There comes a time where every athlete hangs it up. Hopefully, it’s on your terms and you’ve been satisfied with the effort you put in and the achievements that you’ve earned.
Some see that become a reality, but most don’t. College football players career ending injuries happen, and whether you spent 20 years playing professional sports, or you never made it onto a high school roster, eventually it ends.
My playing career ended on January 16th, 2013 at age 17.
A month prior I was playing quarterback in the state semi-final playoff game for my high schools’ varsity football team. We entered the game with a record of 10–1 after a loss 5 days earlier on thanksgiving.
Massachusetts weather called for snow flurries on this cold December night. I’ll save the dramatics and tell you we fell short and the 2012 season was over. Bummer.
It was a quiet bus ride back to home base where players and coaches spent hours cleaning the locker room and returning borrowed equipment. We might have left the school by midnight with an expectation of being back the next morning for class. The game was on a Tuesday night after all.
The end of a season in high school was always a somber moment. As a junior, I watched 12 seniors play their final game.
For those without plans to play collegiate athletics, that’s all she wrote. Many kids, including me, walked onto the field for the first time a decade earlier with oversized equipment and a very little understanding of how to play the game. But after ten seasons, you look back on the ups and downs that are organized sports and smile at it.
I didn’t need to reflect just yet because I had one more year of Friday night lights before I had to say goodbye. And the possibility of continuing at the next level was growing. Still, I played many years of football with those seniors, and it was hard for me to see them leave the field for the last time together. I would be back, I thought.
In between schoolwork and work, I found myself on a snowboard at the local ski area. It was another sport I started at a young age, and from Christmas to St. Patrick’s day, it was run after run. I ended up working as a snowboard instructor, mostly to ride for free. Thousands of laps in the terrain park accumulated into a decent understanding of how to contort your body while in mid-air. I was, after all, a pack rat.
I shared my love for snowboarding with a few of my friends. We would ride together when we could, but I spent much more time on the mountain by myself. Snowboarding is a commitment, both financially and in regards to time spent. I figured I could solve the former if I worked for the mountain, and the latter was for the love of the sport.
But when we wanted to just get up and ride we built our little terrain park in my friend Eric’s side yard.
That 80-foot hill provided just enough landscape to keep us dumb teens occupied for a few hours. For a few weeks, we built lopsided jumps and wobbly rail features in a line down the hill hoping to make it to the end on both feet. Much of the time we were unsuccessful.
I had just spent an hour working on a feature I wanted to hit before I left for the day. I jammed a 2 x 4 at the lip of the jump we made a few days earlier. My thought was to ride up the jump and wood plank while throwing my feet over my head in an attempt to land a flip.
Well, my feet flew over my head and stayed there.
I quickly came to a rest on my back in the snow. The morning storm had dumped 10 inches of powder throughout parts of northern Massachusetts, and I was laying in a puffy snow insulated bed. My initial reaction was, “wait a minute, I can’t move.” But I didn’t have to because I was wrapped in a comfy snow blanket. Still, I made a few tries to contract my abs to sit up without any luck. I took a breath and found a calm state to keep me conscious. That was becoming increasingly difficult.
I’ve written about that day a a handful of times.
I have a book coming sometime in 2021 that gives a more in-depth first-person experience. To fill you in here on my consequence of misfiring a flip on my snowboard, I was given a diagnosis of a C6 vertebral burst fracture resulting in paralysis by way of a complete spinal cord injury (SCI).
I would undergo immediate spinal fusion surgery and be confined to the intensive care unit at Boston Children’s Hospital for the next 9 days. Unsure if I would ever walk again, I chose to be med-flighted to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, which specialized in SCI and other neurological injuries/diseases.
13 weeks later I was discharged from Shepherd with a power wheelchair and a first-class ticket to Logan International Airport. I left with a bleak prognosis. After trauma, the spinal cord can take up to two years to de-swell and regulate itself. I left the peach state paralyzed from the chest down and in all 10 fingers. My upper body was weak enough that I was confined to a joystick-controlled electric wheelchair.
They say time heals all, but they don’t tell you how much time it will take.
Little did I know that I was walking off the same field with those seniors having played my last game also. A month after putting up almost 300 yards of offense, I was learning how to put a shirt on and brush my teeth by myself.
So what was I now to do? My able-bodied sports career had ended. My lack of voluntary muscle function made it hard to visualize competing in adaptive sports. I returned to the mountain on a sit-ski with an instructor keeping me upright with tethered wraps hooked to the back of my rig. Life came full circle that day, but without the independence of riding myself, my motivation to keep at it deteriorated.
Then I bought a bike. Well, actually, a hand-cycle. Flip flop the engineering on a traditional road bike and you can sit on a seat while you crank the pedals with your hands. Each rotation moves a chain down to the front wheel on the tricycle to propel you as far as you can endure. Which, for me, was about the length of my driveway.
Fast forward to the summer of 2019 (nearly 7 years post-injury) to find me pulling myself dozens of miles through suburban backroads each week, and training my cardiovascular system to progress to the point where I could compete in the Baystate Marathon that October as a wheelchair competitor. I spent five months consistently riding to allow myself to complete 26.2 miles through 3 towns in one go. The most I totaled in one ride was 21 miles, but I had no doubts.
I pulled up to the Tsongas Center in downtown Lowell, MA to see about 1,200 runners walking throughout the campus. The clock on the face of the arena read 7:18 AM. I was due at the start for a 7:55 gun — 5 minutes before the marathon/half marathon runners would begin. I figured I needed to have a solid first few miles to assure that no runner passed me on my bike. I also forgot to mention I was the only rider in my division (male hand-cycle), so a finish guaranteed first place. Success!
I pulled up to a big archway down the main drag with fencing and a timing radar directly ahead of me. I could see pavement for a quarter-mile before the road veered left down into the University of Massachusetts — Lowell.
A balmy 29 degrees had me wrapped up with cold-weather gear as my breath formed clouds chomping through my face mask. New England is unpredictable in mid-October.
There I was. 6 years and 10 months after my last football game I had finally put myself in a position to compete for something. Guaranteed first place was irrelevant because I was constantly looking for that fire that comes from athletic competition. I was competing with myself in every way I had before. I trained, I competed, and I catapulted myself into the next chapter of my life.
That football game looked like the end of a fulfilling career of competition. But I couldn’t settle for less. I was paralyzed 2 months after my 17th birthday and I was committed to prolonging my career as an athlete. Things were going to look very different from that point forward, and all careers come to an end, but it had to be on my terms.