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An in-depth look at
a piece of Division III

Posted Feb. 21, 2005

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Family first, basketball second
By Pat Coleman

Photo by Pat Coleman,
Travis Tennison is the man in the middle for McMurry and at home for his family.

ABILENE, Texas — It took him about seven extra years to get to this point. But after what he’s been through, Travis Tennison the man is a better player and stronger person than Travis Tennison the boy ever was.

Tennison fell off the basketball map after graduating from Converse-Judson High School in San Antonio. Plus, it didn’t matter. Leaving home simply wasn’t an option.

Now a 27-year-old sophomore and starting at center for the Indians at 6-6, 240, Tennison doesn’t like to talk about why he stayed home. But the experience taught him how to be a better father, concentrating on his 4-month-old son Jayden, as well as his wife Toni, his teammates and his studies. It’s left him a lot of life lessons to pass on to his younger teammates.

“I just try to let them know how it goes,” says Tennison, speaking in a firm, thoughtful tone. “They give me some razzing sometimes about having so many stories about certain situations. That’s fine. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t try to pass on what I know. They help me stay grounded, too. It’s a nice little balance.”

Tennison graduated from high school and went to live with his sister in California, planning to go to community college before life at home drew him back to San Antonio, where he concentrated on his family and was left with taking odd jobs with little security.

“I always thought I could work and stuff like that and school would always be there. I was working a job and there came a time when I was going to get laid off and I thought, ‘well, I can’t keep doing this.’ That was around the same time I met my wife, Toni, and I figured I needed to get in school. The ball started rolling from there.”

The fact that Tennison was even pursued at all so many years after high school meant a great deal to him. He was talented in high school but hadn’t finished growing, and although one former Division III coach has come up to him since he came to McMurry and claimed he tried to recruit him out of high school, Tennison doesn’t recall anyone having interest in him. That he ended up at McMurry was more a product of who Tennison knew, and Holmes’ resulting interest.

“I had two friends, Javier Gonzalez and Mario Mungia, they both went and talked to Coach Holmes,” Tennison says. “Coach Holmes came down to San Antonio and talked to me about coming down to McMurry and I just came, just kind of like blind faith in a sense. I didn’t know if I was going to be on the team, or what have you. And everything just worked out.”

Tennison told the story at a roast given for Holmes at his 50th birthday party in late January and ended up giving a moving speech that left some in tears.

“What I wanted to say and what actually came out were two different things,” said Tennison the next day. “He was just the only person who ever came down and talked to me about school and everything like that. … I just love Coach Holmes.”

Holmes recalls, “He said that we’re a family, and that I pursued him and I wouldn’t quit. I wouldn’t give up on him.”

Holmes could have given up on him two years ago, however. Tennison actually made one other attempt to get his college career underway, but his family needs forced him to return home just a few weeks into the fall 2002 semester.

“He came in to tell me he was going to leave, which was a lot more than some other kids would do at this level,” Holmes said. “He thought that I was going to give him what he thought was a typical coach’s response, which was, ‘you need to stay here’ and my response to him was ‘go take care of your family, get out of here,’ because I’d be living a lie. My family, after my God, comes first. Basketball’s in the top 10,” Holmes chuckles. “He had to go take care of something which was much more important.”

Almost as important as those factors was avoiding the inertia that could have pulled Tennison back to the workforce and away from returning to school altogether.

“I enrolled in a community college back there and took two half-semester courses, then I took some hours in the spring so I wouldn’t lose any momentum,” said Tennison. “Then summer came around, my wife and I made all the arrangements to come down here. She got enrolled in nursing school down here. Everything just fell into place.”

Although Holmes and the team didn’t talk much about Tennison’s abrupt departure, it was felt.

“Well, personally I thought about it nearly every time we came in here for a workout or went to a game,” Holmes admits, sitting in the locker room a few hours before a night game. “Professionally, I just couldn’t say anything about it to these guys because they would always be comparing themselves to Travis, which wouldn’t have been fair to them.

“The guys that were in here knew Travis was better than they were. Their philosophy on Travis is, ‘If we can play a 26-year-old freshman and you want to play an 18-year-old freshman, I like our chances.’

