The Grind, presented by Carolina Grove, is a new bi-monthly series that features local high school athletes and "the grind" it takes to be great. Each installment features an article and video interview and premieres the first and third Wednesday of each month.
To watch the video feature of this week's episode of The Grind, CLICK HERE.
Lakewood High School football and soccer player Koby Wagner grew up in a non-traditional family household, though many people in his life were oblivious to that fact. Koby's dad, Christopher, married his stepmother, Tiffany, when he was around 10 years old, but you wouldn't guess that when you see the pair together. Koby and Tiffany are inseparable, which caused some confusion with friends when he was growing up.
"Not many people knew, but the woman that was always around me was my stepmother, who I always treated as a mother and she always treated me as her son," Koby said. "When I let people know that she's my mom and they figure out she's my stepmom, it's always very confusing for them because we're so attached at the hip."
From Day 1, Tiffany and her children, Kevin and Chelsea Carson, were part of the family. They may not be blood, but they treated each other like they've been together their entire lives. That family unit was crucial for Koby growing up. His dad brought him into the world of sports, but the rest of his family broughjt new competition into his life and introduced him to what is now one of his greatest passions: soccer. Off the field, Tiffany instilled a drive to succeed academically. He's thankful to have a family that pushes him.
"My mom is a big rock to me. She's always there, always pushes me, especially in academics. She's real big on academics," Koby said. "My brother, me and him are always really competitive, along with my dad. We always try to compare all of his old stories with baseball, and he's an old Sumter High alum, so we always try to get with him and mess with him a lot."
Wagner's first introduction to athletics was baseball. It didn't stick, but he quickly found football and fell in love. As he got older, Kevin joined the soccer team at Lakewood and Wagner was hooked. Kevin is two years older than Koby, so he had to wait a little while to team up at Lakewood, but the duo eventually shared the field for the Gators.
Kevin also inspired Koby's success off the field, as did Tiffany. Kevin took part in the early college program at Lakewood, finishing high school with an associate's degree from the University of South Carolina Sumter. Koby had to follow suit.
"My older brother, he's a huge role model and he did it, so it was like, 'Oh, you're going to do it too,'" Koby said. "It's a huge thing to do. You get set up with two years free of college, and then you can get a bachelor's degree in two years."
While Koby is following in his brother's footsteps, he gives Tiffany a lot of credit.
"She's been in my life at least 10 years and she took me from an average C student to straight As and now I'm graduating early college in two days," Koby said.
Taking part in the early college program was tough. For one, Koby missed seeing his high school classmates every day, though that would've changed in 2020 due to COVID-19, regardless. The biggest challenge was finding the balance between being a college student and a high school athlete.
"I think the most difficult thing was balancing athletics and academics, because it really makes you feel like you're a college student," Koby said. "You've got a full college schedule, there's no slack and you still have to keep up with your high school activities along with your college work. I feel like balancing the sports was definitely the biggest and most satisfying part of that."
While it was difficult to find the balance between college classes and high school sports, Koby said athletics brought a needed reprieve.
"Sports was definitely a break from reality and class," Koby said. "I definitely enjoyed my time more with my teammates."
Koby's final year at Lakewood was filled with ups and downs. On the field, he tore a tendon in the ring finger of his right hand, a difficult injury to deal with for a defensive lineman. He had surgery on the finger right before the Gator's season was cut short due to a COVID outbreak. Then came the process of trying to get back into playing shape in time for soccer season.
"Trying to get ready for soccer was really stressful," Koby said. "It was supposed to be a 4-month recovery and soccer started in 3 1/2 months, so I was trying to get prepared and you're sitting in a chair for four months and you're thinking to yourself, 'Am I going to be ready? Am I still good enough to play?' I had to get myself in shape for this and I had to get it now. That was a very stressful situation."
A hand injury doesn't seem major for a soccer player, but Wagner plays the one position on the field on which he needs to use his hands. The Gator goal keeper's top priority was making sure his hand could deal with constantly trying to save shots.
"The first one is motion. With soccer, the biggest thing was can my finger and the new tendon take the impact of a ball coming at me constantly popping back. That, and trying to get my grip strength back. That was huge. I think the hardest part was trying to grab things because it was stiff for like two months and I couldn't move it, so that was the hardest."
While the road through rehabilitation was hard, Koby was determined to get back on the field for his final athletic season at Lakewood.
"Just knowing it was the last ride at Lakewood, that was the hugest thing for me," Koby said. "I wanted to go out with a bang and create even more memories with teammates. I was pushing myself and I don't usually operate very well if I don't play sports, so I was very anxious to get back out there."
Koby was also fighting a quieter battle off the field. Tiffany hoped to officially adopt Koby this year, but it wasn't as simple as two sides wanting to complete the process. After some failed attempts, the adoption finally went though, which was a huge relief for the family.
"She's always been there and that's why I was so ready for the adoption, because she's always been such a big part of my life," Koby said. "It's been an up-and-down process where you have your ups of trying to get adopted and it doesn't work out, and then if finally goes through and you're just real happy and you have a lot of joy."
Koby will graduate from Lakewood and USC Sumter this spring with his mind set on attending the University of South Carolina. He hopes to walk-on to either the football or soccer team at USC, but that part of the plan is still up in the air.
"Definitely going to Columbia for academics, but I'm still balancing whether I want to walk on for football or soccer, but I definitely plan on trying out for either one," Koby said. "When it comes to sports, in your mind, you ask yourself how you're going to have time to do it? How is life going to be now? Now you're going to be a true college athlete, and you know there's not going to be enough time, so what are you going to be willing to sacrifice to play sports? That's the biggest thing to me."
Right now, he's leaning toward soccer. Mark Berson, who started the USC men's soccer program, just retired after 43 years. Koby thinks having Tony Annan as the new head coach will bring more opportunities for walk-ons to make the team.
"I've been keeping up a lot with the soccer team, and the coach just finally retired after 43 years, so a new staff is going to come in and want new guys," Koby said. "That definitely opens the doors for a walk-on like myself to come on and show them what I have to offer."
Whatever Koby does, he'll do it with the support of his family. He just wants to make his family proud.
"Personal growth, in a sense," Koby said when asked what drives him to succeed. "I have a lot of personal pressure on myself because of how I grew up on sports and school. I know I have to get stuff done and I know I have to do it to the best of my ability. I can't go mediocre; I have to go above and beyond."
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