By Kayla Goth
On March 2, 2019, I played in front of the crowd at Bramlage that I have cherished for so long one final time. Two years ago, I was living the nightmare that led me to question my lifelong dream and it’s worth.
I’ve loved basketball since I was a little girl. The competition, the road trips with my parents, teammates and coaches, everything just felt right when I was on the court with a ball in my hands.
Until it didn’t. Until I questioned everything, including whether my childhood dream of playing Division I basketball was still my dream. Until I thought about not returning to K-State, a place I now consider home.
Until Labor Day of 2016.
My recruiting process that brought me to K-State was simply one of how I would define my personality and the way I was raised — very black and white, one of independence and honesty.
I wasn’t simply looking for a place to continue to play basketball or one to go get the true “college experience.” I wanted a place to call home, one that truly felt like it. And I ended up turning down a lot of places in my pursuit for that place. It was getting to a point in my high school career where I wanted to have a decision made but didn’t feel great about it when former K-State assistant coach Claire Coggins reached out, convincing me to come down to Elite Camp in Manhattan.
Just two days after camp, I committed.
Out of surprise to not only myself but all of my family and friends, K-State was the place that I would go on to have success that one could only dream of… being a three-time Academic All-Big 12 First Team recipient and three-time participant in the NCAA Tournament; leading a team to sweep ranked Texas in my senior season, and be just the fourth player in program history to have 1,000 or more points, 450 or more assists, and 300 or more rebounds. (Shoutout to Randy Peterson for that last stat.)
K-State gave me the opportunity to reach those accomplishments. This place gave me the chance to do more than live out my dream, surrounded by some of the most amazing people on Earth. My time here has allowed me to grow and mature into the person I am proud of today.
And as I write my story, with tears rolling down my face, I wish it was one built on hard work and perseverance alone. But it’s not. My four years here in Manhattan have been both the best and the worst of my life.
The road I took was not easy.
It started with the typical transition from high school to college athletics. The pace of the game, what it takes to be a good player, how much more you have to think… everything is different.
My transition was amplified when I tore the ACL in my left knee of March 5, 2015, three short months before I was supposed to be in Manhattan. The abrupt ending to my high school career came with its own struggles that I now look at as a blessing in disguise.
Up until this point of my career, I was injury free without a true obstacle in sight. Surgery and rehab were brutal, but they gave me perspective. The setback gave me a chance to step back and find the positives in a tough situation. I was able to be a student of the game and ultimately learn to attack every day the way I wanted to, not what my mind tricked me into thinking, that this injury was the worst thing that could possibly happen.
Coach Mittie and I discussed the possibility of redshirting, but I had absolutely no desire to, as I had a boyfriend back home and I was, quite frankly, in a hurry to get back. So, I worked my tail off and spent my freshman year being a 10-15 minute-per-game player whose sole purpose in life was to not turn the ball over and make all the hustle plays.
I was perfectly content, as it exceeded my expectations coming off the injury. But I knew that I wanted to do more in my sophomore season. I would be healthy and had high hopes after getting a year under my belt.
Little did I know, the upcoming year would be the worst of my life.
It was Monday morning of Labor Day weekend, 2016.
We couldn’t find Clayton, my boyfriend of almost three years and friend for longer than I can remember. I made phone call after phone call and sent text message after text message, desperately trying to get any information on where he was the night before — the last person to see him, where he could be, anything.
As I was trying to piece together Clayton’s night, his brother called. They finally found him. I bit my lip tightly, trying to hold back tears. Suddenly, I felt like the most hopeless human on Earth, as he explained that Clayton was killed in a single-car accident the night before.
The emotions and pain that I felt at that moment are hard to put into words.
Where did I go from there? What about all the plans we had? We were only 19. He had his whole life ahead of him.
Clayton was one of the most hard-working, stubborn, kind, down-to-Earth boys I wish you all could have met. Years beyond his age and a big family man. He could spend hours playing yard games with kids less than half his age and have the absolute time of his life. He would drop anything and everything for the people around him.
He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.
And he was gone.
My dad was in Manhattan when it happened, visiting for the weekend. I happened to be at his hotel when I found out. I wanted to go back to Wisconsin immediately and as fast as possible. I wanted to be with my family, his family and our friends because I knew I wasn’t the only one who had just lost one of the most important people in my life.
I called Coach Mittie to tell him what happened and that I had no idea when or if I’d be back. My dad drove me 600 miles home, holding my hand as I stared out into the open, no more tears and no idea how to handle any of this.
I spent the next two weeks with Clayton’s family planning the wake and the funeral and just being with each other, desperately trying to come up with ways to comfort one another. We told stories, laughed, cried, anything we could just to pass time. People brought by casseroles and dinners. Most would sit down to eat them with us, joining in on the storytelling.
Everyone was together and, although I didn’t realize it then, this was the “easy” part. The wake took place less than a week later, with the funeral to follow the next day. The wake lasted over five hours – proof of how many people Clayton impacted in the community.
The constant flow of people was comforting. However, it seemed never-ending. All the faces started to blend together until I saw a certain group of people. Six of my teammates and Coach Mittie had driven the nine-and-a-half hours to give their condolences to not only my family and I but also Clayton’s family, who they had never even met before.
When they left, I stayed at home for about a week, continuing to spend time with all of my family and friends. Pondering where to go next.
Do I take the year off of basketball and school?
Do I go back to Manhattan and tough it out?
Do I just stay home for good and see what I can find here?
