That Final Moment

My wife and I recently watched the 2nd season of Cheer on Netflix. We live in Corsicana where Navarro College is and both know many people who have gone through those halls either educationally, athletically, or professionally. It is kind of cool to watch a show that features your hometown, especially when that hometown is barely more than 30,000 people and its other claim to fame are fruit cakes. And it is neat to get a better idea of what goes into cheerleading outside of what you see on the sidelines at games. Growing up, I thought of sports as things like football and baseball. Cheerleading and band weren't sports to me but after having kids who participated in band, something that was never an option for me growing up, and watching Cheer, I've gotten a new perspective and respect for those sports and those who participate in them. Never let anyone tell you that neither is physically challenging or less stressful than say football or basketball. They all require physical fortitude, mental focus, and come with a risk of injury. All carry with them serious competitions that carry significant weight on their futures.

But getting back to the show Cheer, and more specifically the subject of how COVID affected the team in 2020, made me reflect on something from my past that resonated with me.

In 2020, cheerleading's main competition was canceled due to COVID. Every cheerleader who had been practicing for months was suddenly left with no culmination, no climax, no closure, no conclusion to their year. All the hours spent practicing, studying, running drills, and whatnot suddenly came to an abrupt halt with absolutely no reward or payoff. Many of the people on the Navarro Cheer team that year were forced to finish their semester in quarantine, far away from everyone they had spent months, or even years, building bonds with. Then, at the end of the school year, some of them left, never to return and without the ability to say farewell to their teammates or the sport that they had poured their lives into for so long.

To walk away from something you love without having a sense of closure or a chance to say goodbye can be a very mentally and emotionally difficult thing to do. You look at every senior, whether it be in high school or college, and watch the emotion pour out of them at the final buzzer, bell, siren, stroke, point, of whatever signals the end of that sport and you will see several of them in tears. Some are sad to know that their athletic careers are at an end and that they will likely never participate in a sport that they love again. Others are moved because they know that this will be one of the last times they get to be with that team or achieve what they may have achieved that season. It is very much like the same emotions one might expect to see on graduation day when students are confronted with the reality of that period of their lives have officially ended and that they may never see many of the people that they have grown close to in the years prior.

But those unlucky students on the Navarro Cheer squad, and students all across the country on countless other teams, were denied that chance to experience that ending. They went to practice one day with the expectation of competing in Daytona for their final appearance only to get a text, phone call, or email to say that it was canceled and the season was done. None of them knew that their last practice was their final time on the mat. Several of them were forced to leave behind a sport and a team that had been their life for years without a chance to say goodbye or to embrace the finality of it all.

To me, that is heartbreaking. Why? Because I was in their shoes nearly 30 years ago.

I grew up in a football house. We watched NFL football games every time they were on TV. I loved watching football but it wasn't until I was in Junior High that I got the chance to play the sport that I had spent years watching. And let me tell you, from the first minute I strapped on my pads and tackled someone, I was hooked. I loved playing football more than I loved watching it.

Now, I wasn't aspiring to play professionally and I lacked the discipline to develop my skills into anything great but that didn't stop me from enjoying the game. I went to practices. I practiced hard. I learned my plays. And I got to play a lot. For the 5 years that I played, I was pretty much always on the field. Most years, I never left the field. I attended a small school and we played iron-man football. We didn't have a huge roster of players like large schools so most of us played offense, defense, and special teams. We didn't have the luxury of rotating out for particular formations or only playing one side of the ball. Most of us played every down of every game and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Sure, I complained when it was hot and again when it was cold. That was part of it. But I played all out with everything I had every time I was on that field. I wanted to play. I wanted to win. I did everything I felt I could to do both. I knew that at my size, 6 foot tall and 155 pounds, I was nowhere near college size or college quality but I was intent on enjoying the sport that I loved for as long as I could.

And then 1993 happened.

No pandemic in '93 shut down the schools or caused seasons to be canceled. No, in 1993 it was something much more personal that happened only to me.

In a pre-season game, I had someone fall on my leg while it was extended and I hurt my knee. I was forced to sit out for the rest of the scrimmage and ice my knee. Luckily it wasn't bad and I was back on the field the next week. The first game of the season saw me twist my ankle on the last play of the first half. We taped it up and I eventually went back into the game but it was the tip of the injury iceberg that season would unleash on my body. In the second game of the regular season, I suffered a shattered elbow and a broken wrist that sidelined me for 4 weeks. My first game back from that injury and I ended up with a concussion that was so severe that the refs had to stop the game because I was getting in the other team's huddle. I didn't know what team I was on and was so messed up that I kept trying to run out onto the field even after they had removed my helmet and shoulder pads.

