Lessons Learned in College Athletics
I think it’s time for a good reintroduction, but I’m going to change it up a bit. I want to share the story of how I got into rugby. Strap in for this one.
Not gunna lie, I came out of high school with a pristine resume. SAT. GPA. Sports. Student council. All the things. I was applying to college mostly to figure out where I could continue playing sports. I cast a wide net with basketball recruiting videos and from there started visiting schools that showed interest. I didn’t really have a decision in mind until I received a letter from the University of Scranton telling me that they were offering me a presidential scholarship. The way it works is there is a dinner with alumni every year where they vote on recipients of a full tuition scholarship. As a Jesuit school, the scholarship is based in well roundedness; people that have balance of academics, athletics, and extra curricular activities. The letter stated that I was in a group of 30 selected out of the 7,000 applications that year. I was sold on the trifecta: not being forced to go to college in my hometown, getting recruited to play basketball, and also going to where The Office comes from.
Anxiety Producing Poems
Part of the presidential scholarship program was having a monthly dinner with the president of the university. There was usually required intellectual reading and the idea was to discuss it over dinner. One problem though: I never understood what those freaking poems were about. Then, I would find myself with the other 10 presidential scholars all slinging impressive thought out answers and then he’d be like, “What do you think of this poem?” and I would be like, “This is a great poem, sir.” and later be kicking myself for not having anything intelligent to say. Although, I did usually bring home some baller leftovers to the dorms. Further feeding my low self esteem was that there were way more people than I thought that showed up to try out for basketball. This was something that I should have been prepping for for months and didn’t. I quickly found myself not automatically being the best player in the room. I wasn’t used to that. I should’ve used that adversity to at least fight for a spot, but I didn’t. I shut down. I was there at the practices but I wasn’t really there. By the time it came to getting cut, I saw it coming. I was devastated and humiliated, but found a distraction in going to parties. Ain’t no party like a Scranton party, amirite? Not quite the best use of a full ride.
We don’t usually take walk ons.
Since my scholarship was somewhat based in athletics, I felt I had to figure something out to save face. Soccer was always my off season sport, so I thought maybe I can go talk to the coach and see about trying out. I was told that they didn’t need anyone besides if I felt like giving goalie a shot. I’d never done it. I was always a defender. The logic of “I played basketball so I guess I can catch” was about to be put to the test. The long shot of the situation was out weighed by my burning desire to get on a team and make up for my prior failure. Those first few weeks were a brutal combination of getting pelted by balls and also diving with no form or training all over the place. I don’t know if they were desperate from not recruiting any back up goalies or if I actually showed glimmers of hope but they kept me. That summer when I got home I immediately joined a U23 club as a goalie and sought help from local trainers. The more I got into it the more I thought I could really do something with it.
I heard you wrote a manifesto.
Fast forward to junior year. I’m two years into goalkeeping and feeling good. I’m in great shape. I prepared this time. I’m not repeating the mistakes of old. I slayed the preseason testing. I’m thinking I have a legitimate shot of being the #1. Junior year is where I learned you can do everything right on your end but sometimes stuff just doesn’t work out anyway. I was generally ok with being named back up again at first, but when you are a consistent observer of games you start to see patterning of things that could be better. We weren’t as successful as we could’ve been that year with a stacked roster. Nobody would argue with me on that. At our end of the season, we were asked what could have been better. I thought long and hard about whether or not to rock the boat and be honest. I was happy to be part of a team and being able to consider myself a student athlete again, so it was risky to think about calling people out. In the end, I made a decision by just sitting at the computer and writing out my thoughts.
We’ve decided we’re not going to have you back next year.
I took my five page single spaced word document into my end of the year individual meeting. It was harsh. I knew that. But at that point I was tired of being nice and watching us not be successful. Some people wouldn’t believe this but I truly did believe I was doing what I felt was right for the team. I could’ve just coasted through a full college career and not even have to play. But I also knew that my timidness and unwillingness to fight for myself was my downfall before, so the side of my head that was telling me to go for broke won out. I sat down and before the coaches even started talking I pulled it out and read it. They didn’t really react in the moment. I left without any more or less information than when I walked in. I attended the end of the season dinner like nothing had happened, but two weeks later I got called in again. It was finals week, right before everyone was about to leave for winter break. It’s a lot easier to get rid of a player when everyone leaves the campus that week anyway. I wouldn’t call it getting cut, but I’m not really sure what word to put on it.
Wait, I’m allowed to tackle her?
The combination of becoming a really angry and bitter person coupled with turning 21 and the peak of going out and being rambunctious was probably not the best. It was a low, and I knew I couldn’t continue on that self-destructive path. Rugby entered my life because I was a disgruntled athlete who spent most of my day at that time wanting to hit someone. I couldn’t believe the level of contact that was allowed, and immediately fell in love with it. It was cheaper than therapy and way more fun. At the same time, I enrolled myself in a summer study abroad program in Uganda. I went there in the summer before senior year. I initially signed up to get away for a while and try to do something positive. Most people would just go to the beach or something to get away, but I took it a little more extremely. What I ended up finding is being in a situation for the first time where I didn’t carry the superficial labels of my resume. I worked on projects, visited schools and hospitals, and interacted with many different types of people. I found self-worth in knowing that I could be a functioning person and contribute to society just as me. As the Jesuits say, the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. I also brought and gave away all of my soccer and basketball stuff. There’s a metaphor for letting go somewhere in there. I took this new found resolve and outlook into my senior year. Thankfully for rugby you only need cleats and a mouthguard.
We took Scranton’s program to the D2 EPRU Championship my senior year. Over time, I learned that rugby was much more than something to do when you’re pissed off. I felt like I finally found a home once I stopped worrying about the image of being a varsity athlete. Rugby was way more inviting and inclusive, and I felt like I was worth more than just what my skills and utility were on the field. I never looked back. I tell my story to show growth is not linear, nor does growth stop. I posted a lot over the years about myself in athletics, but I wanted to demonstrate in real terms that there is usually a difference between Instagram vs. reality. I now try to bring what I learned into life after athletics. I continue to hone my craft as a physical therapist. I don’t claim to be anything better than anyone else. What creates separation is attention to detail, doing the basics really well, and committing to lifelong learning. I’ve helped a lot of people successfully in the first decade of my career, but what is different now is that my early success will not turn into complacency. I’m always going to be the therapist reading journals, investing in continuing education, and having dialogues with communities of my peers. I will listen to your story, get to know you as a person, and work with you to facilitate a solution (even if it’s referring to someone else!). Remember, the journey to recovery starts with a chat over coffee.