you go to Middle School.’ He said. ‘Karrer.’ That was the school our neighborhood went to, not far from where we lived in Dublin. So I told Clay that we lived across from Avery Park, in Hawks Nest subdivision. His eyes got wide and he said, ‘The stone that says Hawks Nest on it was in my yard!’ I asked, ‘Did you live on Jacana Drive.’ He said, ‘Yes!’  I said, ‘I have been on your roof!’

It turns out Clay Raterman and I lived 3 houses apart. And as soon as we connected the dots I knew exactly who he was. Not only did he remember me, he remembered Ava as a little girl who was always playing outside. We talked about our neighbors the Philbins, Sherbuns, McGoverns and Ashs. We recounted a legendary neighborhood story about Clay and his brother who ding-dong-ditched our next door neighbors, who found little humor in the prank. (The boys had painted a marshmallow to look like dog poop and left it in an unlit bag on the porch).

We also talked about the time when hurricane Ike hit Columbus and took part of the roof off of Clay’s family’s home. Mike Sherbun and I climbed on the roof to nail down a large corner section that had been blown off by the wind. We scrambled to cover the section with a tarp donated by my neighbor, Phil Turner, before nightfall came, and rain wreaked havoc on the exposed home.

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Ava, Adam, Clay and Taylor walked into a bar…

Two ships in the night.

Clay and I may have spent the evening within feet of each other and never talked. Or we could have said a pleasant hello and left it at that. We would have had no idea just how much we had in common, and how many people and places we both knew. We talked about Donatos Pizza and Jeni’s Ice Cream and other favorites Columbus originals.

There is something wonderful about discovering our common bonds. It makes us feel connected. It makes us feel like someone else knows us and understands us. Networking is nothing more than building your own safety net. When I play connect the dots, I am trying to make each of our nets a little bigger, and a little stronger.

Key Takeaway.

Get to know as many people as you can. Discover your common ground. We all have it. It’s just a matter of whether or not we find it. Turn strangers into friend. Make the world feel smaller and friendlier. You never know who you may be able to help along the way. Or who may be able to help you when you need it most. Like when a hurricane hits central Ohio, and dark is closing in. Or when you are a Buckeye, and you walk into a bar full of Badgers.

How to balance your priorities like a student athlete.

Even 22 years after graduation I have not found a school I would rather have attended than the University of Wisconsin. There is no other town like Madison. And no other culture like the University and its work-hard, play-hard, jump-around-hard students and alumni.

Student

In college I double majored in Psychology and Journalism. I think I also set some sort of school record for most bars and parties attended without drinking alcohol.

Athlete

When I wasn’t studenting I was a proud member of Wisconsin’s Men’s Track & Field team. I threw the discus, the hammer, the 35-pound weight, and the occasional hissy fit. 

The Kickoff Meeting 

Every fall, the track year would kick off with a mandatory team meeting in an auditorium in the athletic center. We had to fill out various forms in order to be cleared to participate. It was more businessy than athleticy. But it signaled the start of the season, and it was the first time the team assembled each school year.

Coach Nuttycombe

My favorite part of the meeting was when our head coach, Ed Nuttycombe, addressed the team. When I joined the program, Nutty had already won several Big Ten championships. By the time he retired in 2013, he had amassed 26 Big Ten titles, more than any other coach, in any sport in Big Ten history. I was proud to be part of that history, as our team swept the Big Ten Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor track titles both my junior and senior years.

Nutty’s Accolades

  • 26 Big Ten Titles
  • 2007 NCAA Indoor National Team Championship
  • 165 Big Ten Individual Champions
  • 11 NCAA Individual Champions
  • 6 Olympians

Priorities

There was one part of this annual meeting I will never forget. Nutty always made a strong point about his expectations of our priorities. He said:

‘Gentlemen, as a member of this team, always remember that academics come first. You are a student at the University of Wisconsin first. Track & Field comes second. Let me be absolutely clear about that. But if you want to be on this team, track better be so close behind your school work that you can barely tell a difference. Academics are priority 1. Track and Field is priority 1A.’     -Ed Nuttycombe

Oh Snap!

I remember being surprised the first time I heard this speech. I thought he was going to say academics are always the priority. Athletics come second. But that’s not the Nutty way. In his world, if you can’t fully dedicate yourself to both high academic and athletic achievement, then you don’t belong on his team. That was a badass statement. And we all felt badass for living up to his standards.

Hall of Fame

Last Friday, Nutty was inducted into the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. And with great reason. But I would also induct Nutty into the Prioritizing Hall of Fame for the way he pushed us to achieve great things in multiple areas of our lives. My teammates were impressive on the track, in the field and in the classroom. But I am just as proud of all the successes my teammates are having today in their careers, and as husbands and fathers.  

Takeaway

I carry on Nutty’s dual commitment today to my family and my work. I don’t think about balancing the two. I think about prioritizing them both. I must succeed at both. There is no way around it. There are no shortcuts to take. There are no excuses. That’s what Nutty taught me. And just look at his track record. #PunIntended