Feb. 9, 2011
By Larry Watts
Please excuse Shahara Nixon Byford if she has a little identity crisis whenever she returns to Purdue.
“I’m still convinced there are some people at Purdue who do not know my real name,’’ she says with a laugh. “In the classroom, I was Shahara, but in softball and to all my friends, it was always Skeeter. A lot of my friends still call me that and I am ‘Aunt Skeeter’ to a lot of my friends’ children.’’
According to Byford, the Skeeter nickname had nothing to do with her speed, although her 73 stolen bases still rank third among Boilermaker career totals. The nickname came from one of the Muppet Babies, who were very popular while she was growing up in the Chicago south suburb of Glenwood.
“It stuck because nobody could say my name,’’ she says. “In softball, they are always doing cheers and nobody could say Shahara. A good friend of mine was known as Scooter (another Muppet Baby) and I picked up the name Skeeter.’’
Byford got her start in amateur softball playing with the Indiana Outlaws at the age of 13. She moved closer to home to play with the Orland Park Sparks for her final two years of summer ball, helping win the 18-year-old national title.
An outfielder with her summer teams, she primarily played second base and shortstop at Marian Catholic High School, where she also played basketball all four years and golf in her final two.
The decision process for a college led her to Purdue, Iowa, Dartmouth, Northern Illinois and Bradley. Her high school coach had left for Bradley, which made the latter school very attractive.
“The process itself was tough, but in the end it wasn’t a tough decision,’’ she says. “I had full rides on the table and Purdue made a partial offer, so I had to kind of balance things.’’
With academics as her top priority, Byford was looking to pursue a degree in engineering.
“I was always really good in math and science,’’ she says. “All the placement tests told me I should pursue engineering, so I ended up in civil engineering.
“I really enjoyed my visit to Purdue; it was a big school and it was a true college campus. I knew I would be relatively close to my parents, who had been to all my games and I wanted them to continue doing that. And the feel of being around the team and coach (Carol) Bruggeman was amazing. She really made me feel at home and I thought I could excel there.’’
Byford also liked the challenge of helping build the Purdue softball program, which was entering its third season of competition in the Big Ten. From the outset of her freshman year (1997), she was a starter in left field and remained there for 238 games, tied for second all-time among Purdue players. By the end, she was awarded a full scholarship.
“I started in left field and graduated in left field,’’ she says. “I missed one game my junior season. They thought I broke my ankle during the Speedline Invitational in Florida. I was sent to the emergency room and it was just a bad sprain, but I sat out the next game.’’
Byford posted a career batting average of .260 and twice led the Boilermakers in stolen bases. However, the closest Purdue came to qualifying for the postseason was when it posted a 41-25 record during her freshman season.
“I still wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,’’ she says. “We played very well, competed well and worked well together. Coach B (Bruggeman) taught us so much more than softball; I learned so many life lessons that have stayed with me, such as how you travel, interact with people and what you do reflects more upon than just you. Playing softball and representing Purdue was a full-time job.’’
According to Byford, Bruggeman took great strides in making sure her players always did what was best for the team and had the right priorities in place.
“She taught us how you present yourself matters,’’ she says. “There were 20 females in the traveling party and people would not remember your name, but they would remember you went to Purdue and they might remember you played softball. You would always come third in that line.
“We took etiquette courses because she wanted to make sure we knew how to eat the right way. We learned discipline structure and how to carry ourselves, and we were always student-athletes first. If I had to miss a practice because of an engineering class or lab, she understood because I was a student first.’’
Byford laughs about how Bruggeman would make sure her players were attending class by sending runners to check on attendance.
“Someone, often a freshman, would get caught and then we would all have to run,’’ she says. “The coaching staff would stand in the middle of Mackey Arena and we would have to run the stairs at 6 a.m. for an hour. Then after practice, they (the offenders) would have to run for us.
“We learned what you do affects other people. And that is still true in all walks of life.’’
Byford also learned a lot about leadership. As a senior, she was named a team captain.
“My class only had three people and there were only three juniors, so we had a lot of freshmen and sophomores looking up to us,’’ she says. “A big part of the role was teaching and helping the younger players make the transition to collegiate level sports and college in general. It’s a big transition to living on your own and learning how to balance things. You want to bring them into the softball family and get them focused.’’
After her senior season of eligibility, Byford received the Red Mackey Award, which honors a senior who exemplifies the overall success of the university’s athletic program.
“That is one of the things I am most proud of and still have it on display in my house,’’ she says. “It was voted on by my teammates and coaches in relationship to what Red stood for: hard work, leadership and dedication.’’
Receiving her degree in civil engineering in 2001, Byford immediately went to work as a project manager for Pepper Construction, the No. 2 general contractor in commercial construction in Chicago.
“I was essentially coordinating the building of buildings,’’ she says. “I negotiated the deal, bid it out and wrote deals with sub-contractors.
“It was a great fit for me and I loved it. I like to negotiate and wheel and deal. I enjoyed the relationships I had with sub-contractors and owners. Eighty-five percent or our work at Pepper is repeat business.’’
Three years later, Byford found herself moving into human resources at Pepper.
“I was doing a lot of college recruiting and visiting with intern departments,’’ she says. “On one of those trips, I happened to mention to the person I was with that I could do this (full-time). That was a case of be careful of what you wish for because I was really happy with the job I was already doing.’’
Byford wound up enrolling in a certification course through Villanova University in order to get a better understanding of human resources. From there, she earned her master’s degree and moved into the human resources department at Pepper, where she was just promoted to associate director.
“I’ve got my hands in everything now and am involved in the strategic direction of the company,’’ she says. “There’s something different every day, whether I’m dealing with unions, field labor or benefits. I love the construction industry and I don’t see myself walking too far away from the engineering aspect because I enjoy knowing what I am talking about.
“However, I do miss the interaction with the owners and field supervision. Every now and then I will get out the hard hat and put on the steel boots so I can stay connected to it. I’m still very involved with new graduates and hires.’’
According to Byford, she sees the construction business starting to pick up again after a rough couple of years.
“We’ve got a lot of bids coming in now, which is a good sign,’’ she says. “I expect things will finally level off in 2011 and then pick up in 2012. Pepper is family-owned and been around since 1927 and we still have those family values. Everybody knows who you are and what you’re good at.’’
Byford also took on the role of player and coach for Pepper’s softball team until she became pregnant over two years ago. Her husband also graduated from Purdue with a civil engineering degree and works as a construction sub-contractor.
“When they first approached me about coaching, they were playing 16-inch,’’ she says with a laugh. “I told them the only way I would coach would be if we played 12-inch and they changed.
In addition to their son, who is approaching his second birthday, Byford and her husband also have two purebred Vizslas (Hungarian hunting dogs), named Wrigley and Comiskey, in their Bridgeport household.
“Forty-pound lap dogs,’’ Byford says. “We love the sports of baseball and softball. We lived in Wrigleyville when we first got married and now that our property value depends on it - go White Sox.’’
Byford says she still remains in contact with Bruggeman and the other members of the senior and junior classes are among her closest friends.
“Friendship is one of the biggest things I took away from Purdue,’’ she says. “The six of us still get together once a year. We would never have come together had it not been for softball.’’