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Dave Weinberg's Extra Points: Athletes face challenges beyond competition

Dave Weinberg's Extra Points: Athletes face challenges beyond competition

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Maddie McCracken served as Santa Claus for dozens of families last Christmas, providing food, clothing and toys through the Step Back Foundation, the charitable organization the North Wildwood resident created during her senior year at Wildwood High School in 2019.

On Saturday, the Stockton University sophomore basketball player will be the Easter Bunny.

Her organization will conduct its first Easter Egg Hunt at Allen Park on Delaware Avenue in North Wildwood. Children ages 1 to 10 can fill their baskets with a maximum of 10 eggs. Donations collected will go toward funding the scholarships the foundation gives out each year.

The majority of the aid goes to families in the Wildwoods, where the COVID-19 pandemic has walloped the island's tourism industry like a Mike Tyson uppercut.

"The economy in Wildwood really thrives on tourism," McCracken, 20, said. "Last summer was a really difficult situation. Anything I can do to help people, I'm going to try to do."

In addition to Wildwood, she's also reached out to other schools and families in Cape May County and beyond.

The Step Back Foundation provided 10 backpacks to students at Middle Township High School a few months ago. Earlier this month, McCracken and her Stockton teammates donated children's books to Atlantic City's New York Avenue Elementary School, whose alumni includes Ospreys junior guard Kadinah Harris-Hood.

Previously, she gave 25 pumpkins to Margaret Mace Elementary School in North Wildwood and recess equipment to elementary school students at Cape Trinity in North Wildwood.

Funds are generated through a variety of events. In addition to the Easter Egg Hunt, the Step Back Foundation also hosts a three-on-three basketball tournament in the summer, as well as the "Live Like Bolle" 5K run and 1-mile fun walk. That was created in memory of Bill Bolle, a longtime supporter of the Wildwood community who passed away in 2017. Last Easter, she raised more than $8,000 with the help of her summer employer - Keenan's Irish Pub in North Wildwood - through Keenan's Virtual Palooza, which featured 15 bands performing live on Facebook.

"Maddie is awesome," Stockton women's coach Devin Jefferson said. "She's a good player and an even better person."

She's been proving that for quite some time.

Maddie was a three-sport star at Wildwood. Although primarily known for her basketball exploits — she scored over 2,000 points for the Warriors and led them to a South Jersey Group I title as a sophomore in 2017 — she also scored 43 career goals in soccer and holds school records in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.

But with success also came pressure.

McCracken admitted that she's struggled with anxiety and depression. Some of it stemmed from trying to live up to the lofty expectations.

"When you're a big fish in a small pond, you feel like you can't let anybody down," she said. "But you have to realize you can't be perfect all the time."

Her situation was similar to Philadelphia Eagles guard Brandon Brooks. When healthy, he's one of the best guards in the NFL. But no matter how well he plays, it's never good enough.

Sometimes, the quest for perfection overwhelms him.

Brooks missed two games in 2016 and was forced out of a 2019 game after only one series.

"Whatever the bar is, I always try to exceed it," Brooks said in a 2019 interview. "That's the kind of person I am. I always strive to be great. That's something that always drives me. Sometimes it drives me too much."

McCracken never missed a game, but did have to deal with some tough situations.

After graduating as Wildwood's class valedictorian in 2019, she joined older sister MacKenzie at Widener University in Pennsylvania, but soon determined it wasn't the right fit and transferred to Stockton after one semester.

"I'm such a homebody and after a semester, I realized it (Widener) just wasn't right for me," she said. "Transferring to Stockton really helped in a lot of ways. The team has a family atmosphere that's a lot like Wildwood's and it was very good for my (mental) health."

Like Brooks, McCracken initially sought help from a psychologist and was also taking medication for a time.

For the last year or so, she's not needed it. Gradually, she developed ways to deal with adversity on her own, even when COVID-19 shut down classes at Stockton last spring and fall and reduced the Osprey's 2020-21 women's basketball season to just six games. McCracken said she tested positive for COVID in late February, missing the Ospreys' final game on March 6, but has fully recovered.

She was also helped by a tremendous support system at home through parents Scott and Liz McCracken, and sisters Mackenzie and Macie.

"Honestly, I was really nervous when the pandemic hit," said McCracken, who averaged nine points and 6.8 rebounds per game this season. "But I was able to work through everything myself. People shouldn't be afraid to seek professional help like I did, but I've been trying to approach this in a more natural way. For me, the best medicine is doing what I do, playing sports and trying to help people."

Helping is what she does best, whether she's giving out supplies to needy students or offering advice to younger people who may be feeling what she's feeling.

She willingly shares her story in hopes of providing support, letting teenagers and others know that, like the tides that rise and fall on the nearby beaches, the waves of anxiety need not pull you under.

That gives her more satisfaction than the gifts and donations.

"I don't mind talking about it," she said. "It's very rewarding to have people reach out to me. You can give people things and that's great, but the best feeling in the world is if you can make them feel better," she said. "You can have all the sucess on the field and in the classroom, and you can have all the material things in the world, but if you're not happy, it doesn't mean much. It's all about finding that balance on and off the field and learning how to feel good about yourself."

David Weinberg's columns can also be found on his Dave Weinberg Extra Points Facebook page and blog, as well as on 973ESPN.com. His podcast, Dave Weinberg's Tequila and Touchdowns, can be heard on Anchor, Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear him 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday at Newstalk 1400-AM WOND and WONDRadio.com on Off the Press with Scott Cronick. His Weinberg Wednesday segment airs at 6:15 p.m. weekly on 97.3-FM ESPN.

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