The road to becoming a professional athlete is never a point A-to-point B journey, and Excel Christian graduate Rudy Winters is just the latest to have taken a circuitous route to reach that destination.
Winters, more than others, has had to overcome plenty of obstacles along the way. If point A came in the form of playing basketball on Aubrey Street every day after elementary school, then signing his first professional contract earlier this week to play in El Salvador likely represented point Z.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Winters said Friday. “Through all the transfers, through all the different coaches and having different relationships with them, and dealing with injuries, of course, my mind deterred [me] through the journey. I didn’t even think I’d be able to accomplish my dreams at a point — even a couple of times — during this journey. I didn’t think I was going to get this far. Through adversity, my mind got stronger and I got hungrier. I knew I couldn’t give up; I had to make it happen. …
“Rewarding is an understatement. I feel like I’m on top of the world. The feeling hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m going to be playing professional basketball.”
The realization better come quickly, because Winters said he's planning to head to San Salvador on Monday to join a second-division team based in the country's capital.
“What Rudy has to understand is that just because you’re a professional athlete, doesn’t mean you’ve arrived,” said Jon-Michael Nickerson, who coached Winters at Excel. “… The normal person with a 9-to-5 job thinks being a professional athlete is all glitz and glamour. There’s some professional basketball leagues where it’s a rough life. It’s mentally challenging, as well as physically challenging. It’s not going to be easy for him. …
“At the same time, I know he’s going to go down there and kill it. He’s too driven to fail. I think it’s a stepping stone towards being a long-term professional athlete. I don’t see him being a professional athlete for two, three years. I could see him doing it seven to eight years.”
Nickerson would know better than almost anyone what to expect out of Winters at the next level. Not only was Nickerson, who now coaches at Sandy Creek, a former professional baseball player in the Marlins organization but also he has forged an incredibly close bond with Winters.
“It’s not the on-court relationship that’s the most important, it’s the off-court,” Nickerson said. “I spent countless hours picking him up, taking him to the gym, when his mom was working. I was that parent when he needed to get to and from places. … It was just a different relationship than most players and coaches have.”
That bond meant Winters could understand and respect Nickerson even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Upon transferring to Excel, Winters, who celebrated his 25th birthday on Saturday, had to play on the JV team his junior season. On the first day of practice his senior year, Nickerson said he kicked Winters out of the gym and off the team for having a bad attitude.
“He could be his own worst enemy, and you were just hoping that he wouldn’t get in his own way of his destiny,” Nickerson said of Winters. “He definitely figured it out and developed a strong work ethic, developed an identity. He did not have that. It took a lot of time and daily effort to help mold him.”
Some star players wouldn't have responded well to such coaching. However, Winters atoned for his errors, returning to the team and guiding the Eagles complete a historic season that included the program's first trip to the Elite Eight.
Even after both left Excel, Winters and Nickerson remain close. The player credits his former coach for helping him become the man he is today.
“It’s everything a kid dreams about,” Winters said of his relationship with Nickerson. “He’s the perfect coach. Literally. He’s tough on you and is going to tell you what you need to hear instead of what you want to hear, but it’s all for the best interest in you. …
“He changed my life. I honestly believe if I hadn’t met coach Nick, I’d be dead or in jail right now. He just came me a better incentive on life. He gave me a better outlook on basketball. He gave me everything I asked for. Everything you want in a coach, he’s that. He’s a father figure; he’s a hard worker; and he’s a perfectionist who is dedicated to his job and dedicated to changing people’s lives.”
Winters becomes the second Excel player from the Class of 2013 to sign a pro deal to play basketball, joining Elijah Robinson. A standout at Emmanuel College before turning pro, Robinson spent the 2018-19 season as a starter for Villa San Martin in Argentina. Winters said he spoke with Robinson earlier this week and that his former teammate is currently playing in Hong Kong.
Current Excel coach Shannon Boatfield, who was a teacher at the school during Winters' time there, said it's great to see former Eagles be able to compete professionally. He also hopes it serves as a source of inspiration for his players.
“I do think that his success shows the current and future Eagles that, ‘Hey, you can get to the next level and even beyond,’” Boatfield said. “Excel can still be the right foundation in your sport to help you accomplish everything you’ve dreamed of.
“We see Rudy is just the most recent example of that. … It shows a kid that there’s an opportunity, even at a little old place like Excel to see your dreams with basketball come true.”
Journeyman is a term thrown around a lot for those in the professional ranks who seem to play for a different team every season. As Robinson has shown, basketball players who ply their trade outside of the United States have to be able to roll with the punches and be able to move on as opportunities present themselves.
There's no reason to think Winters would have any issue with that aspect, considering his pinball movement the past few years. After transferring from Cartersville High to Excel prior to his junior year, Winters wound up attending four different colleges and universities.
He played basketball for three of the schools before exhausting his eligibility at Columbus State following the 2017-18 season. This past year, Winters has been working as a loader at Lowe's in Columbus while he fought to keep alive his dreams of playing professionally.
“I knew I had to work even harder to make my dream come true,” Winters said. “I was working 40 hours a week, but even after that, I would still find a way to get into the gym and work out. If I couldn’t get in the gym, I would go to the local high school — Hardaway High School — and just run the track to stay in shape. … I ended up getting a trainer down there to get my body, my strength and wellness, and eating right. It just elevated my game and motivated me to work even harder.
“I knew this day would come, but nothing’s guaranteed. I just stayed ready, no matter what.”
All the work paid off with a contract offer earlier this week that Winters said he "couldn't resist." It's hard to blame him for not dragging out negotiations after having spent so much time and effort preparing for this chance.
Since he was a child, Winters wanted to play basketball. The motivation fluctuated between escapism and enjoyment, but when a kid with a rough upbringing finds something that provides even a glimmer of hope for a better life, it becomes an almost singular focus.
“Without the bottom gym, top gym, Aubrey Street, Summer Hill, none of this would be possible,” Winters said. “Since elementary school, I’ve been playing basketball. As soon as I got off the bus, I walked straight to the gym. …
"I knew I wanted basketball to be my way out. That’s my outlet. Whenever I was going through something, or just wanted to have fun, I was looking forward to basketball every single day.”
Although he's still looking forward to playing every day, Winters knows there's a new feeling once it becomes a job. He's planning to approach the game a little differently.
When most U.S. citizens head to Central America, it's a vacation; Winters is viewing this as a business trip.
“Now, I just have to work harder than before,” he said. “I’m a professional athlete, and I want to keep it that way. We’re dealing with the business part of it. It’s no longer me playing for fun or playing for my enjoyment. I’m playing for my life and to take care of myself and others.”