The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The most surprising recruit in college basketball is a bus driver. And he’s 38.

Dan Stoddard is a balding, 38-year-old bus driver who failed out of college two decades ago. This summer, a chance encounter gave him a shot at an improbable dream he’d given up on years ago: playing college basketball.

And true to his story that seems ripped from the script of a Will Ferrell screwball comedy, he made the roster.

“It was such a far-fetched dream,” Stoddard said by phone as he packed his clothes for an away game. “I’ve never heard of anybody anywhere near this age who is playing.”

Stoddard’s nearly impossible journey started in June when he played in an annual high school alumni game in a small town near Ottawa. Each year he gets together with his old buddies to barbecue and show off that even though he turned gray long ago, at 6-foot-8 he still has skills on the court.

An 82-year-old man hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Then he danced a jig.

This year he was in pretty good shape and played a standout game, hitting three-pointers and dominating the court with his mountainous frame. The referee happened to be the coach of a local college team, the Algonquin Thunder. After the game, the referee, Trevor Costello, made an offhand comment, almost jokingly: Hey, man, you could play for me.

“I said, ‘Get out of here. Are you kidding me?’ ” said Stoddard. “I’m 38 years old. C’mon, give me a break. There’s no way.”

But Stoddard said he believes in fate, and the coach refereeing his game seemed beyond coincidence. This, he thought, was meant to be. He went all in.

“The coach saw something in me. I don’t know what he saw — I was 386 pounds,” Stoddard said. “But I texted him and said, ‘If I’m doing this, I’m going all out.’ ”

Costello remembers that he didn’t think Stoddard, who had a full-time job, a wife and two kids, would actually take him up on it.

“I was serious but I was joking a little bit,” Costello said.

As soon as Costello realized Stoddard was serious, Costello was all in, too. The Algonquin Thunder, which is usually in the top five of the 22 teams in their Ontario collegiate league, is full of point guards and shooters, but they needed a big guy. Enter Stoddard.

He enrolled in Algonquin’s business program online as a full-time student.

Then he went to the gym every day and stayed on the treadmill until he burned 1,000 calories. He lifted weights and played hours of basketball. He ate a healthy diet. By the time tryouts came around in August, he had lost 70 pounds.

He made the team at Algonquin, a technology-focused school with about 16,000 full-time students. Most of his teammates are typical college athletes, all muscle and swagger — and just a little older than his own kids.

At tryouts, Stoddard said, the teammates thought he was just a friend of the coach, not an aspiring player. Even after he made the cut, it took a couple of weeks before the players understood Stoddard was there to stay.

“They all thought I was off my rocker,” he said.

Michael Soy, 20, a shooting guard and star of the team, said he was “a little iffy at first” about the old guy joining the squad. But Stoddard is now like a father figure on and off the court, giving the guys advice on both basketball and life.

“Dan is great, actually, even though he’s old,” Soy said. “He’s a rookie, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s like a brick wall. When he sets a screen I’m wide open for like five seconds.”

Stoddard said he doesn’t have much time to hang out with his teammates off the court. In addition to practices, games and family responsibilities, he has a full load of classes and works at least 40 hours a week driving a bus for OC Transpo, the urban transit service in Ottawa.

The team record this year is lagging at 1 and 4. Stoddard is a starter and has been getting plenty of playing time. At a game last week he scored eight points and grabbed nine rebounds.

“I have this ability to not get moved. A lot of guys try to move me, but I can’t be moved,” he said. “Whatever they do to me, I don’t even feel it. I have a low center of gravity.”

This is helpful when his team sets plays and screens. And he’s lucky his muscles and joints have been holding up, given his age. “I’m that garbage player getting offensive rebounds and making sure guys get open.”

Costello said Stoddard improves with each practice. “Every day he does something better, he’s a half a second faster.”

But Costello says Stoddard has his weaknesses. “You can’t pass him the ball below the waist. He’s not going to catch it,” Costello said.

He’s got a fan club in his wife, now a palliative care nurse, his two kids and plenty of other friends and family. They wear “Old Man Dan Fan Club” T-shirts to cheer him on, and his daughter Kailah, 18, has made Twitter and Instagram accounts, OldManDan24, for fans to follow him.

Stoddard says he sometimes can’t believe this is his life. He had a rough road as a younger man in both basketball and academics. The year before he graduated from St. Francis Xavier High School in the town of Hammond in 1995, his grades slipped so much that he wasn’t eligible to play basketball — a particular frustration given his height and love of the game.

He enrolled in Algonquin college but remained adrift, angry at the world. He didn’t try out for the basketball team. He barely showed up for his classes. He dropped out after one semester.

He did, though, meet a woman, Amanda, at a nearby college. They married and soon had a daughter, and a few years later a son, Mitchell, now 15.

The couple agreed she would stay home with the kids while he worked as a jack-of-all-trades in construction. “My first drive was my family,” he said. “I did whatever gave me more money.”

As the kids grew up, he continued to work several jobs while Amanda went to school, and he beamed in 2010 when she became a nurse. Now, she said, she supports him wholeheartedly as he pursues his long-shot dream.

“For so long he’s been driving and sitting and not doing a lot of cardiovascular exercise. The nurse inside me was like, ‘I’m not sure he’ll be able to keep up,” she said. “It was unbelievable to see it click and how he got serious about training.”

Stoddard, who turns 39 later this month, is eligible to play ball because in the organization that governs his eligibility, the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association, there’s not an upper age limit. And the clock didn’t start on his eligibility until this year when he made the team. In the United States, the NCAA also does not have an upper age limit for players.

Stoddard’s plan is to graduate in four years and become an accountant. He’s got almost a full scholarship for his classes as long as he keeps his grades up.

He said he has been acutely aware of how common it is for people not only to shelve their own potential, but also to never see their loved ones truly living the lives they want.

“You never want to crush a dream,” he said. “The dream is always accessible to you if you want it.”

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