Fort Hays football teammates fulfilling their dreams of medicine and physical therapy
November 15, 2018
By Greg Peters
Three former teammates who helped turn the once-struggling football program at Fort Hays State University into a post-season contender have swapped their helmets and shoulder pads for the stethoscopes and hospital scrubs of students in the schools of Medicine and Health Professions at the University of Kansas.
After graduating from Fort Hays State, Jesse Trent, Zack Gaughan and Garrett Holle began classes at KU in the summer of 2016. Holle is on track to graduate with his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in May, while Gaughan and Trent are third-year students in the School of Medicine-Wichita. They plan to graduate in May 2020, before heading out on their residencies.
"I had known that Jesse was planning on applying to medical school fairly early on in college," said Gaughan, who started at the School of Medicine in Kansas City before joining Trent this year in Wichita. "I found out a couple of years into college that Garrett wanted to go into physical therapy. This was also around the time I decided I would apply to medical school."
"We all sat together in anxiety waiting for our acceptance letters," said Holle, who is currently completing his physical therapy clinical rotations in his hometown of Phoenix. "I was the first to find out, and the other two found out soon thereafter."
When Holle, Gaughan and Trent signed to play football at Fort Hays State University in 2011, the Tigers were anything but an NCAA Division II powerhouse, with only three winning seasons in the 2000s. That was until Chris Brown rolled into Lewis Field Stadium as the new coach and lured the three scholar-athletes with the promise of building a champion.
"Coach Brown painted a picture of contending for national championships ... eventually," said Trent, a former defensive lineman from Dodge City, who was the first three-time academic All-America in Fort Hays history. "He shot me straight on what the chances were that the team wouldn't get there in my four years on campus, but I could be part of building something literally from the ground up, and that's all starting to come to fruition."
Although all three had given little or no thought while in high school about playing for Fort Hays State, the idea of helping establish a winning program was a big part of the sales pitch that attracted the three recruits to become Tigers. Brown delivered on his promises, turning recruiting trail dreams into gridiron reality. During the players' time in Hays, the team improved by a win each year, going from 4-7 in 2011 to 8-4 in 2015, including a trip to the school's first post-season game in more than 20 years. By 2017, the Tigers were undefeated champions of one of the toughest Div. II conferences in the country and qualified for the playoffs. The Tigers were atop the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association again this season and returned to the playoffs.
"Building a program from the ground up was surreal," said Gaughan, a two-time honorable mention all-state player at Hays High School and a member of the school's state champion track team. "When we were being recruited, Fort Hays football was nothing to write home about. A .500 season was a huge accomplishment. To work as hard as we did and buy into Coach Brown's program and then see the results with year-by-year improvement was very rewarding. Even now, watching Fort Hays play at a high level is something we take pride in."
Earning their stripes
On the football field, Trent was a go-getter from the start. He played in 44 games as a Tiger from 2011 to 2014, while completing a degree in cellular molecular biology, graduating summa cum laude. He attributes learning to juggle a life of football and classwork for helping to pave the way to his academic success.
"Juggling football and a decent class load really taught me the importance of efficiency and scheduling my time," he said. "When you know you're going to lose five or six hours a day to practice and training and seven or eight hours for sleep, you realize you only have roughly 10 hours to go to class and get your studying in order. It helped me prioritize things since starting medical school like having to-do lists and assigning how much time I'll spend on each project."
Gaughan and Holle's college football careers got off to a little slower start, but the extra time together gave them the opportunity to secure a lasting friendship. Both players redshirted their freshmen season before becoming regulars for the Tigers, who played in the Excelsior Springs Mineral Water Bowl after their senior season in 2015.
Gaughan played 45 games at tight end for the Tigers, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in physics, while Holle, an honorable mention all-state athlete in high school, played wide receiver, posting his best year as a senior. Since the trio's departure, the Tigers have continued to build on the foundation they helped establish by winning the CHAMPS Heart of Texas Bowl in 2016 and posting an unbeaten regular season and league title in 2017 before bowing out of the Division II playoffs in the round of 16.
"There's so much joy in seeing something I was able to help start is finally getting closer to the end goal we had envisioned the whole way," Trent said.
Only time will tell
While all three players are close to one another, Holle and Gaughan spent a lot of time together during their redshirt season. Their bond is so tight-knit, in fact, that last spring Gaughan was a groomsman in Holle's wedding. They also learned many lessons while balancing football and academics that have served them well at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
"Nothing prepares you better for graduate school," said Holle, whose undergraduate degree is in biology. I remember multiple days going immediately from morning conditioning to class still in my workout gear and sweaty because that was the only option. Nothing gives you more life skills than playing sports at a competitive level. So many lessons learned that I wouldn't have experienced otherwise."
Soon the trio will turn the page to the next chapter in their lives. Holle will receive his DPT from KU in May, while Gaughan and Trent have one year remaining of medical school followed by three years of medical residency. Gaughan, who turned his attention toward a career in medicine midway through his undergraduate career, has a short list of specialties he is interested in, including obstetrics and gynecology, oncology and orthopedics. For Trent, it's orthopedics.
"I wish I could tell you I dreamed of being a doctor since I was a little kid," said Trent. "I had a couple of events in my life that pushed me toward medicine, the most recent being a severe shoulder injury while I was still playing. Dr. Chris Miller here in Wichita fixed my shoulder up basically to brand new, and I was back in the trenches the next year. To be able to give someone the ability to continue playing the game that they love is really what put medicine as a possibility in my mind."
While none of the three could pinpoint where they hoped to be 10 years down the road, they all recognized the lessons learned while rebuilding the football program at Fort Hays will always be a part of who they are. Holle expressed perhaps the most-optimistic vision of where the three former Tigers turned Jayhawks might end up. "With the support of the ortho surgeons, Zack and Jesse, we're going to open a sports medicine and performance clinic," he said. "I've been lobbying pretty hard over the past three years to make this work. I'm sure they'll laugh about it ... but only time will tell."
Photo courtesy of Diane Gasper-O'Brien, Fort Hays State University Relations and Marketing.