My fellow seniors and I are officially hanging up our jerseys for good and are packing up our belongings from our lockers for the last time. These actions fill us with a million mixed feelings. I’ve had so many people over the last couple of weeks approach me asking about my emotions regarding being done with my sport. It seems as if they believe I should be ecstatic about being done. I mean, I get it, why shouldn’t I?
I’ll have no more morning practices or lifts, which means sleeping in more often. No more games on the weekends, which means more time to do whatever I want. There’s no longer a need to be at Alexander Gymnasium for over four hours a day, every day, which means I’m actually doing my homework at a decent hour. Everyone who has never played a sport is focusing completely on these aspects of being a retired college athlete, but all I can think about is the piece of me that now seems to be missing, and I can’t imagine my fellow seniors feel much different.
You see, as I look at my jersey, the one that I will never wear again, I can’t help but get flooded with emotions because I know that it is more than just a jersey. There are so many memories attached to it. As I put my glove into my backpack to take home without knowing if it will ever get used competitively again, I think about all that I have done throughout my career. My participation in softball has been a key part of my life for 16 years. The most important thing in my life is over, and I’m supposed to be relieved? No.
I’m not ready to give it up, so I just keep replaying it all in my head. I close my eyes and I can see myself holding my state championship trophy with my dad standing next to me with tears in his eyes from how proud he was of me. I close my eyes and see the dance-off that my team had against Beloit this year (we won, obviously). I can see the moment when someone hit a home run off of me for the first time. I clearly recall all the heart-to-hearts I had with my teammates that made us into a family instead of just a softball team. I remember losing by 15 and winning by 15. Each and every memory is one that I savor, refuse to let go of and wish I could experience for the first time all over again. So, no, I’m not relieved to be done, but I am happy for what I got to do.
Everything that I have experienced through the participation in athletics has shaped me into who I am. It has taught be what it means to work hard and get rewarded and what it means to work hard, get beat and bounce back asking for more. Athletics have taught me how to have hope, how to be compassionate and competitive and the importance of good juju. The gym has given me a place to escape to when I need a place to feel safe. The batting cage has given me a place to burn off steam by obliterating ball after ball until I’m five buckets deep. The field has given me a sense of power and confidence that are essential. Athletics have given me everything, so what am I supposed to do now?
I suppose time will pass. I’ll pick up a new hobby and start focusing on other things in life, and everything will be fine and dandy. At least, that’s what everyone is telling me. They might be right, but at this point in time, it is hard to see it that way. Prior to the start of my final season, I used to fear that one day I would come back to watch someone else wear my jersey on a field that doesn’t seem as big as I remembered it, playing a game that I now can only play through my memories, and I would feel like I no longer belonged there. I used to have this fear. After finishing my last season, that fear no longer exists.
I have learned that just because the season ends and my athletic career follows with it, it doesn’t mean that the sport leaves you empty. There is no erasing of the mark that athletics has left on your soul. The game will always be a part of you. The family that you built because of it will always be there. Many teams here at Lawrence emphasize this fact. For example, the women’s basketball team has the motto “WE > me,” and the softball team has “F.A.M.I.L.Y” which stands for: Focus, Accountability, Mudita, Intention, Lion-heart and YOU. Despite many of our athletics teams not seeing a lot of success record-wise, there is a lot of success in the heart of the department. Every coach is dedicated to their players’ well-being, success and overall performance. Every athletics staff member makes a point of being part of the athletes’ lives. Every single athlete is there for each other, because not only are we a part of individual teams, we are a part of the Lawrence Athletics team as a whole. Without softball, I wouldn’t have been here. Without softball, I would not have the teammates that have turned into friends and from friends to family.
So, yeah it’s happening. It happens to everyone eventually. Every athlete will eventually experience the moment that they hang up their jersey for the last time. Soak it in. Feel sad because the ending of a career is a hard thing to go through, and that’s okay. However, while it might be an end to a career, it is not a goodbye. Athletics have a way of impacting us for life. Trust in that. Be happy with what you were able to accomplish. Celebrate it. Above all, believe in the truth of “Once a Viking, always A Viking.”