Small fish in a big pond

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As I deplaned at Indianapolis International Airport, I could not help but feel a nervous energy come over me. There I was –– a student journalist for The Daily Californian about to cover a nationally broadcasted media event in a city halfway across the country.

The football fan in me, the one who’s avidly followed the Chicago Bears since age 7, could not be more excited to attend the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. So why was 21-year-old me so scared to take on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Perhaps it was the impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head again. How was a student newspaper being afforded the same access as a full-fledged operation such as ESPN? Somebody must have made a mistake somewhere. Though these thoughts persisted as I walked through the airport terminal, there wasn’t any time to dwell on them.

I had to be ready to interview the next generation of NFL superstars in less than an hour.

One of the downsides of reaching Indianapolis at 6 a.m. was that my hotel could not accommodate me with an early check-in. No matter. I threw on a blazer and jeans in the bathroom stall, figuring this avoided the problem of trying to look too professional. And if people thought I was underdressed, I was still a student journalist, right?

Upon reaching the Indiana Convention Center, where prospects’ media availability would take place, I noticed most people were walking around in hoodies. Uh-oh. Fighting back thoughts that now I might be overdressed, I proceeded to the media credential pickup area to collect my press badge –– my golden ticket to everything at the Combine.

“Credential pickup ended yesterday. We don’t have your badge –– or anyone else’s –– here.”

And so my nightmare scenario began to unfold. Considering I was arriving on the last day of a weeklong event, I was already anxious. If it had been up to me, I would have been in Indianapolis the whole week. But I had two midterms.

As a student, you don’t have the luxury of dedicating all of your time to covering sports. And now, I was being told that I wouldn’t have access to any of the day’s festivities.

Surely, they must have thrown out the remaining media credentials. And even if they did find them, would they really take the time to come to the convention center just for me — a college student trying to play journalist?

To my surprise, they did. It was at this moment that it hit me: Nobody here cared where I came from. And that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. With my press badge around my neck and my confidence restored, I was starting to feel like I belonged.

Maybe I could do this after all.

Noticing that the mix-up had left me with time for just a few interview slots, I headed toward the media podiums. But as I turned the corner of the hallway, the moment got the best of me again. A larger-than-life figure brushed past me and the Bears’ fan in me identified him as Ryan Poles, Chicago’s newest general manager.

I was immediately starstruck. Just a few feet away was my favorite team’s most important individual, the one who could almost single-handedly bring the Bears back to relevance. I wondered if asking for a picture would appear unprofessional. But ultimately, I decided it was an opportunity that I would always regret turning down.

And so I went after him –– the football fan in me moving my journalist legs.

Poles was surprisingly warm and treated me like someone who was supposed to be at the NFL Scouting Combine. Through that quick exchange, I received the validation I had been seeking all morning long.

My day made before it had even begun, I walked toward the podium with an extra pep in my step and took my place alongside reporters from major news outlets. I even surprised myself when I heard my voice outmuscling others’ to ask Oregon defensive back Verone McKinley III several questions.

The rest of my day blurred by, and I almost felt desensitized to everything by the time I sat on my flight home. But it was interesting to notice the change I saw within myself in just one day of being a real sports reporter. I stepped off of my flight to Indianapolis feeling like a small fish in a big pond, but when I deplaned in San Francisco 24 hours later, I no longer saw myself as an impostor. The previous morning’s nervous energy had dissipated –– and in its place emerged a renewed sense of purpose.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.