Part III of the series on Scottish Games professional athletes takes you behind the scenes to look at the personal lives of these men. Find out more about these Scottish Games professional athletes in Part I and Part II.
Here I was – the skinny kid (by comparison anyways). While I’ve added some muscle and am nowhere near the toothpick I was in high school, these guys made me look small.
However, they are very good at what they do. World Champions. Past World Champions. Some of the best guys on the planet in their sport.
I can’t move a small piece of furniture without some grunting or another person to help me lift. Meanwhile, these guys are throwing trees around. They throw large stones as far as some people can throw a football or baseball.
Guys who can swing a hammer are tough guys. Yet these guys throw hammers that would make many tough guys look silly if they tried.
These guys are professionals and have gone halfway around the world to beat the kilts off of the guys who invented these games.
When I went to the 135th Sacramento Scottish Highlands and Festival, I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it. Of course, I never expected to meet Scottish games professional athletes either.
Yet an inside look at the personal lives of these Scottish Games athletes reveals that they have a lot in common with you and me.
Just me and the guys throwing heavy stuff in kilts
I’ve talked about these guys and my time with them. They shared their stories about how they became Scottish games athletes (part I). I also got a chance to see how they competed, interacted, and even encouraged one another (part II).
However, the greatest part of my day with these guys was spent hanging out and learning more about their personal lives. Sure, they wear kilts and throw stuff around. However, they aren’t much different than you and me.
Larry was the reigning World Highlands Games Champion in 2010 but was struggling that day with his shoulder. Yet here he was still competing. What does a world champion do for a living? The past few years, Larry has spent his time in the classroom and on the field as a high school teacher and coach back in North Carolina.
Yet here was this injured world champ talking to a guy with a notepad looking out of place among these big athletes. Separated by an orange plastic fence, I stepped over the barrier as he introduced me to Dan, Chad, Rusty, Sean, Greg, and Mike.
I spent the rest of the day on a bench either talking with these guys about Scottish games and their personal lives or sitting on the edge of my seat like a wide-eyed child in front of their superhero listening to their stories.
I am not sure they wanted a pesky little brother type with a notebook sitting around their table asking them questions all day and talking to them while they competed in one of the biggest Highlands Games events of the year. Yet I have never felt more welcomed by strangers.
Scottish Games Professional athletes – just like you and me
Chad is from Kansas, has a wife and two kids, and enjoys playing golf. While he is a Scottish games athlete on the weekend, he is a full time ER doctor in the hospital during the week. In order to participate in games all over the country on weekends, he takes shifts during his offseason so he can get time off to compete.
While he was one of the new guys in the professional ranks, he’s also one of the most likable guys you could ever meet. I spent more time talking to Chad that day than anyone else. Even though I was a bit envious of him, I loved hanging out.
Honestly, I was in awe of the guy. He’s bigger and stronger than me. He’s smarter than me. He’s better looking than me. And he looks better in a kilt.
The man sitting on the bench near Chad was a monster of a man in size. Seeing him was intimidating but getting to know him made you wish he was your best friend.
Dan has a wife, 4 kids, and lives in Missouri. He works for a real estate company full time and is ideal for playing the the part of “the guy who throws big heavy things.” Dan is actually one of the world’s best at caber tossing (tossing a 200 lb tree in the air and flipping it over) and even has videos on his techniques.
While Chad was a likable, nice guy, Dan may be one of the most friendly, humble guys I’ve ever met. The guy is massive and strong yet very gentle. His faith in God is seen in his actions, words, and encouragement to others. He doesn’t put on an act but truly lives and competes in a way that inspires people to live a better life.
In 2011, he added something else to his reputation – the title of World Highlands Games Champion, the 12th time an American has won.
Rusty Price was the local California guy who was just starting out in the professional division. He was quickly rising through the ranks and getting better with every competition. Rusty was a bit quieter than the rest but just as friendly as he told me a little about his life and how he started his professional career.
