An Internal Fire
For tennis captain Shkodnik, dreams of professional career are motivation
Yevgeniy Jason Shkodnik knew what he wanted.
As an 11-year-old at the Gordon Kent's New England Tennis Camp in Connecticut, he fell in love with the sport. The quick lateral movements, the demand of split-second reaction time, the culture - he wanted to be part of it all.
Many 11-year-olds dream of pursuing a career in professional sports. Some write their goal down on a piece of paper, some tell their parents.
On that fateful day, in an instant, like a tennis ball meets the chalk line on a scorching serve, Shkodnik felt a fire lit in his heart.
It was his new dream. He knew what he wanted. He wanted to be a professional tennis player.
Among the roughly 30,000 students who attend the University at Buffalo, it's tough to stand out. But it's not hard to find Shkodnik in a crowd of people.
Down the middle of his back, a bushel of dreads flows freely.
He has grown the dreadlocks for seven years, and they have become one of his defining characteristics. The strands of hair range from 12-18 inches. That's about the length of 4.5 pens.
"We've been in a four-year wrestling match in terms of him getting it cut. I feel like he'll be faster," said UB men's tennis coach Lee Nickell. "We've toyed with the idea of doing the thing that they do in Jackass where they carry the razor behind."
But the hairstyle is part of who Shkodnik is.
"We've battled with that for quite some time," said Shkodnik's mother, Maya. "We can't force him to cut it. Now he's almost 23 and I can't do anything about it."
He is an athlete and young man who stands out. His hairstyle is symbolic of that.
It's a February afternoon. With snow coming down in Buffalo and frigid temperatures forcing practices inside, the UB men's tennis team files into Miller Tennis Center in Williamsville to practice. The players are preparing for a match against Marist, a strong opponent.
The team breaks after a brief meeting. Out of the circle, the 6-foot Shkodnik emerges.
He takes his position on the court and prepares to receive a serve.
Shkodnik reacts quickly. He moves laterally, winds up and swings his racket with so much torque the tennis ball looks like a neon green Indy car hitting its top speed and racing to the finish line.
The sound of rubber meeting nylon and titanium caroms loudly off the walls. A barbaric grunt follows.
The tennis environment was one thing that attracted Shkodnik to Buffalo. When Nickell recruited him, UB was coming off a successful 2010 season in which the Bulls won the Mid-American Conference regular season championship before advancing to their first-ever MAC title game.
Nickell saw Shkodnik's athleticism and knew he was full of potential, though he was a somewhat raw product in need of development. But there was one thing that made Nickell's recruiting decision easy: Shkodnik's mentality.
"When I first started talking to 'Yev,' he communicated well, which I liked," Nickell said. "And he was under the radar a bit. When we got him up here on a visit and we got to know him, I saw potential in him not just tennis wise but as a leader as well."
Shkodnik had been developing as an athlete and as a leader since his days at the Gordon Kent camp in Connecticut. When he returned home from the camp, Shkodnik told his mother that he wanted to train and improve.
"He found some tennis rackets and he called [renowned tennis coach and former world No. 4 player] Brad Gilbert - a family friend - and I talked to Brad," Maya said. "The first time we went to San Francisco for a consultation, he saw [Shkodnik] for a whole day, and he trained him for a full day. And he said that he had a lot of potential and we have to put him in a better environment, which would probably be a tennis academy."
At the age of 12, Shkodnik and his mother decided he would head to the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., just a few miles outside Tampa.
"You can't play up [in New York] year round," Shkodnik said. "In Florida, you could play at any time. I felt it was the best opportunity for me."
Maya quit her job and flew out to Florida with Shkodnik for his first three weeks, and then she flew back home to be with his sister Elizabeth. The pattern continued, as Maya would fly back and forth over the course of six years to check up on Shkodnik.
Maya said it was horrible that he had to be in Florida fulltime.
"He grew up at the age of 12," Maya said. "It felt like he was 17 already because he had to do everything on his own ... He had to be disciplined. It's very hard for a child."
But Shkodnik had his mind set on becoming a professional tennis player. While attending IMG Sports Academy and Bradenton Prep Academy (his school) fulltime, Shkodnik was disciplined and focused on his goal.
His competitiveness was something that caught the eye of a Bradenton product, who was playing football at Tennessee State at the time: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Rodgers-Cromartie, now a six-year NFL veteran defensive back, wanted to give Shkodnik guidance and ensure that he would stay on track to pursue his dream of becoming a tennis player.
"When I met him, he was the most outgoing kid that [IMG] Academy had," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "He had a lot of ambition. That's what really stuck out to me. He had a good head on his shoulders and really wanted to get out of Bradenton. That's why I stuck with him."
