Story by Theresa Smith
Photos by David Kadlubowski
Fire engines and uniform-clad Phoenix firefighters are a common sight beyond the right-field wall during games at GCU Ballpark. Other firefighters who are off duty observe from the stadium while their children hit on the mini turf field, pitch on the concourse and chase foul balls on the berm.
But these are more than avid GCU baseball fans. They are former GCU baseball players.
More than a dozen are firefighters in the Valley, and they say the lessons learned as student-athletes have transferred exceptionally well to their service-oriented and challenging career. They are drawn to the plethora of similarities between baseball and firefighting: Both require long waits followed by intense stress and physical movement, and both require teammates/co-workers to live and work in close proximity while collaborating and accepting their roles.
From captains Brian Imboden, Jeremy Neville and Austin Moreland to newcomer Harlyn Griffiths, “the culture of the fire department is that you have to be able to make good decisions, to be accountable and to work well with others,” Moreland said. “It is all about your ability to make your team better. I think that’s why athletes transition into firefighting very well.”
Joey Reiman, a GCU catcher in 2002-03, played four years in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, finished his physical education degree while serving on the Lopes coaching staff, and then made a smooth transition into firefighting, joining his father on Big Red. It was a move Griffiths made in 2016 following an unfulfilled post-graduate stint in technical support.
“After spending time out of baseball, I missed being in the clubhouse,” Griffiths said. “I have that now with the fellas and gals in the fire service, that camaraderie and having something that is definitely bigger than yourself.”
At the suggestion of a fellow travel ball coach who was a firefighter, Griffiths went on a ride-along and found his purpose. The next day he registered for EMT (emergency medical technician) training, then gained his certification, enrolled in the Phoenix Firefighter Recruit Training Academy, passed all his exams and was hired.
“For me, it is like being on a baseball team,” Griffiths said. “Everything we do in a fire department is together, whether it is cooking, cleaning or working out. Everyone is helping.” Unlike other sports, in which athletes retreat to the locker room after competition, every baseball player has a post-game job: raking the field, tamping the mound, sweeping out dugouts and laying tarps.
“It took the selfishness out of the team — you just did the work that had to be done,” Moreland said. “It is the same at a fire station. Everybody pitches in to get the work done.”
Five players from Moreland’s era, 2002-04, became firefighters thanks to the influence of Neville, who juggled firefighting and a GCU assistant coach schedule.
The adaptation to co-workers for 24-hour shifts, including trying to sleep in close quarters, was eased by the experiences of traveling with the same teammates on long road trips, from bus to hotel to three-hour pregame sessions. Moreover, the mental challenges are similar. “It is like dealing with a bad at-bat or booting a groundball. You move onto the next play,” Reiman said.
“Stank (GCU baseball coach Andy Stankiewicz) said to us, ‘You can’t play this game like a middle linebacker, out of control and really fast,’ ” Griffiths said. “When I say fast, I mean mentally fast. To me, when we are going on a call, it is about slowing down my emotions and my thoughts so I can effectively do my job, whether it is taking a set of vitals or setting up a back board, or pulling lines (hoses).”
Joey Bristyan never forgot his first at-bat as a Lope in 2009 because the bat flew out of his hands and landed down the first-base line.
“To get over my nerves as a college freshman, I talked to older players,” he said. “As a rookie firefighter, I did the same thing. I picked the brains of the veteran firefighters.”
Imboden, one of those veterans, has experienced numerous medical emergencies during his 25-year firefighting career, which includes 13 years as a captain.
“If something is going wrong, a drowning or a code (cardiopulmonary arrest), you have to manage your emotions and do your job,” said Imboden, who earned a degree in public administration with a minor in psychology in 1991.
The Cortez High School graduate followed his dad into firefighting, cementing a lifelong commitment to west Phoenix in general and GCU in particular. After all, his station is less than two miles from campus.
Similarly, his fellow Lopes baseball alumsturned- firefighters have maintained a close connection with GCU. Firefighters have been welcomed on campus for years to participate in physical training, including lifting weights, swimming and playing basketball. When Moreland’s future wife, Krista Jacob, was a volleyball player at GCU, the players posed on a fire truck for their team photo.
“I feel like the fire department has always been a part of Grand Canyon,” said Moreland. It has come full circle: Occasionally, Stankiewicz suggests fire service for specific players, and Neville and Imboden, who remain involved in baseball through coaching Warriors Baseball Academy, periodically recommend players to Stankiewicz for recruitment.
Staying close to home
Like the laces of a tightly wound baseball, the ties among the alums, the west Phoenix community and the University are binding.
“I knew Grand Canyon was a Christian school, but I was going there to live at home and try to walk on the baseball team,” Troy Holtorf said. “Little did I know that I would go there and end up receiving the Gospel.”
The professors at GCU, particularly the late Malcolm “Mack” Sloan and College of Science, Engineering and Technology professor William Kuehl, made a profound spiritual impact on Holtorf, while Neville and Holtorf’s cousin Ryan Holtorf, another baseball player-turned-firefighter, cultivated his interest in fire service.
“I prayed a lot about becoming a firefighter,” Holtorf said. “I didn’t know if I could handle the blood and guts, I didn’t know if I could handle the physicality and I still get nervous going to work.”
Indeed, those who answer the call to serve the community through firefighting are a special breed.
“Working for the fire department is physically, physically, physically demanding, so it helps that we are all in great shape and we all know how to work out and adjust to the heat,” Moreland said. “But, really, it is mentally taxing more than anything else, so going to Grand Canyon and being a student-athlete prepared us for mental pressure.
“You really don’t know what you’re going to get on a game day. It’s the same thing for the fire department. You don’t know what you’re going to see. Sometimes we see tragic, sad things. We see sick, injured people and we deal with pretty extreme emergencies.”
Communities, particularly west Phoenix and the GCU campus, rely on physically fit and mentally tough men and women to answer their calls for help, and often the firefighters coming to the rescue are former Lopes baseball players.
As Stankiewicz concluded, “We are very proud of the alums who are giving back.”
Sampling of GCU baseball players who became firefighters:
|Name||Fire Department||Years in GCU baseball|
|Tait Mitton||Sun City||1988-91|
Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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