Not Just A Game

A Life in Sports

Why it’s more than just a game.

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A friend of mine once told me that they didn't "get" sports. Not knowing where to even begin, I offered only a stuttering explanation. I couldn't grasp the concept because I had never really considered it myself. It wasn't something I thought about. I just played the game.

In elementary and middle school, I took gym class a little too seriously. It didn't matter what sport it was, I always wanted to win. I didn't have to be good at the game, I just had to want it more. While I did make friends, my hyper-competitiveness also alienated me from other people. A classmate once called me out on some of my behavior. It angered me that he was right. I don't look back proudly on what I did or said in the heat of the moment. One moment, in particular, imbued me with shame to this day.

In sixth-grade gym class, I remember crying in the locker room after a game. I didn't try to fight back the tears. I had lost and a classmate taunted me as a result. I tried to pretend I didn't care but I let it get to me. My gym coach eventually walked in. When he asked what was wrong, I could barely speak. I kept choking on my words. As I stood there looking up at him, searching for any indication of understanding, he peered down at me as if to say, Why are you crying over something like this? I've never forgotten it.

At first, I was confused. Why doesn't he care about this as much as I do? I began to chastise myself. It's just a game. Calm down, stop being a crybaby. Grow up. I walked away distraught. Time went on but I couldn't interact with him the same way without an underlying sense of anxiety, though he had probably long forgotten the moment.

I never wanted to feel that vulnerable again in front of others. Though I was passionate about soccer, I never let myself display visible emotion after a tough loss. I would feign indifference, often to the point where even my teammates wondered if I cared. I told myself it didn't matter. It's just high school soccer. No need to get worked up about it. While there were grains of truth to this rationale, that didn't stop me from caring. However, I couldn't bring myself to show it. Instead, I hoped my hard work on the field could prove to my teammates that I cared. Sometimes it did, but never as much as I wanted it to.

I care about sports to the point that it hurt. Once I got a concussion playing two touch football during elementary school recess. I remember tracing the eyes of the quarterback, watching as he released the football, and sprinting to intercept. But I had miscalculated. The ball soared over my head and I adjusted my stance, jumping backward. I clasped the ball tightly under the glaring light of the sun while bringing it in toward my chest.

I didn't realize I was falling until I secured the ball. Rather than break my fall, I chose to hold onto the ball. My back hit the ground followed by my head whipping against the pavement. Darkness immediately followed. I awoke a few seconds later surrounded by the concerned faces of my friends and the pale blue sky above. A tingling sensation radiated throughout my skull and my neck ached. I mustered just enough resolve to look down at my arms where the ball remained securely clenched. I handed the ball over reluctantly before being chaperoned to the nurse's office.

Later, my mother told me that everyone on the playground heard the crack of my head against the pavement. For the next week, I couldn't attend school due to intense nausea. Despite my weakened state, trading the injury for an interception seemed like a fair deal. It sounds harebrained to sacrifice my body in an elementary school pickup game but it's always been more than a game to me.

Sports have been a part of my life as long as I can remember, whether it was learning how to play catch in the backyard, watching the FIFA World Cup in the living room, or playing competitive soccer. Even during the holidays, sports were an occasion. Every year, after my dad finished taking his post-Thanksgiving dinner nap, we'd head outside into the driveway to play street hockey with my brothers and family friends.

While I dabbled in other sports, I ultimately chose to only pursue soccer competitively. Soccer became so much more than a sport. It became a part of my being. It molded me into who I've become. The lessons I've learned from playing soccer have followed me beyond the field. I learned to persevere. I learned to commit. I learned to toil.

Sometimes it's the simple things that mean the most. The soft thud of striking the ball right in the center. The bottom of my cleats brushing against the surface of the pitch, blades of grass and soil flinging into the air, the ball whistling faintly as it soars towards the goal, and the slight clap as the ball finally strikes the back of the net. There's even something oddly satisfying about hitting the goalpost. The loud thunk followed by the collective groan of the crowd. But I wouldn't trade anything for a well placed through ball.

Eventually, though, I burnt out. My love for soccer had become exhausting to the point where I needed to distance myself from the game. In my last year of high school, I played lacrosse. It felt odd but freeing to start all over again. While I never stopped learning in soccer, I enjoyed picking up new skills every day I played lacrosse. I hadn't played another sport competitively besides soccer since the third grade.

The physicality of lacrosse proved to be the most enticing aspect. I loved donning my helmet and chest pad as if preparing for battle. The crack of sticks like swords clashing. The satisfaction of cradling through a hit or a stick check to the side. Picking out a teammate through a forest of waving sticks trying to thwart you at every turn. The crunch of a body check. Whipping the ball into the corner of the net.

I loved the feeling of being bruised and battered after a game. If I wasn't aching after a game, I hadn't played well. After stripping off my gloves and elbow pads, I'd always scan the surface of my skin, looking for the red, blue, and purple discoloration of fresh wounds followed by the green, brown, and yellow of past ones. Bruises reflected my own spirit and durability. I bore them proudly.

Though lacrosse drew me away from soccer for a time, I discovered that both sports shared the same basic tenets. The feeling of brotherhood. The singular mindset in the huddle. It didn't matter who we were in school, on the field we were one unit with the same goal. Defend our own. Strive together.

I loved the intensity. The challenge of remaining level headed when tempers flared. Rather than trash talk, I liked to chat with opponents during games. The conversations served as a reminder of our common humanity. I found it was often the most effective means of defusing tension on the field. I would shake my head when my teammates let the heat get to them but I also understood where they were coming from.

