One of the most important lessons that sports teaches is that nothing lasts forever. The thrill of a victory or sting of a loss has a short shelf life that usually expires by the start of the next game. No athletic career is indefinite: whether we reach our ceiling of athletic potential and can’t go any further, we’re cut off by the diminishing skills that come with time and age, or our careers are cut short by injury, we all have to eventually “hang ‘em up”.
For many high school athletes, the end is here. Over the past several weeks, thousands of young people across Ohio, played in their last competitive matches and games. A lucky few are still competing through the first week of December, and fewer still will go on to play their sports after high school. But by the start of the following week, a majority of the graduating senior student-athletes will be faced with the reality that their athletic career has come to an end.
So, when all is said and done, what does last from your athletic experience? What do you take with you? What do you leave behind?
I vividly remember my last high school football game. I was fortunate to have played on some great teams with some amazing athletes, great guys, and under some legendary coaches. We won conference championships, advanced to the playoffs, and several guys went on to have successful collegiate football careers.
I was lucky. I was relatively small for the positions I played (fullback and linebacker) but I had a lot of success on the field, was a two-time captain, and took so much away from my experience over those four years including life-long friendships, memories, and a greater appreciation for the value of preparation, hard work, and teamwork. Although I never broke a bone and had never missed start through my junior year, a series of injuries including multiple sprained ankles, knee sprains, and concussions, plagued me my senior year. By that last game of the season, my ankles were taped so tightly that it almost felt like I was running on stilts.
I was going to be one of the first in my family to go to college and didn’t really know what to expect – but I did know that I wanted to continue my baseball career. I loved football, but given the injuries I’d experienced and realizing (reluctantly) that the chances were slim that I’d continue to grow to a size that would allow me to stay competitive and healthy at the next level, I made the decision that my senior year would be my last playing football.
That last game was a blast. It was cold, muddy, and there was a little bit of snow on the ground and in the air. It was the type of game that you dream of playing as a kid. My school (Padua Franciscan) was playing our arch-rivals (Holy Name) at their place – the place we had clinched our last conference championship a few years prior. I don’t remember the score, but I know it was back and forth. I remember a few carries, catching a pass or two out of the backfield, and picking up a little more yardage than I usually would at the fullback position. I remember we won the game.
But mostly, I remember walking out of the stadium.
My dad gave my some advice when I was younger. When I’d be playing in a big game, no matter what the sport, he always encouraged me to, “Stop, take a deep breath, and look around. Take it all in. You may never be in a game like this or a place like this again. Try to take a picture in your mind of this moment, and no matter what happens, no one can ever take that moment, that memory, away from you.”
I have a collection of many of those moments in my mind that are far more vivid than the results of the games. It’s something I’ve carried over to other moments in my life: moments with my wife, my family, my kids.
And so, as I’m sure so many other young athletes did over the past few weeks, as I was leaving the stadium, I took one last glance behind me. The bleachers were empty but the lights were still on. Light snow was falling and a glaze of ice was starting to blanket the grass, starting to hide the trails of dark muddy footprints spread down the middle of the field. It was quiet, peaceful.
I remember I wasn’t sad. I was satisfied. I remember feeling that I had given everything I had that night, and as the saying goes, I had “left it all out on the field”. At the same time, that new layer of snow was quickly covering up the mud and footprints, and any evidence that a game was played that night. I remember thinking that it was symbolic, like I was being reminded again that nothing lasts forever, that life was moving on, and my time on the football field was done.
I’m grateful for that memory. I’m grateful for the experiences, the camaraderie, the friendships, and the lessons learned that football game me – it even introduced me to my wife (she was an athletic trainer for the team)!
This particular memory always comes flooding back for me this time of year, as do the memories of all those individual teammates and coaches who made my entire experience playing football so impactful.
If you have a son or daughter – or are a coach – and your players are approaching or have reached the end of their competitive careers what are you doing to help them appreciate the times that they’ve had and the time they have left?
During our coach workshops, we often ask the question, “How do you want to be remembered?” Have you defined the legacy that you want to leave behind with the players and families that you work with?
Other than wins and losses what will your players take away from your team and sport when they glance back at their field, their court, their arena after their last competition? What opportunities have you created for those athletes to make their mark and leave something meaningful behind for the younger players that will follow?
Remember, nothing lasts forever. The trick for us as athletes, coaches, and parents is how to make the impact of those sports moments echo in meaningful and inspiring ways throughout our lives that instill a sense of gratitude, satisfaction, and a desire to live and work in a way that honors the legacies that we’ve all left behind!