When Ben Keizer came to the University of Michigan, he brought with him an injury and the insecurity that comes along with that, all while starting college.
The Portage, Mich. native came to Ann Arbor without many friends from his high school, and he acknowledges that his transition would’ve been very different without the Michigan baseball team.
One of the greatest challenges that most freshmen face when they arrive on college campuses, especially those with as large of a population as the University of Michigan, is the intimidation factor that comes with entering a brand new environment with no pre-established sources of comfort.
A lot of attention goes to the performance side of college athletics, which results in people ignoring its social element. But, as impressive as the performance side is, the social element should not be overlooked given the prevalence of loneliness in students’ first year of college.
The Michigan baseball team brings in a group called Team Elite Performance to run the players through team-building exercises every year, something both Keizer and Jimmy — another recent program alumni — identify as big turning points in their freshman year.
“That for me, freshman year was eye opening,” Keizer said. “We had to get pretty deep and tell some stories that are deep, deep stories from our childhood and our pasts that define who we are as a man today. And just keep hearing how sincere everybody was and then breaking down, sometimes in tears; it really opened me up as a freshman into like, wow, this is legit. Like this is a family.”
Added Kerr: “You come onto campus with 34 friends right off the bat. That’s huge.”
Keizer provides an excellent example of this social support network in action.
“Having a group of friends that you have right off the bat, that’s huge for development,” Keizer said. “You don’t have to worry about that socially, like, it takes a lot of stress away. You can focus on baseball, focus on relationships, and be yourself.”
Kerr, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., shares a similar perspective.
“The guys on the team made my freshman year so easy,” Kerr said. “As long as you come in and do the right things, it is really easy to feel like you belong. The older guys were great right away.”
Students’ freshman year of college is often identified as a hotspot for mental health challenges, especially because students are away from their family, so the comfort and family atmosphere that the team provides is truly valuable.
Now, when asked if they have a favorite memory from their freshman year, Kerr and Keizer both break into a childish sort of laugh.
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact moment, or an exact memory that’s PG-13,” Keizer said.
The pair then broke into another round of laughter that suggested they had the same idea in mind, but regardless, their immediate, joyful reaction shows that Kerr and Keizer have exceedingly fond memories of their freshman years.
Keizer’s laughter shows the effect that being on Michigan’s baseball team had on him, but where he sat as he spoke to a reporter speaks volumes.
Keizer opened K2, a training facility, with Kerr this August, and the two have been coaching and training there daily ever since. A group of recent alumni, which includes Jordan Nwogu, Jack Weisenburger, Jack Blomgren and Jeff Criswell, all come into K2 every day to train.
Although all of these players have been drafted and are going their separate ways, they have found a way to stay connected — a perfect example of how teammates truly become the sort of lifelong friends most people hope and expect to make while in college.
This is very much intentional on behalf of the program.
Life as a student-athlete can be challenging from a wellness perspective with all of the sheer lack of free time that stems from the long hours spent at practices and classes, so it is essential to the players that they develop relationships and a community with those who they are around — things that Michigan baseball has taken many steps to provide for.
That prudence has paid off, and when Kerr remembers the day spent with Team Elite Performance, he also remembers the additional kernel of knowledge Dean Whellams, the man who ran it, left him with: ”the depth of your conversation is the depth of your relationship.”
Taking this saying to heart, Kerr, Keizer and countless other Michigan baseball players have built a community for themselves that sets them up for a happy life both on and off the diamond.
“We want to make good baseball players over here, but it’s also about the person,” Keizer said. “You can leave here knowing that you developed as a person, and that you have some of your best friends for your life.”