Shkodnik is thankful to have Rodgers-Cromartie in his life as a role model.
"He's like my big brother. We talk almost every other day," Shkodnik said. "I've spent a lot of time with him. I just know how hard he works and he's so talented. Now he's in the league, he's accomplished and he's still working hard."
Following Rodgers-Cromartie, Shkodnik had no problem staying focused on his immediate goal of playing college tennis. Shkodnik's career at UB has been successful, partially because he spent time developing as an athlete in Rodgers-Cromartie's sport.
During his freshman year at Bradenton Prep, all Shkodnik did was play tennis and go to school. It wasn't until his sophomore year that he finally explored another sport: football.
"When I took over the program, there were existing players off the team from the previous year before. There was only seven," said Joe Hammond, Shkodnik's high school football coach. "It was a real small school. Basically, one of the best things for me to do was to go in the hallways. There are about 400 kids in the school. So I started basically talking to kids in the hallway and anyone that looked like an athlete."
Hammond noticed Shkodnik's athletic build. The two struck a deal.
"Tennis was my thing," Shkodnik said. "After talking to the coach, he said, 'Yeah, as long as you come a couple times a week to practice to see the formations, then you're good.' I told him I didn't want to play anything serious. Obviously, I didn't want to get hurt."
Hammond put Shkodnik at the defensive end position because of his elusiveness and quick feet.
For the next three seasons, he rushed the edge and penetrated the backfield for the BPA Patriots, helping them to a state championship in 2008 and a national championship in 2009, his senior year.
He finished his high school football career with a total of 19.5 sacks and second-team all-state honors. Scouts took notice, but they wanted him to play outside linebacker or free safety.
It didn't matter. Shkodnik said that, although he briefly flirted with football and other sports like baseball (in which he batted .310 throughout his career), he was focused on tennis.
Under the guidance of BPA tennis coach Ellis Ferreira, Shkodnik earned three letters as a varsity tennis player and received a top 25 rank as a player in Florida. He was a two-time captain, as well. He helped his team to a state championship and earned all-area and all-conference honors.
Shkodnik's best friend Calvin "Koo Koo" Miller, from Bradenton, said when Shkodnik returns to town, he takes time to visit everyone who helped him progress as an athlete and as a person. Hammond said it's like a presidential tour.
Back at the Miller Tennis Center, another blistering tennis ball scrapes the hard court - it's inbounds. The opposing players react too slowly. Point to Shkodnik and his partner.
His voice reverberates throughout the indoor complex: "Go Bulls."
Shkodnik has emerged as a leader for Nickell, his coach. For the past two seasons, he has served as captain.
"He just brings the effort every single practice," said assistant coach George Tibil, a teammate of Shkodnik from 2011-12. "Not only for himself, but he brings the other guys up. He's been getting so much better because of his energy. He's motivated and he's hungry every day."
This season, Shkodnik has been a primary catalyst of the Bulls' success. They're 4-1, and though they are ranked No. 72 nationally, the team looks to be headed for the 50s next week. Shkodnik holds a 2-1 individual record and 2-1 doubles record.
His appetite comes from his desire to be the best he can at the sport he loves. It's a desire imprinted on his body.
A tattoo of a solar system with a tennis ball at the center of it sits on his right rib cage. Above it is the Chinese symbol for "dreams come true." And then the finishing touch: the acronym O.W.E. - a saying Oakland Raiders defensive back Mike Jenkins came up with along with Shkodnik and his Bradenton friends that stands for "outwork everyone."
Though his demeanor is dominant and fear-inducing on the court, he has a bubbly personality away from it.
"If you've ever talked to Jason and you've met him, No. 1 is his personality," said Hammond, his football coach. "He's a go-getter. Everybody is drawn to the type of person he is."
Take a look at his Twitter account, @JSHKODNIK, and you'll find pictures of his teammates imitating his trademark pose, called "The Yev" - standing with feet angled outward, hands outstretched.
It's a way for his young comrades to pay respect to their leader.
Shkodnik has been set on becoming a professional tennis player since that day at camp.
Although his mother wants him to attend graduate school right away to pursue his master's in business administration, Shkodnik - a senior double majoring in communication and health and human services who has made the Dean's List the past three semesters - plans to try the professional tennis circuit out for a few years and see where that goes.
If it doesn't work out, Shkodnik said he will head right to graduate school. When he does go to grad school, he plans on shaving his dreads. That will mark the end of his tennis career.
But he's not shaving them yet. The dreadlocks are a part of him like tennis became a part of him at age 11. He's not giving up on his dream.
He still feels the emotions of that fateful day every time he stands in the service box. It's still what he wants.