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UK track athlete runs past walk-on status

UK senior Middle Distance runner Josh Nadzam trained for competition on the streets of Lexington Monday, Feb. 07, 2011.
UK senior Middle Distance runner Josh Nadzam trained for competition on the streets of Lexington Monday, Feb. 07, 2011.

Josh Nadzam grew up playing football in Monaca, Pa.

A passionate Steelers fan, he played nine years as a receiver and cornerback until graduating from high school.

His real love in sports, though, was basketball.

He played eight years, mostly as a shooting guard.

Not until his sophomore year of high school did he test himself in track.

Ben Rader, a new coach at Monaca High, was in need of bodies to fill the team.

"Then some of my friends told him that at practices I never really got tired," Nadzam said. "So he tried to get me to come out and run long distance. I said to my friends, 'If you do it, I'll do it.' "

His friends didn't last through the first practice.

Nadzam, though, ran and ran and ran.

All the way to the University of Kentucky.

'Best one I've ever had'

Nadzam graduated in a class of 63 at Monaca High.

He lettered in four sports (track, cross country, football and basketball).

His personal best for the mile was 4:21.

"I didn't get a lot of recruiting from big schools because my times weren't that great," Nadzam said. "I didn't know a lot about track. I had limited training but still did pretty well in my local area, so I wanted to just try to go Division I, and kind of far away."

He contacted coaches at Division I schools, including UK, by e-mail.

Pat Tyson, then serving as Don Weber's cross country coach and track assistant, was one of the few contacts to respond. Encouraged to walk on at UK, Nadzam visited campus with an uncle.

"My first impression was, he was eager and excited about the possibilities," Weber said. "He just seemed really excited to be here and really eager for things to work out. And by working out, meaning that we'd give him a chance to be a track athlete here."

Weber agreed.

"He has had national champions, SEC champions, Olympians," Nadzam said, "so for him to give an opportunity as just a no-name walk-on, that meant the world to me."

An SEC champion himself at UK and now in his 32nd season as coach, Weber knew that odds don't favor a walk-on's success. However, he also knew what was possible.

The coach recently had the "Michael Sanner Banner" placed in Nutter Field House, to recognize exceptional walk-on Wildcats. Sanner, Weber's first such success, was a 5:12 high school miler who joined the UK team as a junior.

Sanner didn't make it through the first workout of several 400-meter repeats. The next day, a Sunday, Weber spotted Sanner working out alone — fifty 400-meter repeats "to prove to myself that I didn't have to drop out yesterday."

As a senior, Sanner ran a 4:03 mile.

Once Nadzam made it to Lexington, Weber saw a runner with a Sanner-like heart.

Of Nadzam, now a UK senior, Weber said: "In terms of everything that we promote around here — athletic commitment, academic commitment, community service and character — just what type of person you are ... he's the best one I've ever had."

From 4:21 to 4:05

Nadzam says he "bought into" all advice Weber offered. That included everything from training to getting sufficient sleep and nutrition.

"Mentally ... just learning to believe in myself and develop confidence," Nadzam said. "In a race, when you're hurting or you're doubting yourself, like Coach Weber says, 'You have to be willing to run at a pace that you don't know if you can maintain.' "

Willing to try, Nadzam lowered his mile time to 4:15.54 as a freshman.

The next year, on a partial scholarship, he clocked 4:14.80 indoors. Outdoors, he ran 1,500 meters in 3:52.61 (equivalent to a sub-4:12 mile) en route to placing 11th in the Southeastern Conference Championships.

As a junior, his mile time fell to 4:08.49 indoors, his 1,500 outdoors to 3:47.07 (4:05 and change).

He made similar progress at 800 and 3,000 meters, as well as in cross country.

Middle-distance teammates Sharif Webb and Trent Halasek say they admire Nadzam's work ethic and attitude.

"If I could be more like Josh Nadzam, if I could have a Josh Nadzam day for a work ethic," Webb said, "then I would."

Halasek says that Nadzam "has this undying passion to have a good spirit" during even the toughest workouts. "He's one of those guys that makes you always want to work hard."

From walk-on to scorer in the SEC meet each of the last two years makes a good story. Ditto for commitment to studies by a two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll member.

However, Nadzam's tale goes beyond track and class.

In 2010, he earned a CATSPY as UK's male athlete Service Award winner, and was named to the Society of Character and to the SEC Community Service Team.

A passion to help

Near Pittsburgh, nestled along the Ohio River, Monaca is named for the Oneida warrior chief Monacatootha — which translates to Great Arrow.

Nadzam's childhood there was more like a broken arrow.

He doesn't dwell on his past but, when probed, describes his family life as "not the best of pictures."

"I guess a good word would be 'dysfunctional.' I grew up with my mom and, for most of my life, we lived in the projects, and things were pretty rough. Just the whole thing that you go through — the projects and food stamps and welfare, that kind of thing," he said. "I love my mom ... and never want to talk bad about her or anything like that. She definitely did the best she could. But my family's pretty bad. A lot of bad situations, so getting away really is a positive thing."

Nadzam arrived at UK undecided about a major.

A social work class changed that, though.

"It just really feels like a perfect fit for me," he said. "It's really what I'm passionate about."

Usually, there's not much money in social work. But the runner from the poor side of town says he feels called to help others like himself.

In addition to running and studying, he has done community service with Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity, Hope Center, a vacation Bible school and more.

"That's time on top of school, running, traveling and all of that," Halasek said. "That's every Saturday we're not traveling, he's out there doing eight to 10 hours of community service."

That doesn't include Nad zam's class-required service at facilities such as the Catholic Action Center.

"I kind of look at it like, if there was an avalanche and I made it out," he said. "Now I have the tools to go back and help other people out."

The road ahead

Nadzam has run the mile twice this season, a 4:09.84 victory, followed by a 4:06.70 third-place finish.

He's scheduled for his third mile this weekend in the Husky Classic at Seattle.

Regardless of time, the effort surely will be there.

"My main (career) goal is just to, once I'm done, know that I gave it my all," he said. "And whatever my best time is once I'm done, to know that there's no way I could have run faster."

With one season of cross country eligibility left next school year, Nadzam plans to run while pursuing a master's degree in social work.

Then, he'd like to begin his career in the trenches and work his way higher.

"One of my dreams would be to open my own resource center, something like the Catholic Action Center," he said. "Something like that where I could, hopefully, fill the gaps created by social inequality and other problems in society."

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