On the front lines

Athletics department shines spotlight on alumni battling COVID-19

Nandika Mansingka
Mercury Staff

Following the fall athletics suspension, the UTD Athletics Department has introduced a new undertaking to spread some positivity: Comet Frontline Heroes.

The video project highlights the work of former student-athletes at the forefront of the pandemic. It’s a collection of video profile interviews conducted by assistant athletic director Dave Wester. Episodes are slated to be released every Wednesday on various media platforms, including Youtube and IGTV, under the handle UTDCometSports.

“We have so many student-athletes that have left and who are making a difference in their communities,” Wester said. “During the pandemic, we wanted to showcase them as much as possible: former Comet student-athletes who are in the industry on the front lines, as caregivers, as doctors, nurses, firefighters, police.”

The interviews are largely informal conversations that detail the experiences of alumni as they encounter and tackle firsthand. Each episode is typically under five minutes and is conducted over Microsoft Teams. So far, there have been 14 participants, with some who even graduated as far back as 2004.

“Many of us, myself included, are working from home at a laptop in the comfort of our houses,” Wester said. “So we don’t see the damage that this pandemic is causing. We hear about it; we don’t see it and we don’t feel it. These people that are in the industry live it. So we have opportunity to give their experiences and spread what they’re seeing to other people, to help spread the seriousness of this pandemic.”

The project was created by athletics director Bill Petitt, who based it on a similar project — the Real Heroes Project — completed by several professional sports teams. Petitt said he knew some alumni had ties to the medical field and thought this would be a good way to recognize their efforts.

“It’s a way to let people see the department in a different light than just playing sports and games,” Petitt said. “We do have a bigger vision to prepare them for life after college and to have them ready for any situation. We want them to be servant leaders in their communities, and this group right here definitely is.”

Wester and associate athletic director Bruce Unrue took Petitt’s idea and ran with it, reaching out to alumni via social media and email to ask if they’d be willing to speak with them. Eventually, former student-athletes like Kelli Jackson, a UTD women’s soccer player in 2007 and current registered nurse in a COVID-19 unit, began sharing their personal stories.

“We had a very emotional conversation about the severity of people that would come in with minor symptoms to major COVID-19 symptoms, and what she learned as a nurse immersed in it, and what to look for,” Wester said. “It was emotional to talk to these people. I think we all need to realize that we’ll get through this. There is a light at the end of this. And there are good people out there working to make sure that happens.”

One of the goals of the project was to show current student-athletes examples of people who were in their shoes years ago that are making a difference now. Wester said that he asked all interviewees what advice they would give to current student-athletes. Specifically, he asked them how they would feel about not being able to play a sport that has defined them for a majority of their life if they were a student-athlete right now.

“We are all in uncharted territory. No one knows what the future holds,” Jackson said in her video interview. “Although I will say, and I’m very confident, that this will go away. It may take time, but looking back hopefully it will just be a small blip. You’ve worked so hard your entire life to do this.”