If you happened to run into former Scotus Central Catholic football player and Shamrock graduate Garrit Shanle over the holidays, you no doubt observed the national championship cap that's been a fixture on his head for nearly a month now.
You also likely encountered a constant toothy grin, beaming out from a sort-of mountain man beard that would have made Grizzly Adams proud. For the younger generation, think James Harden of the Houston Rockets.
Yet not even Harden can claim the accomplishment Shanle and his Morningside teammates achieved together on Dec. 15 in Daytona, Florida.
Move over Clemson, this group also went 15-0, had an average margin of victory eight points better and scored 125 more total points over the course of the year while winning the 2018 NAIA football national championship.
A year after coming up one game short of playing for the title, the Mustangs completed the journey this time, ascended that mountain and planted their flag at the top. Not unlike how the seniors endured literal struggles up a mountainside the previous summer.
"I remember once we all got up there, it was maybe 10 degrees, but we were all shirtless celebrating like we had just won the title. That’s just something that I remember," Shanle recalled about that experience.
"When you see all your other teammates struggling, that helps you pick each other up, and we’re always encouraging one another. We probably climbed for five, six hours until we got to the top."
Shanle was remembering a summer trip Morningside senior football players took to Colorado, meant as a team-building exercise by handling the challenges of scaling Mount Belford and Mount Oxford.
At first, after an about an hour, looking down on the little progress the group made was quite demoralizing. But several hours later, when the group conquered Belford and then moved to the east and topped Oxford, the moment was unforgettable.
Doing it together as a group, encouraging each other along the way, made it one the seniors returned to often throughout a perfect season that, until the playoffs, was one of complete and utter annihilation.
Morningside won all 12 regular season games, except for two, by at least four touchdowns. Four times, the Mustangs didn't allow a single point.
Each week, during Friday preparations and pregame walkthroughs, coach Steve Ryan called a senior or two to the front and asked him to speak about his experience fighting gravity on the side of a mountain in Colorado. Each senior brought down a rock from the top with them throughout the year and brought it to meetings in which the seniors were asked to address the group.
Most topics had to do with loyalty, resilience and brotherhood. When it was Shanle's turn, he spoke on attitude.
"How when your mind is set right, you'll be able to accomplish anything no matter what is going wrong," he remembered. "If the game is going bad, as long as your attitude is right, you'll change whatever problems you've been making and finish the game. That's one of the things that helped us win our championship this year, attitude."
That approach was most helpful that particular day standing at the base of the summit looking up.
"I remember being at the bottom thinking everyone's attitude was, 'Alright, we're going to attack this and we'll be able to climb this mountain pretty easily.' But once we started climbing up, some people's attitudes changed. 'Why are we doing this?'" Shanle said. "But you get some guys with an attitude of encouraging other people, then all of a sudden your positivity goes up and you believe, 'We can do this.'"
Shanle started at Morningside as a defensive lineman. He chose the Mustangs because a trip to the campus in Sioux City on a gameday had the feel of "Nebraska in the '90s."
The environment, the fans, the players, everybody was on board. The opposition knew it was in for a tough day.
Two years in though, knowing the offense needed a center, he approached the coaches about the switch. After his sophomore year, Shanle worked his tail off to gain 20 pounds through more intensity in the weight room, and more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"When I played defensive line, I was a constant, running motor. I was always getting off the ball fast, and I only had one responsibility – to get through my gap," Shanle said of the change. "When I became the starting center, I had to make line calls, where to send pass protection, sending a full slide protect one way for a running play, so I really had to slow myself down a lot. I was in constant communication with my fellow lineman and quarterback at all times."
Not only was slowing down a challenge, so too was staying healthy.
At the end of his junior season, Shanle played through a dislocated toe with a foot so heavily taped, it was mostly immobile.
Earlier this past season, he played through a broken bone in his leg. After the championship victory, he had knee surgery.
A strained AC (Acromioclavicular) joint kept him out of the semifinal game where he had to watch agonizingly from the sideline as Morningside won 34-28 in overtime on a touchdown pass that finally ended two years of playoff frustration against the University of St. Francis (Indiana).
Two weeks later, the Morningside team was back in the NAIA title game for the first time since 2012, and Shanle certainly wasn't going to miss that.
"I wasn’t fully cleared to play. I told our team doctor, ‘I’m not sitting out of this game. This is my last game ever,'" he said. "So I just had to get some cortisone shots for my shoulder, and I went out and played. It wasn’t healed by any means, but I knew I could get through the game with my teammates beside me."
But not even championship gameday went exactly right. Shanle left his jersey in the hotel room - something he realized on the bus trip to the stadium.
Athletic Director Tim Jager lent a helping hand and returned to the hotel to collect the uniform.
Despite that misstep, Shanle had a feeling something special was ahead.
Morningside trailed Benedictine College (Kansas) 20-14 at halftime but scored twice in the third quarter, allowed the game-tying score and two-point conversion and then took over in the Benedictine Red Zone after a bad snap on a punt.
Another touchdown pass with 1:29 left to play sealed it.
"At first, it was nothing but pure joy and excitement. I ran over to my quarterback after I snapped it to him and he kneeled it and I was just like, ‘I can’t believe we did this,'" Shanle said. "The real emotions came though when I got to see my parents after the game. I gave both of them the biggest hug I think I’ve ever given them."
Older brother, Ryan, father, Bill and mother, Deb, were all in attendance. Younger brother, Grant, currently a senior at Scotus, was unable to make the trip due to Shamrock basketball games. But on Bill's suggestion, a cardboard cutout of Grant's smiling face made the trip and the subsequent family photos on the field.
Every photo Garrit has shared for this story from that day includes that national championship cap firmly on his forehead.
"We knew exactly where we were going to be at the end of the year because we had set high goals to start out the season. Even workouts during summer with our strength training coach, we had an image of where we wanted to be, and we were constantly talking about it," he said.
"I still feel like I’m on cloud nine and it was three weeks ago. It’s something I’ll never forget, and this school will never forget."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.