A Player's Platform
It was the longest game in Women's College World Series Finals history. The Sooner softball team had battled the Florida Gators relentlessly for 16 innings until Shay Knighten stepped up to the plate with runners on first and second base and two outs in the top of the 17th.
Gators pitcher Kelly Barnhill wound up and pitched low and inside. Knighten delivered a high, arcing home run deep into left field. She ran around the bases grinning widely with both hands in the air. Her teammates waited for her back at home plate smiling just as big, waving and clapping for their friend and teammate.
The Sooners held on to win that game 7-5, then beat the Gators 5-4 the next day to win their second consecutive national championship, their fourth overall. Knighten's work in the series earned her a nomination for "Best Championship Performance" at the 2017 ESPYs, alongside Kevin Durant, Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson.
During that series, former Sooner infielder Lauren Chamberlain, one of the leaders on OU's 2013 championship softball team, Tweeted, "Shay Knighten is the truth. One of the best hitters I've ever seen. Wish I could've suited up with her!" Michigan pitcher Megan Betsa Tweeted, "Can I be Shay Knighten? Please."
Knighten's clutch performance made her as big a star as college softball has, and a role model for athletes across the country. She's still coming to terms with that.
"It's just crazy, first of all, that I am in this position now to be a role model," Knighten said. "So whenever I see little fans, or even older fans like their parents and grandparents, I think it's really cool that everyone has a chance to see me for me, not just a softball player. Getting to know fans on a personal level is really cool."
On and off the field, Knighten tries to follow the example of her own softball role models, including Natasha Watley, Jennie Finch and Lisa Fernandez. She remembers looking up to them when she was a young athlete herself.
"I was like, 'One day, I want to be like [them],'" Knighten remembers. "Just to be competitive, and really focus on the field, but when it's off the field, it's all about the fans, how they're feeling, and treating them well."
Knighten is also aware she sets an example as a black athlete in a sport relatively under-represented by African-Americans. In doing so, she continues the legacy and tradition of softball players like Watley, one of Knighten's own role models.
"When I was going to college, there weren't very many African-American girls," Watley said to ESPN in 2017. "I definitely feel like now, across the board, there are a lot of us. I love it. If I broke a barrier, if I made any African-American girls say, I can because Natasha did, then that makes me feel proud and excited."
Knighten knows she has a similar impact on the next generation.
"[I want to] show the younger athletes they can play softball and other sports when they grow older, and that's not something they should be afraid of," she said. "It should be something they enjoy doing."
Making sure an athlete feels comfortable in their community is an important part of establishing that comfort, especially when they may be in the minority, and Knighten says she's found that at Oklahoma. After being recruited and then spending three years in Norman, she knows the school is where she belongs. She says being at OU has helped her grow as a person and as a player, especially in her mental toughness and Christian faith.
"I think using our platform as athletes is what's really cool, because we have the opportunity to make change happen."
- Shay Knighten
"I think I just found my love for people even more, coming here," Knighten said. "And I just want to help and give back to this community at Oklahoma, and specifically in softball, because it has given me so much and I'm in a place where I never thought I would be."
Though the community shapes the individual, Knighten also knows that individuals shape the community, and she's committed to helping make the community at OU the most positive and welcoming it can be.
"I want to help my teammates in any way possible," Knighten said. "With everything that's been going on recently with racist incidents on campus, I've had the opportunity of leading with some other student-athletes and staying ahead of decisions that are being made. We're not just athletes, we're people, too, and whatever happens on-campus or off-campus, it affects us also. But I think using our platform as athletes is what's really cool, because we have the opportunity to make change happen. So why not use our platform and leadership to make a difference?"
The stars of the softball world, Knighten (far right) and the Sooners constantly use their platform to give back.