After his career as a baseball player didn’t pan out, Nate Okonek found a way to positively impact Royal athletics.
By Conrad Engstrom
Nate Okonek stepped on the ice. He had never played hockey before, but the Bethel club hockey team needed replacements, so he stepped in. Against neighbor rival Northwestern, Okonek was playing defense when the puck found his stick. Okonek flicked the puck at the net and watched the puck sail over the Eagles’ goalie’s shoulder for a goal.
“Everything felt like it was in slow motion,” Okonek said.
Everyone went crazy after his first goal. His teammates, hooting and hollering, rushed in to congratulate him. Okonek, frozen in the moment, soaked it in.
Almost one year before that moment, Okonek sat crying in his dorm in the spring of 2012 after realizing his baseball career was over. He had played his freshman year, but his academic struggles were ending his baseball career. Okonek, who enrolled at Bethel in the fall of 2011, hoped to continue his baseball career throughout college, but school and baseball were clashing.
“I was sitting in class and I had already been thinking about giving up baseball and focusing on school,” Okonek said. “At the time I was not mature enough to play a sport and do well in school at the same time.”
After class, Okonek told assistant baseball coach Tim Beasley that he was done playing baseball. He returned to his dorm right after the conversation and, overcome with emotions, broke down.
“That was one of more heartbreaking things I had to do, quitting baseball,” Okonek said.
A year later, Okonek used the spring semester of 2013 to refresh his focus on school. He returned the next fall, ready to tackle college again. Though he was done with sports, Okonek remained an avid fan of the teams, and his desire to remain close to Bethel athletics grew. So, he hatched an idea of how to get back into the athletic culture.
After a football game, Okonek approached Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information and Marketing Jared Johnson about getting involved with the sports information staff. Johnson agreed to help him out and let Okonek do volunteer work for athletic events. It wasn’t long before the volunteering turned into working with Twitter and doing write ups for the events.
Okonek has been working with the athletic department for over two years in a variety of roles. Currently the Sports Information Intern and Director of Hockey Operations, Okonek also assists with play by play and color commentary for various Royal athletic broadcasts. His willingness to help allowed Johnson to trust him more as their working relationship evolved.
“The way things work in this office is if you show yourself to do the little things well, your role will expand. And that naturally happened with [Nate],” Johnson said.
In March of 2014, the baseball team travelled to Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa to play Macalester. Bad weather in the Twin Cities forced the teams to move south to get the games in. Johnson offered Okonek the opportunity to make the trip down with the team to broadcast and tweet during the games, an opportunity that Okonek excitedly accepted. His first broadcast, he called a game that ended with a walkoff homerun and a Royal win. The moment stuck with Okonek, and helped in the learning curve of becoming a better broadcaster.
Okonek’s prowess has also not gone unnoticed. Tim Beasley jokes with Johnson and Okonek about creating their own podcast when he overhears the conversations that the two have about Bethel and MIAC sports.
“He’s filled with life and full of joy and, with that mentality, it makes him fun to work with,” Johnson said.
Johnson often joins Okonek in the broadcast booth, Okonek views him as more of a friend than a boss. Johnson loves not having to worry about whether Okonek will be on time or have enough enthusiasm during the game. When Johnson arrives on game days, he’s commonly greeted by Okonek standing in the booth with a smile on his face.
“That’s just classic Nate,” Johnson said.
Despite not being able to keep his dream of playing baseball, Okonek takes advantage of the opportunities in broadcasting and sports information at Bethel. He plans to graduate next year and hopes to continue working in sports information at a bigger university or in professional sports.