Nyk Sessock was tense in the days leading up to the spring 2021 College Cup.
He started 17 matches for the University of Pittsburgh men’s soccer the season before and played all 103 minutes in the team’s season opener against Indiana, a 3-2 overtime loss.
In that season-opening loss, Indiana’s Herbert Endeley dashed into the 18-yard box to reach a through ball from A.J. Palazzolo as Sessock trailed behind. Helpless to stop the attack, Sessock watched Endeley dodge the diving goalkeeper and drill the golden goal.
Pitt made an NCAA Tournament appearance that season in 2019, but Sessock needed a change of scenery following his sophomore year. He loved Pitt and his teammates there, but issues between him and the coaching staff led him to transfer.
After logging 3,316 minutes and 32 starts for Pitt in his two years, it was time to move on. He decided on a team with history, both with him and in the grander scheme of college soccer: the eight-time national champion Indiana.
You can’t see them most of the time he’s on the soccer pitch — once summer turns into fall, Sessock switches his short-sleeve jersey for long sleeves — but his arms are covered in tattoos.
Sessock’s backstory regarding his tattoos is fairly typical. Getting tattoos was looked down upon when he was growing up, but self-expression takes many forms. In Sessock’s case, having what he cares about etched into his skin serves as a reminder and makes them more a part of him.
“It’s a conversation starter, but it’s also a part of me, and I want to have that on me forever,” Sessock said.
None tell his story more so than the one on his right shoulder — a portrait of Rocky Balboa in front of Mighty Mick’s Gym. It’s a homage to his hometown of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Sessock screams Philly even without the Rocky tattoo; you can hear it in his voice and see it in the way he carries himself.
The tattoo of Rocky also represents the underdog mentality he carries, even when he takes the field for one of the most prolific college soccer programs in the country. Sessock said he fears complacency and reminds himself people are coming to take his spot.
“When you’re at the top, you’re just like ‘I’m sitting pretty,’” Sessock said. “There’s nothing really you’re trying to get to, you know what I mean?”
Sessock’s roots in soccer start in Philadelphia as well. His father served as a driving force in his pursuit of a career in the game, and he was a soccer player himself. Sessock’s father served five seasons as an assistant coach at St. Joseph’s University, a private Jesuit university in Philadelphia.
His father went to Catholic school his whole life and wanted Nyk to as well. He did until the eighth grade, but moved on to YSC Academy, a prep school which is an affiliate of the MLS club Philadelphia Union.
Sessock’s drive for soccer took him out of Catholic school, but it never took away his faith. God is a big part of Sessock’s life to this day; he wears a cross necklace and misses attending Sunday mass with his dad back home.
He doesn’t go to church with his teammates in Bloomington. He could, but getting dressed up and going to church every Sunday was a bonding moment he shared with his father; it’s tough not being able to do that, and it wouldn’t be the same without him.
Even though he’s away from his hometown and his parents, who Sessock says are his biggest supporters, Bloomington has become a second home for Sessock. He appreciates the differences between the small college town he found himself playing soccer in and the big city where he grew up.
“I think what I needed in life, when I talk about change, it’s not only from a different perspective with people, but with the place as well,” Sessock said. “I think I’ve adapted way better than I thought I would.”
Even an 11-hour drive from home, Sessock’s roots in Philadelphia help him on and off the soccer pitch in Bloomington, according to his head coach, Todd Yeagley. Sometimes he needs a push, but Yeagley said Sessock brought “Philly toughness” with him when he transferred. It’s helped him become a leader on the team.
“He immediately earned the respect of his teammates,” Yeagley said. “I just can’t say enough about how quickly he assimilated himself in the group and how much he’s so well-liked.”
Yeagley said despite being the “cool kid with tattoos,” Sessock is soft-spoken and humble. A great player and friend to his teammates who responds to adversity. His talents and personality helped him earn the respect of his teammates quickly once he arrived at Indiana, especially Spencer Glass, who was a fifth-year senior when Sessock arrived at IU and who played two seasons with him.
Glass connected with Sessock as soon as he arrived in Bloomington. Both played in the defensive fullback positions at Indiana on the pitch; they have similar values off of it as well. Glass was drawn to Sessock’s family-oriented nature and his ability as a leader.
“Nyk’s just the guy that, I think, if I ever need anything, he’s the first one to offer it up and try to help out,” Glass said.
Sam Sarver burst onto the scene as a freshman during the fall 2021 season. The speedy forward brought swagger to Indiana’s squad and, more importantly, scoring talent. Sarver netted seven goals in 22 appearances during his first year in Bloomington, second on the team only to former MAC Hermann Trophy runner-up Victor Bezerra.
He became a fan favorite. The game came naturally for Sarver — but life in college didn’t. In a since-edited Instagram post from him on March 13, Sarver revealed he had been battling depression for years, and his cousin, who he’d grown up with, had died in a motorcycle accident the summer before his freshman year. He said the loss of his cousin took a toll on him, mentally and physically.
