FROM PULLMAN — Our senior spotlight series concludes with a cool story about a guy whose name may not be known by many of you. But he's been an essential part of the WSU program the last five years. He's Neil Stover, the team's head manager.
It all comes so naturally to Neil Stover these days — the laundry, directing the other managers, the laundry, the arrangement of post-practice snacks on the road, the laundry, running the clock at practice, the laundry — that it's hard to believe where this journey began.
College, the wise ones say, is about figuring out what you want to do with your life. About finding yourself.
And Stover will be the first to admit that he was lost. He was overweight. His lack of confidence made it tough to fit in with classmates in the dorms. And after a falling out with a close high school friend, Stover was beginning to think that maybe Pullman wasn't where he belonged.
It was his brother who first suggested that Stover ask about becoming an athletic manager, though even that idea didn't appeal to him at the time. Managers in high school didn't exactly have the best reputation. Why bother?
But Stover went ahead and emailed the men's basketball team's general account — to this day, he's not sure who, exactly, read it on the other end — and a manager contacted him the next day to ask if he was still interested.
After rearranging some classes, Stover was on board as a volunteer student manager. It gave him something to do, a purpose that was lacking before. He was a new person through basketball, a sport at which he never excelled but knew plenty about.
“From then on I could just see this huge shift in my attitude — everything about me, really,” he said. “I became a lot more dedicated. I wasn’t so bored all the time. I looked forward to going to practices and working.”
Charlie Enquist, a fellow fifth-year senior whom Stover counts among his closest friends, has only limited memories of Stover as a 285-pound freshman.
“I always knew him as the manager who would literally dive for a rebound,” Enquist said this week, laughing. “If it was you and him shooting, he would sprint after that thing. He’d be sweating, out of breath, like who is this guy? I started to know him a lot more my sophomore year and we became good friends.
“I don’t really remember him freshman year. I open the program and I see him in there and I’m like, 'Neil, that’s not you.'”
Pretty soon, it wasn't. Stover was down to 265 by the end of his freshman year, and with heralded recruits Klay Thompson and Mike Harthun (among others) arriving the next season, he didn't want to chance giving any of them a negative first impression.
So he worked out all summer in his hometown of Issaquah, his waistline decreasing all the while. When he walked into coach Tony Bennett's office for the first time after returning to school as a sophomore, the coach didn't recognize him.
“Can I help you?” Bennett asked, and he was serious, before realizing that, hey, that's Neil. Stover's own mom didn't recognize him when he returned home over Winter Break.
285 had turned to 240, to 220, to 190. The worst part about this, Stover said, was all the inquiries from stunned acquaintances about how he got so big in the first place. He eventually deleted all photographic evidence of his former self from his Facebook page.
But these are good problems to have. Stover climbed the managerial ranks, joining the equipment staff as a sophomore, then serving as co-head manager last season before becoming the head manager this season, his fifth in the program. He made many friends along the way — including players, other managers and student assistants — and got to do some pretty neat stuff, a trip to New York last year for the NIT semifinals as one of the highlights.
“I changed completely who I was,” Stover said. “I’m so much happier of a person now than I was before.”
He thinks his mom will probably have a hard time not crying when he's honored prior to Saturday's game, along with fellow senior managers Blake Jones and Alex Schilter. There are some days when he's ready to leave Pullman, Stover says, and others when he can't believe his time with the basketball program is almost at an end.
“It’ll be sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that I can walk with Faisal and Charlie and Abe and Marcus,” Stover said. “Because all four of them have had a huge impact on me personally since I’ve been here.”
He wants to go into broadcasting after he graduates, an internship with Root Sports already under his belt. The job market worries him, like every other kid his age.
Ah, well. History suggests he'll find something to do.