Clayton understood my dream and never once questioned my decision to fulfill it 600 miles away. He gave me constant encouragement to push through the rough days and, hopefully, find good ones on the other side.
So, I went back to Manhattan with all the support I had before, except for the one person I relied on the most and, essentially, picked up right where I left off.
As mentioned earlier, I am incredibly independent, which was exactly the way I chose to grieve, which put a lot of people around me in a tough situation.
I didn’t want to talk about it with most people and, I quite frankly, wished no one knew. I didn’t want the constant reminder of what I had gone through and was still going through. Everyone respected that. However, that didn’t kick their curiosity of ensuring that I was handling it as best as I could.
But I wanted basketball to be my break away from reality.
This also made things difficult, as my teammates and staff were the most concerned. The first month back in Manhattan was the worst. There were days when I had to excuse myself from practice because I could barely put one foot in front of the other, let alone make a conscious effort to get better. There were also days that I did really well, and an outsider wouldn’t have even known what I was going through.
All of my emotions felt uncontrollable. They could change in the blink of an eye if somebody did or said just the smallest thing that reminded me of him. Sometimes my mind would just drift off, recalling memories, and I struggled to bring my focus back to whatever I was doing.
I learned to rely on a small group of people in Manhattan and Wisconsin. I started to slowly be able to anticipate bad moments or days over time, so I could handle them better or, at least, let people know in advance how I was feeling.
Those moments get farther and farther apart as time passes but, somehow, you never really want them to leave. Clayton was one of the most important people in my life. I still like to look back on all of the pictures I have and think of the time we did get to have together. I still stay in touch with some of Clayton’s family and saw them at the Arizona State game this season in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It’s comforting to know that I always have their support after everything we’ve been through.
Slowly, I was able to find my way to a new “normal” and gain a new perspective on life. Which helped with the next major trial I faced that year.
It happened when No. 1-ranked UConn came to Bramlage. The place was sold out. The electric atmosphere was one that all athletes dream of playing in.
It also was the game that I popped my shoulder out of place, requiring surgery at the end of the season. Another injury, another setback. Redshirting again came into question, but I knew that I needed to play.
Basketball was my break away from reality. It was also a love that Clayton and I shared. I needed to play not only for me, but for him.
Some of you may be wondering, “Why would she tell this story now?”
Simply put, I didn’t want sympathy as I was going through it, and I definitely am not looking for it now. I didn’t want to give myself an excuse for a poor performance on the basketball floor, nor did I want to give you all a reason if I performed poorly. I wanted basketball to be my break from reality, even if I struggled to separate them at times.
I believe life is filled with trials and tribulations. Ones that seem so extreme at times that we think we can’t handle them. Which is why I would rather have this story be one of inspiration to whoever needs it, whenever they need it.
I’m going to casually quote Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky I am to have someone that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
Although I’m not willing to say I’m grateful for going through tragedy at such a young age, I am not fearful of it moving forward. Clayton is still one of the best people I ever will get to meet in my lifetime, and I am eternally grateful for the time I got to spend with him. Our relationship was not love at first sight, nor were we always the best of friends, but we were constantly learning about each other and enjoyed doing it.
One of the greatest lessons I learned throughout my experiences thus far is that life is all about choices. Specifically, in my life, the choice we have on our reaction to these trials and the choice we have on the people who we choose to surround ourselves with.
My initial reaction? “Why me? Why him?”
To this day, I still don’t have those answers, nor will I ever, nor are they important. Although I do believe that, ultimately, in this life we are never given more than we can handle, there are times when it may feel like we can’t. I learned to not question it and do my best to handle it in the most positive way.
Now, this lesson is something that I still have to work on every day. I have a habit of looking at things negatively sometimes and trying to understand why everything happens. But, unfortunately, we’re not given those answers.
When Clayton died, I faced a lot of choices, and I still face choices about it every now again.
Who do I let in? Who do I talk to about him? How do I honor him best? How do I handle those days like his birthday and the anniversary of his death that seem unbearably hard?
I make these decisions kind of as they come, but I try to do it in the most healthy, positive way possible. Instead of dreading them and just forcing my way through them, I try to embrace them, which is not easy.
It’s easier if you have good people around you. It’s one of the biggest reasons I have never regretted my decision to come to K-State. I did so for the same reason Coach Snyder said of his return years ago: The people.
It’s hard to know if I would have been at another school, if my teammates and head coach would have traveled 600 miles to give their condolences to not only me but people they’ve never met. But I had that support because I came to K-State and surrounded myself with kind, caring, concerned people that just wanted the best for me.
I had only really known people like Jess Sheble, Kelly Thomson, Anna Hammaker and Dean Wade for a little over a year before Clayton died. And while Jess was the only one who really knew him, if one of these people would’ve been missing from the puzzle, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten through it the way I did. They were the people I found comfort in. The people that I could pour my heart out to, and they could be blatantly honest with me or just the shoulder to cry on.
The people we choose to surround ourselves with in life can make or break us. The ones I chose almost five years ago now are some of the best, and I take a lot of pride in the people I’ve met here in Manhattan.
K-State gave me the opportunity and the support I needed to fulfill my dreams and succeed here, even after everything that happened. The people here helped me to push forward and be able to achieve some things that were never even part of the dream.
Always remember that no matter what you go through in life, that you will have a choice on how you react to it and the people who help you through it.
Don’t regret those decisions. I never have.
Source: Kansas State Sports