We made it to the playoffs that season but were knocked out in the first round. That was the end of my Junior season. At the time, I expected to return my Senior year. I had some issues with the new coaches that came to the school that year that I felt had ignored things that led to my injuries being worse than they should have been, like when I came off the field in the 1st quarter to tell the coach that my arm hurt only for him to yell at me and put me back in for the entire time without ever giving any consideration to my claims AND then getting mad at me on Monday when I show up in a cast. But that's a story for a different time. Despite these issues with the coaching staff's lack of concern for player safety, I still wanted to play my senior year. I wanted that last hurrah and to play my last year with my friends, many of whom I had played many other sports with since we were 5 years old.

Well, in the Summer of '94 I began having several issues with my body. My elbow was giving me some problems. My back, which I had injured lifting weights my freshman year, was acting up and causing me extreme pain. The knee I tweaked in pre-season would randomly seize up, making it difficult to walk and causing significant pain. I was forced to seek medical attention for my physical ailments.

It was on that day, not the last game of my senior year but just some random day in early June, that my football career came to an end. The doctor took some x-rays and had some very troubling results for me. He said he would clear me to play if I wanted him to but that he would strongly advise against it. My injuries in the previous season had not healed properly, specifically my elbow, and I risked a significant chance to re-injure myself, especially my arm. And the threat to my arm was that if I injured it again the damage would likely be more severe than it was with the first injury.

The doctor painted a picture of me graduating with either only the use of one arm or in a wheelchair. Neither was how I wanted to cross that stage, much less how I wanted to live out the rest of my days. Sure, I loved playing football but I wasn't about to give up my future for one last season of high school football.

I walked out of that doctor's office having realized that I was no longer an athlete, only a former one. I never got the experience of playing in what I knew to be my final game. My last game was months before against a tough team that kicked our ass. We went home exhausted and frustrated but many of us were hopeful about what the next season would bring. Only then I didn't know that for me there would be no next season. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to the sport or my fellow teammates with who I had grown up playing sports. My end came sitting in a doctor's office by myself months later

Much like the team on Cheer, and athletes around the world, their season, and for some their career, came to an end when they didn't expect it and were never given a chance to have that closure that one expects from such things. Those people joined up knowing that it would be their final season and thinking that it would end for them in Daytona only for it to end just a few weeks before and through an email rather than with a final performance.

I didn't play a final game. I didn't get a last play. They didn't get to do a last competition. There was no last stunt, flip, or toss for them. Their team, their friends, their careers were brought to an unexpected and sudden end that was beyond their control.

For me, it took me several years before I could watch a high school football game again. I couldn't bring myself to sit in the stands and watch as my friends continued to play the sport I loved but was no longer capable of playing. Part of it may have been jealousy. Jealous they could do something I couldn't. But I strongly think it was mostly depression. Depression of not being able to do something that I loved doing. Being forced to sit idly by and watch others do the things I wanted to do but no longer could. Of course, there were other elements from the aftermath of my inability to return that stung for different reasons, but again, a different story for a different time.

You can watch that series and see how much and how deeply those young adults care for what they do, their team, and their teammates. Most of us can only imagine what it must have felt like to have what you worked so hard and so long for to be taken away with no payoff, no chance for a farewell, or even the opportunity to feel that sense of closure and finality when you do something you know for the last time.

It took me a long time to accept that truth. I was angry for years at a lot of people for things that were said and done towards me when I didn't play that last season I think made the situation worse. Not everybody will have been in your shoes. Not everybody will have walked your path. But when the end comes, accept it. Cherish the memories you have and be grateful for them because you never know when that most recent memory will become the last you make.

I know some of those cheerleaders are upset and disappointed, maybe even angry, that they didn't get a chance to compete in their final year and were forced to leave behind an entire life before they were ready and without a chance to say goodbye. It was hard for me and many of these people have been cheering for a lot more years than I played football. I feel for those athletes. I don't know any of them but I think I understand at least some of the emotions some of them probably felt then and still feel now after not being given a chance to do what they loved one last time.

They say every breath in life is like its own miracle because life can end at any moment. To savor every experience because you never know when it will be the last, either for yourself or someone else. Well, just like in life, sports can end at any moment with no warning. It only takes one thing whether it be a personal injury or a global pandemic to bring your season, your career to an end. Treat every practice like it is your last. Treat every competition like it will be the last. You never know when the last will be. Sure, it is always good to hope and plan for the scheduled outcome but be prepared mentally to accept that what you love today may not be there tomorrow.

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