Sarver recalls staying up until 3 a.m. most nights, waking up for training then going straight back to sleep and skipping class. He said he couldn’t go to sleep until his body had completely shut down.
Later in the post, he singled out one teammate. The only one who “knew his inner struggles.” A teammate he could break down in front of and cry into his arms.
That teammate was Nyk Sessock.
“I felt safe with him,” Sarver said in the post. “I knew no matter what I told him he’d look at me the same, like an older brother I never had.”
Four hundred and fourteen days after he committed to Indiana, Sessock was set to make his College Cup debut with the Hoosiers. The venue? WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. The opponent? His former team, Pitt.
Sessock and the Hoosier backline put together a near-perfect season to this point, giving up just five goals in 14 contests during the team’s postponed, COVID-ravaged season in the spring of 2021. The pandemic forced the Hoosier faithful to watch from home while the team played in an empty Bill Armstrong Stadium.
Sessock’s coaches told his teammates not to mess with him before the match against Pitt. Normally personable and outgoing, it wasn’t like Sessock to shut them out. But this match meant more to him than a trip to the national championship game.
“I wanted to prove my worth to not only IU, but show what Pitt was missing,” Sessock said.
After a season full of empty stadiums, Indiana and Pitt faced off in front of 2,667 fans in Cary. A big stage became bigger with fans in the stands, and Sessock would have to face the Pitt faithful who made the trip.
“I thought that added some pressure,” Sessock said. “Good teams love that, love that pressure.”
Heading into the College Cup, Pitt forward Alexander Dexter had contributed seven goals and five assists to his team’s high-powered offense, which scored 49 goals in 20 matches during the spring 2021 season. Pitt won 16 matches, three of which were the result of game-winning goals from Dexter.
In the national semifinal, Sessock drew Dexter’s assignment. He’d have to shut down a prolific scorer and former teammate, who had scored two goals in the tournament already, to help his team advance to the final. That's just what he did.
Dexter didn’t get a single shot off in 56 minutes on the pitch, lined up against his former teammate, and Sessock led Indiana to a 90-minute shutout in regulation. In addition to the defensive prowess he showed against Pitt, Sessock’s ability to press forward and get the opposing defense out of position eventually led to the Hoosiers’ game-winner.
In 2019, Sessock could only watch as Herbert Endeley sped past him to score the game-winning golden goal in Indiana’s season-opening win. This time, he sent the decisive pass to Endeley before he split two defenders and slotted the ball above Pitt’s goalkeeper, giving Indiana a 1-0 lead it would hold to advance to the final.
“He had to be mentally strong to be present in that moment, and also obviously it was a huge moment for us to then catapult ourselves into the final,” Yeagley said. “I don’t think we do that without Nyk’s performance in that particular game.”
As he walked onto Yeagley Field, flanked by his parents, Sessock recalled advice his dad gave to him to always cherish times like this, because they go by fast. His parents were in town for his Senior Night celebration, and he still had a decision to make.
Sessock couldn’t believe the time had finally come. He remembered when he was a freshman, watching the seniors at Pitt take the field for the last time and thinking he never wanted to be in their shoes. He never wanted it to end. He wanted to be there forever.
Even though he’d already played four seasons of college soccer, this didn’t have to be the last time he played at Bill Armstrong Stadium.
The Hoosiers advanced to the national championship match his junior year, but this was the end of his first true season of Indiana soccer. He played in front of empty stands his junior year, but as a senior he got the full experience; thousands of candy-stripe-clad Hoosiers packed into Armstrong Stadium to cheer him and his teammates on.
“They’re a great support system,” Sessock said. “Rain or shine, whether it’s cold, they’re still out there banging on the boards and they’re cheering us on and that’s more than what we could ask for.
He didn’t get to go to classes his junior year either. He only truly experienced Indiana for one year. The feeling of missing out, paired with Indiana failing to pick up the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, helped solidify his decision.
After a discussion with his coaches, Sessock announced through Twitter on Dec. 10, 2021, he would return to Indiana for a fifth season. COVID-19 took away a normal first season for him at his new home, but the NCAA granted all college athletes who were on rosters that season an extra year of eligibility, which he decided to take advantage of.
In his words, it came down to this — he wanted to “chase trophies.”
In the beginning of his announcement video, Sessock points to the sky as “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins begins, or so it seems. “Philly, champions of the United States,” Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill begins. The intro to Meek Mill’s “Champions” album samples Collins, and the song seems to signify two things: Sessock’s roots in Philadelphia and his desire to come back and win championships.
Sessock said he was 50-50 on returning after the fall 2021 regular season, but when Indiana fell to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament final, his decision was made. He spoke with Glass before making his final decision, which Sessock said pointed him in the right direction.
Glass was a fifth-year senior when Sessock arrived at Indiana. Now, Sessock has to fill the shoes of his teammate and friend. The same freshmen he mentored last season have grown into sophomores, and a new crop of incoming youngsters will need guidance.
One last dance awaits Sessock in the fall, and he’s ready to make the most of it.