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Fifth-year Buckallew redefined own identity in triumph over tribulation

By Jacob Knabel on Apr. 14, 2022 in Baseball

Nathan Buckallew has been on the mound for the final out in two of the most significant moments in Concordia University Baseball program history. He’ll always hold dear those memories of being chased down by catcher Ben Berg for celebratory bear hugs (or football form tackles?) after winning the GPAC tournament title and then an NAIA Opening Round championship. The hugs with parents Brian and Julie were a bit more emotional than usual on that memorable day, May 20, 2021.

At that point, Buckallew had to feel on top of the world as someone who had triumphed over his trials and tribulations. This was about more than winning any baseball game.

Says Buckallew, “I was going through rough times in the fall (of 2020), both with baseball and overall life in general. Once we won the conference championship and went on to win regionals, it was really emotional to share that moment with my teammates and parents – hugging them after both of those games. I thought about all the time I spent rehabbing and the hard work. It all came to fruition. In that moment it all kind of hit.”

Those types of feel-good moments are the reason why we love sports. After being sidelined for essentially the entirety of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, “Buck” (as his teammates call him) found his ‘why’ again. He had overcome Tommy John surgery, some mysterious shoulder issues and the ensuing self-doubt that had crept in. Those frustrations gave way to jubilation in the spring of 2021 when Buckallew served as the closer for the greatest team in the history of Concordia Baseball. In Head Coach Ryan Dupic’s seventh season, the Bulldogs won 42 games, captured GPAC regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the NAIA World Series.

As part of that campaign, Buckallew got his groove back and recorded a 2.22 ERA and seven saves in 28.1 innings. He was named an NAIA Academic All-American by CoSIDA and an Honorable Mention All-GPAC selection. All of those things came as a byproduct of Buckallew’s improved mental game and the realization that his baseball statistics would not define him. Somehow, Buckallew had found his peace.

Just a few months earlier, Buckallew was in a very different place. At perhaps his lowest point, in the fall semester of 2020, Buckallew paid a visit to Dupic’s office.

Explained Buckallew, “Baseball wasn’t going well and a couple other factors in my life weren’t going well. As everyone kind of feels sometimes where you question whether you’re good enough or not and going through self-confidence things – it was pretty hard. I remember walking into Dupic’s office and told him I was struggling with baseball and other things. He asked me what I seek validation from. It kind of hit home. I was watching an online church service from back home and the pastor was talking about always trying to achieve and seek your own validation through performance or your own work. I was always trying to seek validation from my performance as a baseball player or validation through what other people thought of me.”

It's hard to fault Buckallew for feeling such mental strife. In some ways, Buckallew’s identity truly was tied to baseball. He had won a state championship as a senior at Johnston High School in the Des Moines area and immediately became a key member of the Concordia bullpen as a freshman during the 2018 season. He made 12 appearances as a reliever in ’18 and may have expected a continuous straight line to stardom from there. That would not be the case.

Said Dupic, “Nathan reminded me a bit of myself. He was very driven coming out of high school and was part of a very successful program. He had very high aspirations and ran into some bumps in the road, particularly when he had Tommy John surgery. That’s a tough thing to come back from. There was a point where he was about 14 months out and he showed signs of being able to do good things, but he couldn’t quite find the consistency. I actually don’t remember the conversation (in the fall of 2020) very well. We’ve had that type of conversation with a lot of different kids. I think what makes Nate special is the way he can apply that information and take personal responsibility for what he needed to do. He took the mental stuff to another level. I think it was a big step for him. It was neat because it helped him as a baseball player but ultimately, it helped him as a person.”

Buckallew underwent Tommy John surgery in December 2018 and knew he would miss the entire 2019 season. He did not necessarily expect to be out in 2020. In that COVID-shortened ’20 campaign, Buckallew made two appearances on the mound before being shut down again. His season was over even before the pandemic brought the country to a standstill in mid-March.

Despite some of the mental struggles that Buckallew himself documented, he says he never considered throwing in the towel and quitting college baseball. Something told him he had more to experience. He was supposed to be part of the 2021 World Series qualifier. Beneath the surface of a team that pounded its way to program offensive records across the board, there was Buckallew, an integral piece of the pitching staff. The injuries were behind him.

Only those on the team and those close to Buckallew likely knew all of what he was feeling. Things came together at just the right time.

“I thought I re-tore my UCL (in 2020) so I had to shut down before COVID shut down the season,” Buckallew said. “I got another MRI on my elbow and the doctor said it was still structurally sound. It was one of those weird issues. I took some time off during COVID and used it as a time to build back core strength and arm strength. I started throwing again towards the end of the summer, building up into the fall. I wasn’t pitching great in the fall or winter. Then as spring hit, things clicked and I had a pretty good season.”

This was more like it for Buckallew, who came to Concordia because of a trust he had developed in Dupic. His head coach couldn’t do it for him, but he could help point Buckallew in the right direction. In turn, Buckallew came to trust himself. That kind of growth – and the relationships built at Concordia – will stick with him as he moves on and starts his job in Des Moines as an investment associate. Buckallew smiles at the thought of a sixth season. He does have another season of eligibility – but this spring will be the end.

Says Buckallew, “It was pretty transformational going through that. I realized that I don’t have to earn or achieve anything. I know that Jesus is going to love me the way that I am. That was foundational in a change in my attitude and approach. That was a big reason why I felt like I had success last year. I felt different mentally. I really didn’t feel pressure anymore. I was going to control my process, try my best and the outcomes were going to take care of themselves. It was pretty freeing knowing that I don’t have to achieve my way to anything. That’s why it was really emotional during those times.”