IN THE SPIRIT: Every game a blessing, every fan an energizer
The cross tattooed on Troy Huff's upper right arm is big and bold and beautiful just like the picture of Jesus tattooed on Shane Benton's upper left arm.
Fans in the stands at a UND men's basketball game can't miss either image.
Not quite so easy to see from the comfortable seats at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center on campus, however, are the Bible verses tattooed near each inked design -- Scripture with momentous meaning to these athletes.
Troy is living his verse as he steals the ball and hangs a slam dunk. He's living it when he scores 20 points in the first seven minutes of a game and goes on to career-high 34 points in 40 minutes of playing time.
Colossians 3:23 is Troy's verse. It reads: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men."
When the idea of a faith centered tattoo came to Troy, a junior guard/forward from Milwaukee, Wis., he was a considerate son.
"I ran the idea by my mom and she approved it," he said. "I was going through the Bible trying to find the perfect match, and my mom came upon it for me. The meaning is perfect. I always wanted to play college basketball. I prayed to God that I could make it to the highest level I can. You should always work hard. I figure if you're going to be out there you might as well give it all you got."
Shane, a freshman guard from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, chose the words of Psalm 144:1: "Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle."
"I was looking through Psalms and that one really stuck out," Shane said. "Life is a battle sometimes and basketball is a battle. The Lord prepared me for life and for basketball. Without him it would be a lot tougher. That verse says that. Life is a battle but through the Lord it's a lot easier."
There's a reason Shane affirms his Christianity from the court. "Playing for a university, there are a lot of people and kids (watching)," he said. "This shows that my faith is a big part of my life. I don't want to show that just through my tattoo, but also through my actions."
Basketball always has been my favorite spectator sport and I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Troy the past three years and now Shane this season.
Today at 2 p.m., in The Betty, the North Dakota men -- who together with all their coaches are "like family," Shane said -- will play their last regular season game. It's also senior recognition day.
"We have five seniors," he said. "We're determined to get the win and send our seniors out the right way. They've been so good to us and such a huge part of our program."
I went to The Betty last week to watch practice and then Troy and Shane graciously sat to chat with me.
Hard to sit out
Troy, who wears the No. 5 jersey, will graduate from UND in 2014 with a degree in criminal justice. His parents are Theresa and Troy. "I'm Troy Junior," he said proudly. The youngest of two boys and two girls, he was on his first organized basketball team by age 8.
"My mom played, and I was always around the gym with my dad and brother," Troy said. "My dad brought me to the parks with him, and always knew I was going to be a basketball player. I guess I didn't have a choice. My first Christmas present was a small basketball in my crib."
Troy graduated from Brookfield Academy, a Catholic school in Milwaukee. "It's one of the best schools in Wisconsin and very good for basketball," he said.
Early this season, Troy suffered a broken jaw that had to be wired in order to heal. He missed eight games.
"That was one of the toughest things I've ever had to go through," he said. "My dad says, 'Pray and everything will be OK.' Every game is a blessing. Being hurt, you can't be too mad. I could have been out the whole season, but everything worked out. I really appreciate that Bible verse. You have to play with all your heart because you don't know when it will happen again."
Last Saturday, Troy scored 34 points in a game against Eastern Washington. "I made the first couple 3-pointers and my teammates just told me to keep going," he said. "It was an unreal feeling, the most memorable game of my lifetime."
Troy got his tattoo in Arizona while visiting his brother just before coming to UND.
Shane, who wears North Dakota's No. 10 jersey, is the son of Barbara and the Rev. Steve Benton. He's majoring in pre-entrepreneurship at UND. He got his tattoo just before coming to UND.
Shane started basketball in third grade on a YMCA team and never has looked back. "Ever since a young age, basketball is the sport I was most attracted to," he said. "I like physical sports and basketball has physicality to it. I was pretty good at a young age so I stuck with it."
He was a starter for the Linn-Mar High School team in Cedar Rapids that posted a perfect 26-0 record on the way to the Iowa Class 4A state championship. In high school, Shane earned the team's defensive most valuable player honor and collected second team All-Mississippi Valley Conference honors.
Shane came to UND for a basketball camp between his junior and senior years in high school and coach Brian Jones offered him a scholarship. He was redshirted last season.
"I practiced with the team and did everything with the team except play and dress on game day," he said. "I knew last year was preparing me for upcoming years. Keeping that in mind made it easier."
Because of teammate injuries, Shane has seen more and more playing time as the season progressed. "I've been having a lot of fun with it, and I'm pretty happy how the year has gone for us as team," he said.
Shane worships at Faith Evangelical Free Church and he recently joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
"It's important for me to get to church on Sunday and to surround myself with other Christians," he said. "And prayer is huge. When you stop praying, life is stressful. The more you pray, things are easier in life."
Shane has two older brothers. "No sister," I ask. "No," he replied, "but a wonderful mother, that's for sure."
Both players sing the praises of their fans. "They bring our energy," Troy said. "They have a big impact," Shane added. "There's more atmosphere and the game is a lot more fun when the crowd is into it."
Remember, today's game is at 2 p.m. See you at The Betty.
Reach Dunavan at email@example.com. Read her blog at inthespirit.areavoices.com.