Humor me: I want to let you inside of the fall athlete’s world for a bit. For the remainder of this article, it’s August — and you’re in for the ride of your life, my friend.
Move-in day. Freshly cut lawns are empty, doors are locked, café hours are non-existent. You pick up your key from enthusiastic campus employees. If you are like my roommate and I, your items are strewn throughout your vacant hallway, loud music blasting out of your abandoned dorm windows. You feel like you own the place. Campus and the sport of your choice become your entire universe. You forget this is a university. Classes seem forever away. You think of your field as your arena, your teammates as your family.
Meetings comprise most of your first day. You’ll hear how important academics are, how important you are, how to keep your head in check and how you represent the school and its values. Important people make appearances every now and then. You’ll get that swelling of school pride mixed in with relief that no one else has arrived yet. On this campus, during this time, you do feel important. A piece to an essential puzzle.
You are exhausted, make no doubt about it. You’ll practice two or three times a day during the hottest days of what was supposed to be a cold state. You’ll be so desperate for calories that Commons food tastes pretty good for a while. Salty bacon is the best thing in the world. That waffle maker becomes your best friend as you wait desperately for the rest of the food options to open. That’s right, no pizza, no make-it-yourself stations. You enjoy short lines to most of your mandatory meals and pray the fire alarm doesn’t disrupt your cherished breaks. (Editor’s note: only one false alarm this preseason, not bad.)
After practices, you are still with your team family. Maybe you play on the Quad’s sand courts or match off in some rounds of middle school games like “Never have I ever…” Volleyball and soccer will match off in their annual water polo game. Every sport will go scream at a soccer or football scrimmage.
You won’t touch the books you packed to read, because despite a free night, all you can think about is what you’ll work on in practice the next day. Maybe you’ll condition. Try a new drill. You end up theorizing starting lineups and game possibilities with friends and teammates. When you call home, all you can talk about is your sport. You feel the school you are representing on your shoulders.
Prepping. That’s preseason. You prepare, mix in a couple of scrimmages and antsily await the first set of games. Every goal you score, every ball you dig, all those miles you run, you can imagine that success with a score on the board, with a time in mind. You imagine this school year on the conference win list. Doesn’t matter the odds.
Media day. You come up with some poses and wonder if they’ll use that picture for that record you break, that game day announcement. Maybe it’ll be you this year. Maybe someone you’re close to.
Finally, the first game. Reality check. It doesn’t matter how good your practices are, you will undoubtedly find a million things to work on. Watching that game footage, especially as a first year, can be slightly torturous. You probably find you look less like the Lebron picture of yourself in your head and more like those middle schoolers you helped out at summer camp. But you are motivated. You’ve been here so long, two weeks feel like a few months. You’ll find that one highlight reel shot of yourself and send it home and try to create more of them next time.
Only a few days left before classes. Your practice time is cut down now, but you’ll probably spend most of that free time in the gym or on the field anyway. When classes start, you’ve aged twenty years or so. The empty spaces fill up, you feel like a smaller piece of this puzzle. Sometimes your tired body wishes it could go back to that first week when your sport was your world. Chances are, though, there will be things you are glad to have back with a full campus population. Even homework can feel a bit nostalgic. You’ll get sick of people complaining about AC and commons food after day two, but it becomes more of an inside joke between you and summer residents. Reality comes back in full doses as your practices take normal times and your sport becomes a small part of an active lifestyle.
Congrats! You finished your hypothetical, majorly abridged preseason. A lot of non-athletes will ask me why we do what we do. The same questions get asked of musicians and presidents and college students in general. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone. Sure, it’s nice to feel like a main character in your own sports YA novel for a while, but that’s not what brings me to Appleton earlier than some of my peers. I feel pride for my school and the responsibilities of each working part. That uniform is a privilege not a lot of people get to carry. For me, I love the work. I love that I can do things my six-year-old self never could’ve imagined me doing. I love my connections across the river and I love the adrenaline and I love to win. Winning doesn’t always look like a bigger number on a scoreboard. I think the ability to play my sport is the win. All that for a few extra weeks of Commons food and a sweaty gym. Those extra weeks do something to you; they make you appreciate what your body can do, what this campus and student body does so you can do what you do. We get some inside jokes along the way. It’s a done deal.