Athletic programs often talk about creating a culture and a unique identity that defines the ideals and goals of the organization. In many instances, that's all it is – talk. For the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns men's basketball team, fifth-year seniors Derek Waldner and Julian Spear Chief-Morris embody Horns' culture.
"They have been cornerstones of transformational change in our program," says head coach Dave Adams. "We went from pretenders to contenders in the time that they were here, and I cannot say enough about the sacrifices that both of them made to push the program to where it is now. Anything that's happened in the program in the last few years has been built on the backs of these guys."
While each of them took different paths to the Horns' program, and each battled through his own adversity, it was fitting to see them walk off the court together in triumph, checking out of their final Canada West game to a standing ovation from the home crowd, a victory well in hand.
"It's really nice in life, because you don't see it all the time, when people will put in the work and then get rewarded for it and that's happened for both guys," says Adams.
Neither of the two had an easy road to success.
Waldner, an Okotoks product, admits that the U of L was really the only Canadian Interuniversity Sport program to recruit him out of high school and that he had no promises or expectations about what his role would be when he arrived on campus.
Spear Chief-Morris began his career at the University of Victoria. A local high school star at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, he chose to head west to play for the nationally-renowned Vikes, but after two seasons in Victoria and an invitation from Adams to come back to Lethbridge in hand, he returned to his roots.
He subsequently had to sit out a transfer season and then early into his first year with the Horns, suffered a devastating knee injury. A year later he was back on the court but it really wasn't until the last few months of his senior season that Spear Chief-Morris was able to play to his abilities.
"I didn't really have basketball in mind when I was recovering, I just wanted to be a healthy person again because I spent a whole summer not being able to run, not being able to jump, having to learn how to walk again," he says. "I just decided I'd worry about getting healthy first and in the end I decided I wanted to play again."
All the while, Waldner was emerging from obscurity to become one of the best rebounders in the country and one of Canada West's top post threats. A double-double machine (double figures in both points and rebounds), he would eventually set the all-time rebounding record at the U of L and lead the CIS in rebounding his senior season.
"It was the goal for me when I came out of high school," says Waldner. "My coach, Sam Aiello, when I graduated he told me to go get that record, because Nick Baldwin, who had the record before me, was his product as well."
The Horns flourished with both Waldner and Spear Chief-Morris in the lineup, but it wasn't only court success that defined their time in blue and gold. Waldner, a biochemistry major, is a four-time Academic All-Canadian, while Spear Chief-Morris, studying urban and regional studies, has achieved All-Canadian status three times.
"I'm a competitive person and anything I do I want to be the best at, so walking into the classroom is the same thing. Why not try and be the best at what you do?" asks Spear Chief-Morris. "That's why I push myself in the classroom, if I'm going to do something I'm going to do it well."
While he doesn't tout himself as a role model for First Nations teens, he recognizes that his success both on and off the court can serve as a positive motivating factor for the Aboriginal community.
"I don't think I've ever looked at myself as a role model but now that I'm getting older, I've been put in situations where I've been confronted with that," he says. " I think I definitely do serve as a role model in some respects to some of the kids out there on the Reserve. I'm really just trying to live my life the right way, so if people look up to me, that's great."
For Waldner, combining the rigors of academics with athletics was never a question, it's always been a focus.
"It just takes a little discipline, it takes staying in and studying instead of going out with your buddies some times," he says. "Time management is the biggest aspect, and having basketball and academics at the same time has really taught me that life skill where time management will never be an issue for me."
Both Spear Chief-Morris and Waldner have plans to pursue graduate studies, and even may look at professional basketball opportunities should it fit in with their academic ambitions. More than anything though, the two are not content to revel in their glory days as Horns basketball players, knowing this is just a stage in their life plan.
"I'm just excited for what's next," says Spear Chief-Morris. "My time here was wonderful but all things pass and I'm looking ahead."
It's that attitude that Adams says will live on well past their time in uniform.
"What a blessing in a program when you have two guys that not only come into practice and set the work ethic example on the court, but then they back it up by what they do in the classroom as well," says Adams. "Imagine how blessed we are to have a locker room where that is the voice of leadership. It's a fabulous culture that those guys will leave as a legacy in that locker room."
GET THE FACTS
· Both players had their parents in attendance for their final CIS game
· Waldner had 252 rebounds this season to set a new Horns' single-season record and lead all CIS players. His career total of 874 rebounds is also a Horns' record and the fifth highest total in Canada West history
· Both players credited Horns alumni for truly representing Horns culture. "I know that I've played for two universities now and the support, not just from the community but from the alumni is not comparable," says Spear Chief-Morris. "It really is a blessing to have a group of people who honestly care about who you are and your success."
This story first appeared in the March 2013 issue of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.