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Wildcats look back at their athletic heroes

Nicholas Woodard

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Nate Appel, senior men's basketball player, uses a ball with hero Larry Bird's name on it. Photo credit: Quinn Western.

It seems like every weekend one Chico State athlete or another is making a huge play or part of a heroic accomplishment.

But even heroes need heroes.

Many Wildcats have their own personal sports icons to thank for greatly influencing the way they play their respective sports.

Outfielder Ryne Clark grew up watching Ken Griffey Jr. execute dazzling plays in center field for the Seattle Mariners, Clark said. Griffey played the game the right way and enjoyed every minute of it.

“He always looked like he was out there having fun,” Clark said. “He was enjoying just getting to play.”

When he was younger, he traveled up to Seattle to watch Griffey and the Mariners play a couple of games, he said. It was great to see a big name like Griffey stick around when other players were jumping for bigger markets and paychecks.

The best part about watching Griffey was the way baseball came naturally to him, Clark said. He was extremely gifted and loved to play, traits that Clark tries to incorporate into his own game.

“These guys now get tested for steroids and get these big contracts,” Clark said. “They’re bigger than the game. People get so caught up in contracts and big money, but it’s really all about going out and having fun.”

While Griffey is just a few years into retirement, men’s basketball player Nate Appel has a more classic hero — NBA great Larry Bird.

Appel wasn’t able to see Bird in the height of his career, but he has watched plenty of documentaries and videos of the basketball legend. Bird’s constant hustle and unique style as a big man stuck out to Appel.

“I don’t score like he does, but I hustle and try to be there for my teammates,” Appel said. “I think we share those attributes, just going all out for your teammates and bringing that positive energy.”

Bird was a great rebounder, but not because of his physicality, Appel said. He always knew where the ball was going and how to get a rebound against taller and bigger players.

That kind of toughness speaks to Appel and the way he wants to play.

“I’m sure he’s faced a lot of tough times,” Appel said. “He always had a hunger for the game and gave 100 percent. That’s nowhere to be seen in the game today.”

Both Griffey and Bird are comfortable in retirement, waiting to welcome softball player Kelli Keefe’s hero, Derek Jeter.

Keefe isn’t a Yankees fan, but she has always liked the New York shortstop, she said. She became a student of Jeter’s game when she got into college and softball became much more competitive.

“He really plays the game with heart, and obviously his physical abilities are really good,” Keefe said. “He’s really smooth and has such soft hands and his range is really good. It’s easy to watch him and try to mimic that. He’s a good one to follow.”

Keefe narrowly missed her chance to see Jeter play live due to the shortstop’s injuries last season. She does not, however, miss any chances to record Jeter’s play and focus on how he sets up for each batter, she said. She tries to pick up as much from “The Captain” as she can because she is a middle infielder as well.

“I’d like to say I field as well as him, but that’s not true,” Keefe said. “I’d say we’re similar in the way we portray ourselves. When I step on the field I feel like I can take control of the game and play at my pace, like Jeter. They call him ‘The Captain’ for a reason.”

Sadly for Keefe, Jeter is retiring after the season.

“That’s all right, now I can take over,” Keefe joked.

But, like Clark and Appel with Griffey and Bird, the legend has left a huge mark on Keefe and her grasp of her game.

“He’s loved the game so much and it’s easy to see that when he plays,” Keefe said. “You can really tell he took it in every day. Watching him has definitely increased my softball savvy.”

Nick Woodard can be reached at nw[email protected] or @nwoodard25 on Twitter.

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Wildcats look back at their athletic heroes