This post was something I wrote during this year’s training camp. Take it for what it’s worth. But yes, I am currently waxing sentimental. Enjoy.
Another 5 years.
If someone asked me today, if I could do 5 years of this, I’d say no with resounding confidence and assurance. But back in 2004, that simply wasn’t the case. I couldn’t imagine myself not being a college football player. But here I am on the brink of my last season, and that reality is staring me boldly in the face. It has caused me to reflect on the past four seasons, and I’d like to share with you the highlights from these reflections.
As a freshman, my concern wasn’t playing time, or even whether I’d redshirt or not. My stomach was in knots about being on time to meetings and whether or not I’d get lost on this big campus. I remember my number one concern was figuring out how to attach my socks to my “laundry loop.” Every insecurity I had, as a football player and as a man, was magnified. Nowhere to hide. Of course, my first year playing we made a bowl game, which was an incredible experience to say the least, but I remember being in the locker room hearing 4th-year players talking about how they weren’t going to come back, even though they still had eligibility remaining. I remember one of our captains, a senior linemen, saying that his shoulders, and back, and his love of the game were all shot. Again, at the time, I remember thinking that this was sacrilegious.
I also remember declaring (with a profound ignorance and certainty that only an 18-year-old can possess) that I’d never get tired of the game and that I couldn’t believe that all “this” could ever get old. Looking back on that, I can only apologize to everyone who had to hear that and I am embarrassed at what the seniors must have thought.
Grant Preston, who was one of a select few who returned in 2005 for his final year of eligibility was the first person I saw after returning from winter break. I asked him if he had gotten a jump on the off-season training program, and he told me he “hadn’t done a freakin’ thing” when he was home. He may as well have told me he knew where Bin Laden was but wasn’t going to let anyone in on the secret. I was totally shocked. I had just made my Dad pay someone to condition me and lift me one-on-one so that I could be in peak physical form.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “when you get to be my age  and you’ve played for this long, your body can’t handle it, especially at our position.”
I look back on that and I wanna tell Grant that he couldn’t have been more right. The injury potential in football (immediate and long term) is like the giant elephant in the room. Nate Jackson, a former Denver Bronco, once said, “What we’re doing is an unnatural thing for the human body. Completely unnatural. The things we’re asking our bodies to do, God didn’t make us to do these things.”
We never talk about the possibility of getting hurt; of all the glory being taken away. But there is a reason we wear braces and helmets and shoulder pads and mouth guards. Because the truth is, we are all inches away from experiencing firsthand our very mortality. The trade-off is that on Saturday afternoons, you get to feel immortal, or at least convince yourself that you are. The “Game” tests you. It stresses your body, your mind, and your relationships, and it has the ability to transform and transcend negatively and positively. It offers enlightenment and endangerment. But I never had to consider this dichotomy until the years in my career began to accumulate.
There were times where I was (literally) moments away from transferring. Where I was stuck in such a deep and depressive psychosis not understanding why I didn’t play more (read: sophomore and junior year). I have felt the lowest of lows (botched long snaps against Rutgers and Pittsburgh…most people don’t have their greatest mistakes broadcast nationally) and the highest of highs: 7 tackles, 4TFLs, and a sack against Rutgers. Beating South Florida and watching thousands of fans pour onto our field.
My first season as a starter (a mild miracle) taught me a lot about the real game, played in the trenches. While the game has turned fancy and stylish and even faster (see Terrell Owens) the battle between offensive and defensive linemen really hasn’t evolved much at all comparatively, or at all, since, say, the middle ages. (See Braveheart for further explanation.)
What we do in games would have you arrested in 49 of the 50 states (here’s looking at you, Mississippi). But what we put our bodies through is unnatural and, again, sometimes unsafe. And yet, most of us wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Stefan Fatsis wrote about his experiences trying to make it as a kicker with the Denver Broncos, saying, “The absolute freedom of running around on grass and dirt and throwing, catching, kicking…I have never felt more alive than when the memories of them surface, or even better, when they are conjured by something real.” To me, the injuries (and there have been a few) are met head on, in direct conflict with the beauty of soupy fall afternoons, brotherhood, and love of athletic toil.
So I guess it comes down to compromise. Still in training camp now, with bad hips and a bad back. Pain in my knees, burning in my legs, and swelling in my hands, and without the love of a good woman, there still isn’t anything in the world I’d trade it for. Even for another 5 years.