Going back home

In professional sports, multi-million-dollar athletes play in front of tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis. Some athletes, such as South Florida senior Jesus Verdejo, just want to play in front of a few select people — their families.

When the Bulls travel to Puerto Rico for the San Juan Shootout, which will be played from Dec. 20-22, Verdejo will have the opportunity to play in front of his family for the first time in his collegiate basketball career.

“I am just really excited to get this opportunity, because I never thought I would have this chance,” Verdejo said. “I know that I’m going to have a lot of butterflies playing in front of my friends and family, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Verdejo — a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Bulls’ second-leading scorer at 15.5 points per game — has performed in front of his family before.

He did so when he became a Golden Gloves boxing champion in the under-15 group, and again as a member of the Puerto Rican national basketball team during summer 2005.

Verdejo, however, has never had the opportunity to do so while wearing a collegiate jersey, so men’s basketball coach Stan Heath was excited to give it to him.

“When he first found out that we were going to go down to Puerto Rico, he was very excited,” he said. “A lot of guys start their college career knowing that playing away from their families is a sacrifice they’re going to have to make. But for Jesus, somebody who probably never thought he’d get this opportunity, to be able to play in front of his family, that’s really exciting for him, and I’m excited for him.”

College athletes know when they sign up that they’ll play away from home, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to play in front of Mom and Dad.

USF junior guard Chris Howard, a native of Lorton, Va., said he remembers the first time he played in front of his family.

“It was great. My mother was very excited, but I was kind of nervous because I was coming off of an ACL injury,” he said. “It’s one of those games that you’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”

Verdejo said playing for the Puerto Rican national basketball team — with which he traveled throughout Europe to countries like Italy and Russia — prepared him to spend extended periods of time on the basketball court without his parents being able to see him.

“Every time we went on the road, to other countries and overseas, I wouldn’t see my family for like a week or two weeks at a time,” he said. “I think that helped prepare me and helped me get used to playing games without them watching.”

Some players on the USF roster — such as sophomore guard Dominique Jones — are used to playing in front of their families.

Jones is from Lake Wales, and said he doesn’t get butterflies from his parents watching him play anymore.

“My parents only live like an hour away, so I’m used to it,” Jones said. “I know some people aren’t, though, so I can imagine that there’s going to be some butterflies.”

For Verdejo, the trip back home was a long, winding one.

He played at the Winchendon School, a prep school in Massachusetts. From there, he went to Arizona, where he played as a backup, before transferring to USF after his freshman season.

He never got the opportunity to play in front of his family and friends. After playing at various universities, in the 87th game of his career, that will finally change.

“I told the team to be ready to play in front of a big crowd,” Verdejo said. “I invited all of my family and all of my friends, so there should be a lot of people in the stands cheering for us.”

Verdejo has already earned a bachelor’s in communications, and is working on his second in criminology. His parents haven’t been able to see him do much during his collegiate career, but they will finally seem him play basketball.

“Right now he’s a little excited, but he’s trying not to think about it too much,” Heath said. “I’m sure that, before the game, we’ll sit down and have a nice conversation to help him use all of those nerves and emotions into doing something positive on the court.”