That Edward Cheatham's story had such an extraordinary beginning only makes the ending that much more disappointing for him. While he knows that the circumstances surrounding that ending was insignificant in comparison to what has been going on across the country he still felt the sting of not being able to complete a journey that many thought he would never get to take.
Cheatham, 23, closed out an exceptional career at Notre Dame last month just as the NCAA Championships were beginning. The graduate student was not only coming off a series of personal-best performances in the just-completed Atlantic Coast Conference Indoor Championships, he was part of the Notre Dame DMR squad that was set to defend its national championship. Just like that, however, it was gone.
The Covid-19 virus that was taking a toll on much of the nation had finally touched thousands of athletes when the NCAA canceled its winter championship and spring seasons for all sports, leaving Cheatham stunned and disappointed. He had run a personal-best 47.81 in the 400 meters at the ACC Championships and was part of the DMR squad that won the conference title. He ran a 46.7 on his leg of that race, leaving him and his teammates confident that they would defend their national crown two weeks later in New Mexico.
The DMR squad had, earlier in the season, recorded the second-fastest time [9:25.80] in NCAA indoor track and field history at the Alex Wilson Invitational.
"It [the ACC Championships] was a good meet for me," said Cheatham, who ran for Fayetteville-Manlius in high school. "Those times aren't going to turn any heads but it was how I felt running those times. For me personally and for the coaches, I showed them there is another level there if I choose to go after that."
That level, however, would never be reached. The team was in New Mexico preparing for the championship meet when word came down that there would be no meet.
"It's interesting now because I'm at a point where I have come to grips with the fact that with the way things are, it wasn't meant to be," Cheatham said. "When we first found out [about the season's cancellation] it was a time when the severity of the situation wasn't fully understood. It was frustrating because we were all there, had been exposed to each other for two days and with no fans, we wouldn't have been exposed to anyone else.
"We thought, let's just finish the season and cross the outdoor [season] bridge when we get there. There was definitely complaining; I was complaining. It was hard to comprehend the scale of what was happening because the country didn't look anything like it does today."
It certainly doesn't. But Cheatham's career doesn't look anything like the way he imagined it would be when he was a senior at Fayetteville-Manlius. Hamilton College was his top choice and he viewed himself as a Division III runner. His times in high school were solid but certainly not close to what it would take to become part of a national championship squad.
Still, as it came time to decide where he would go to college, Cheatham had a last minute change of heart and selected on Notre Dame. He hadn't planned on running track in South Bend but within a few weeks of arriving on campus, he knew in his heart that he couldn't stay away from the sport. So, he became the manager of the track team as a freshman.
Cheatham saw how structured the workouts were and was able to help set up and administer some of the workouts as a team manager. He admits, at that time, he had no interest in trying out for the team. Still, he would work out on his own after practice to stay in shape, knowing in the back of his mind that if he stayed fit, should the possibility arise, he would be prepared to try out. And, after watching the team go through its paces that season, he decided that he wanted to try out for the squad as a walk-on the following year.
"To be a manger for Notre Dame track and field was one of the best jobs one could have in college," Cheatham said. "You're part of the team in almost every way but you don't have to deal with the soreness. I got to experience coaching, philosophies of different coaches and I was a liaison between athletes and coaches. It was a very good situation to be in.
"Making the choice to walk on was difficult. I still had to walk into [then head] coach [Alan] Turner's office and ask. My tryout was far from impressive. I don't know if Turner let me on the team because he saw I was a hard worker or because I was a good manager. I guess he wanted to give me a second chance."
Cheatham said Turner never actually told him that he made the team. He just never cut him. One day, the forms for being a student athlete at Notre Dame arrived in an email and it was at that point Cheatham realized he had made it.
So he set about preparing for the 2017 indoor and outdoor seasons, both of which were solid but not spectacular for Cheatham.
"My first season was not a good year," Cheatham said. "Coach Turner and I talked a bit and he said though the year wasn't what I wanted, it wasn't because I wasn't putting in the work. He said I want you to come back next year and try again if that's what you want."
Cheatham's 2018 season -- indoor and outdoor -- saw a marked improvement. He had several top-five finishes in both campaigns in a variety of events. The 2019 seasons saw him realize his potential as he won several events during the indoor season and was part of the NCAA champion DMR squad.
"Last year, as a senior to win a national title after wishing one day that maybe I would make the team and maybe be a third leg on the 4X4, to finally break the 48 barrier [in the 400] and have a 47 split in the relay, I really came to terms with everything, knowing a lot of people didn't think I could run those numbers when I set foot on campus," he said.
"Being able to end my senior year on that note, having to accomplish the thing we were able to accomplish allows me to step away from track and field with a bit of finality to it. The hardest thing to do in any sport is to defend a title, though, and it's an extraordinary feeling to have that target on your back."
While Cheatham, like every other NCAA athlete, was granted another season of eligibility for the loss of the spring season, he won't be able to take advantage of it right away, if at all. He had already accepted a teaching job at a private school in Indiana and wasn't about to go back on his word, even if it meant vying for another national title next year.
"It's a lot to ask someone to renege on a job offer after you've accepted," he said. "It's the first time you've put your word out there."
So Cheatham will head into the work force, whenever the work force resumes normally, and continue to stay in shape. He still has eligibility left so if he decides to run at grad school, who knows what will happen. He would be a little older than his teammates but perhaps his journey hasn't ended after all.