“That’s the way these guys thought, and I know I had two or three guys come up to me last year afterwards, asking if Travis was coming back. So he was that important to those guys. They gave Travis that much credit, anyway, that they wanted to come back and be with him.”

The team, which is 17-8 and tied for first place in the American Southwest Conference West Division entering this weekend’s conference tournament, depends on Tennison to be the man in the middle. His physical presence in the paint draws defenders away from the perimeter and opens up the rest of the floor if opponents collapse on him. It’s worked to the tune of 17.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, including a 60% shooting mark from the field.

Photo by Pat Coleman,
Tennison deflects attention from himself whenever he can but his play draws it to him.

“I don’t like all the focus to be on me and all that,” Tennison says. “When other people step up and are hitting shots, that’s great. I wish somebody else would be averaging high double digits and something like that. I’m always telling my teammates ‘shoot, shoot, shoot’ and the coaches are telling them to give me the ball. I’d much rather see them have high-scoring games and get double-doubles and stuff like that. That’s what team’s about.”

Tennison has had his struggles getting into the flow of organized basketball after spending several years playing in tournaments and recreational leagues. Although he says he never lost the desire to play, his freshman season, in which he started just nine of the 23 games he played in and averaged less than 16 minutes per game, was an adjustment period.

“It took all last season (to get adjusted),” said Tennison, “because my conditioning was nowhere close to the way it is this year. My feel for the game wasn’t anywhere close.

“This year’s like a total 180 from last year. Me and a lot of the guys stayed here over the summer, worked out hard. We all tried to get better for this year. Matt Autry’s a senior, he and I are real good friends. I couldn’t let him down this year. We let down guys like Juan Muniz and Heath (Hardin) and Kendrick (Ellis) last year, so I couldn’t let the seniors down this year. We have to try to get a conference ring, if that’s the plan for us.”

The plan has been on track more often than not through the regular season. The Indians won their one game against ASC East Division champ Mississippi College, split with division rival Sul Ross State, which represented the league in the Sweet 16 last season, and swept crosstown rival Hardin-Simmons, which has gone from league doormat to division contender in the last two seasons.

And as much as Tennison would like to deflect the focus onto his teammates, the focus of McMurry and its opponents is squarely on his shoulders.

“For us, at this level and in this league, it’s like walking out on the floor and having a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” said Holmes. “Everybody’s just much more comfortable. They play so much more loose and they’re able to gamble and do some things off the ball because they know Travis is back there covering up for them."

But even so, it’s Tennison on and off the floor who exemplifies the character of this team.

“We sweat together, we bleed together, we literally sleep together, we eat together,” said Holmes. “When he’s sick, we’re sick. It’s been that way with this team, and it’s all under the heading of chemistry. Travis is just basically the spokesman for these guys and they have so much respect for him because he’s a man.

“He’s done some things in his life that I’ll never experience and he’s literally paying a bottom-line price in terms of dollars to straighten out his life, and that doesn’t frighten him at all. He plays with no fear and he lives his life with no fear. So that’s where I learn from him, because I have never had the home life that he had, never.

“And look at him, he’s paying to go to school here, and playing, and raising a family. I’m in awe of a guy that can do all that stuff, because I’ve never had the courage to do anything like that.”

“It’s rough,” Tennison admits. “We’ve got a lot of people who support us, I get a lot of support from Coach Holmes, get a lot of support from my teammates. God has just provided a lot for us.”

Support is important, but so is energy, with an infant in the house as well as coursework and basketball. Time management is already important for a student-athlete, but it’s even more so when you have to plan around sleeping and feedings.

“We work on it,” Tennison says. “Naps are very important, so after class I might come in here and shoot, eat lunch, then I have to get a nap. We do OK sleeping at night. We have a nice little schedule. But I have to get at least two to three hours of napping in every day.”

“It’s rougher on (Toni) because she’s in her last semester of nursing school. She’ll be an R.N., that’s good for us.”

It’s all better than the alternative, however: “Working every day, working real odd-end jobs, worrying about whether you’re going to have a job today, job tomorrow. Now at least I know that I’m in school every day and once I graduate I’ll be able to get a job doing something that I like to do.”

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