Rusty’s dad Russell was the one I had talked to earlier that morning, introducing me to the world of Scottish Games professional athletes and encouraging me to walk over there and talk to them. And I am so glad I did. As Russell opened up to me about Rusty’s professional career, I learned that there is one thing that really makes these guys competitive – keeping a tight lid on the competitions they were entering.
So why the secrecy? This is where the guys like to keep a competitive edge. They are all familiar with each other’s skill level. So by not knowing when and where everyone is competing, guys can’t stack events in their favor to win. All of the competition is friendly and while these aren’t dark secrets that are being kept, this is just one way they keep things competitive while still having fun.
With some extra information from Russell, I learned that Rusty was thinking about going to Scotland in August to compete in the games over there. Quite frankly, Americans are better at the Scottish Highlands games than the Scots – and they’ve got the records to prove it.
Five of the last seven world champs have come from the United States. Every year, a group of Scottish Games professional athletes (and some amateurs) from America are selected to compete against the best that Scotland has to offer. And yet again, the Americans were victorious in 2011.
Because of the US athletes’ success over in Scotland, many guys like to go over to Scotland and compete in the games there. While the trips are a big expense, Scottish Highlands Games events are held nearly every day throughout the month of August.
This past year, Russell let me know that Rusty won the Scottish Highlands Games World Championship (only the third American to do so) and also won the Scottish Highlands Games British Championships. His season in Scotland was a big success.
While Rusty may be on his way to becoming the next American to win the world championship, I met one of the other Americans who had won the world championship – Sean Betz.
Sean was the veteran of the group and many of the guys looked up to him as a leader. Sean was the first American other than Ryan Verra (who won the world championship five times) to win the world championship since 1993. In the modern era of American dominance of the Scottish Highlands Games, Sean picked up where Ryan left off.
Sean is another one of the quiet guys but gracious, kind, humble, and likable. Sean lives in Colorado with his wife and kids. And like the rest of the guys, he works a full time job. Much like Dan, his faith plays a huge role in his life.
Sean is a year younger than me yet clearly was the father figure and leader for these guys. When he became champion in 2008, he ushered in a new era taking the Scottish Highlands Games to a new level for American athletes.
While these guys competed throughout the day, I hung out with them at their table experiencing what a day in the life of a Scottish Games professional athlete was like. And I discovered something about these men that made them so different than many others.
The professional athletes we want as role models
Call me a “behind the scenes” investigative reporter writing a story about the Sacramento Scottish Highlands Games and Festival. Call me a washed up, semi-athletic, sports loving guy who spent the day posing as a groupie with a bunch of big men wearing kilts throwing heavy objects.
However, this day and the stories of these men were so much more than a nice article from a wannabe jock living vicariously through the lives of others.
In this day and age of greedy, arrogant, selfish athletes where sports are big business and issues like racism in sports still exist, this was a breath of fresh air.
I didn’t go to the Sacramento Scottish Highlands Games and Festival looking for a story. The story found me.
I met the kind of professional athlete every sport needs – humble men who enjoy competing, work hard to become the best in the world, encourage and help one another, don’t care about the money, and have fun playing a game yet understand what real, everyday life is about.
This day renewed a hope that is often lost – the dream that sports can be played without egos, multi-million dollar contracts, or fame.
The character of these men were worth more than a jersey with a number on the back. While each man wore plaid of different colors and designs, their kilts united them as a team. And while only one was crowned champion, they were all winners in the field of life.
After a few hours with the guys, I took a break to grab lunch at the Scottish Games. As I walked away, I had tears in my eyes and thought “this is one of my greatest days as a traveler.”
I hadn’t left my own town to experience this yet I was a world away, consumed with Scottish culture as I spent time with a group of strangers who made one of their own. Whether you are a fan of sports, Scotland, or life, this day was a beautiful reminder that travel can change the world.
Learn more about these athletes from their perspective with this interview of Scottish Highland Games athlete Jon O’Neil.
Have you found role models or people who inspired you in life from your travels or sports?