April 22, 2014
BY BRIAN RICE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The award was not one that Sean Karl set out to win.
A standing ovation from the crowd as he made his way to the stage after an emotional introductory video showed the award was fitting of his story.
Karl, a freshman on the Tennessee men's tennis team was one of two recipients of the Inspirational Award at the 2014 Volscars Awards on Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Karl held the No. 1 USTA ranking for Boys U16 when he committed to the Volunteers out of Brentwood, just outside of Nashville. By the time he signed on the dotted line for Sam Winterbotham's team, Karl was a top-10 player in his class, destined to anchor UT's lineup for years to come.
But then the word cancer entered his life and altered his plan. Ewing's sarcoma was the diagnosis, a rare bone cancer that required aggressive treatment and left his tennis career in doubt.
He had planned a redshirt year to regain his game after being declared cancer-free last summer, but his strength and skill on the court returned quickly and he was back on the court in time for the fall season for the Volunteers. He compiled a 5-7 singles record in the fall, reaching the round of 32 at the SEC Fall Classic and the fourth round of the USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championships.
But a faint pain in his back popped up after the fall season. He knew what the doctors would say before scans came back. The cancer had returned. But Karl wasn't going to fight alone.
He elected to stay in school and with his team as he fought again. Outside of his chemotherapy weeks, he still practices with his team daily.
"It's great, I love being around the guys" Karl said of taking to the practice court this spring. "It's an outlet for me, gets me away from what's going on sometimes. I love being around the team and being able to play."
The practice sessions keep his game sharp and his mind focused. But being on the court and in the locker room has a different, much larger effect on his psyche. His teammates treat Karl like a teammate, not a cancer patient. He doesn't get sympathy, nor does he want it. He gives and takes the same verbal jabs that everyone dishes out and receives.
"My teammates know that, the people I'm really close to know that, I think a lot of people have a hard time realizing that," Karl said of people's response to his story. "It's a natural response, but that's another reason I love being around the guys. They treat me as if nothing's wrong, we just go about our days as usual."
To add another step to "usual," his teammates took home awards at the Volscars with newly shaved heads to match the look Karl now sports after losing his hair to the chemo for a second time.
"We all made a team thing out if it," he said after describing the shearing. "It was awesome they did that with me."
All things being according to plan, Karl would have preferred to walk on stage to receive the Male Athlete of the Year award, as teammates Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese did. But the mark he has left on his fellow student-athletes with his story of inspiration and perseverance is something that will endure long after the wins and losses on the court have faded.
"It's a good feeling," he said of seeing a standing ovation from his peers. "It's definitely not the award I want, but it's making the best out of a situation. I'm honored."