I shared a mutual respect with my opponents, even when they didn't deserve it. I would always make sure to tell them "good fight," "good shot," or "great save." I never skipped a person in line after we bumped fists after a game, regardless of what happened during the game.

I don't just miss playing sports, I miss everything else that came with it.

I miss the bus rides after a game. The smell of sweat and fast food. Always trying to muster the willpower to do homework and always failing. Playing obnoxiously loud rap music in the back of the bus, occasionally the Spice Girls' "Wannabe." The laughter and yelling that made it nearly impossible to sleep on the way back home.

I miss the road trips to Portland and California. Five or six teammates packed into the back of a red 2013 Ford Expedition EL. Not exactly the most fuel efficient car, about fourteen miles to the gallon, but it packed a massive thirty-four-gallon tank. The main redeeming quality was a built-in television screen. We'd hook an Xbox 360 up to cut down on the monotony of the five to a six-hour car ride. Playing FIFA in the backseat, yelling at the top of our lungs whenever someone scored. It's a wonder my parents were ever able to focus on driving.

For a brief period, I pondered playing soccer in college. I attended college recruitment camps but I discovered that I didn't want to pursue it to that degree. It felt wrong though to stop playing entirely. When I started university in the fall, I assumed I would join an intramural team but I quickly became overwhelmed by the transition to college and missed my window. Not wanting to lose out completely, I joined a student newspaper and volunteered to cover sports. I yearned for some semblance of the life I missed.

Now I sit on the sidelines, merely looking on. I've never been much of a spectator. I'd much rather act than watch. I can't help but scrutinize the decisions of players on the field. It's not that I think I could do better, I just want the chance to try. And while I do miss playing, writing about sports has its merits as well.

I enjoy telling the story of a game. Depicting the struggle of two teams pitted against each other. Though it's been done time and time again, each game is still unique in character. It may only last a couple of hours at most, but it features the same amount of drama and action as any world-class motion picture. I like watching how players make quick decisions. As a player, your vision is often limited. Watching from the stands provides the full picture of the field of play.

Writing about sports brings me back to my history class where I would present on ancient battles (I know, sounds a bit nerdy for a sports article). I write about coaches and players in the same way as generals and soldiers, waiting to see if their strategies come to the fruition. Watching them improvise and adapt to changes during the flow of battle. Ultimately, one side will prevail and be immortalized in the annals of history, whether it be on the local or world stage.

I'm not ready yet to leave the battlefield.

A piece is missing now. Part of me is always wishing to be out there, imagining myself out on the field. I just want to play the game.

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When You Give A Girl A Pair Of Cleats

It's more than a pair of shoes.
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When you give a girl a pair of cleats, you are giving her far more than a new pair of shoes. You are giving her new friends and new challenges and so many lessons and some of her best memories.

When you give a girl a pair of cleats, you are giving her a team. You are giving her a group of girls that she might not have ever talked to if it wasn't for these common cleats. A group of girls who will teach her how to be a teammate. A group of girls who will laugh with her and yell at her and train with her and win with her and lose with her. With a pair of cleats comes a group of mismatched people with a common goal who are learning from each other and working together.

SEE ALSO: To The Coach That Took My Confidence Away

When you give a girl a pair of cleats, you are giving her a coach. This coach is going to play an instrumental role in her love or hate for the sport. This coach will work her hard. This coach will train her and teach her and encourage her and yell at her and make her cry and hug her and cheer her on. This coach wants to see her succeed. This coach knows what these cleats mean, what this sport means. And this coach will be someone that she will watch. She will watch the way that her coach talks to her and talks to her teammates and talks to the other team and she will see her coach's responses to games that are won and games that are lost. This pair of cleats comes with a role model, for better or for worse.

When you give a girl a pair of cleats, you are giving her team practices. You are giving her practice that will instill discipline and dedication and commitment. You are teaching her that she is on a team and she is expected to put in time. You are teaching her that her presence is important and that people are relying on her. You are teaching her how to balance her time, because, now, she has school and practice and games and teammates and friends and family. And for the first time in her life, she has to establish priorities. With this practice time comes some of the hardest conditioning and training. With this practice time comes some of her favorite memories as she bonds with her teammates and laughs with them and works hard with them. This pair of cleats comes with quite the time commitment.

When you give a girl a pair of cleats, you are giving her game days. You are giving her bus rides and warm-up playlists and team matching hair ribbons and orange slices at half-time and constantly looking for your water bottle on the sidelines. You are giving her a competitiveness that can only come out on the field. You are giving her the cheers from the sidelines and the screams of her coach and the exhaustion in her legs at the end of the game. You are giving her handshakes with opponents and a winning attitude even when she loses. With a pair of cleats comes pasta dinners and game days. These will become her favorite days.

SEE ALSO: My First Semester As A College Athlete

When you give a girl a pair of cleats, you are giving her a challenge. She is going to grow and learn, and she's going to want to quit at times, but she is going to look down at her feet and remember why she's doing this. She's going to remember her teammates and her coaches and the amount of time she's poured into this sport, and she's going to realize that it's worth it. She's going to be covered in bruises and her socks are going to stink, and she's always going to be looking for a sock or needing a hair elastic. She's going to be tired, and she's going to get hurt. But those cleats are going to establish lessons that she's going to remember for the rest of her life, friends that she is going to learn to love, and discipline that she is going to be thankful for. If you're the girl with the cleats, soak it in. Love the long practices and the exhaustion and the sound of the whistle that starts the game. If you're the girl without the cleats, go get some. Try something new. Take the risk. Sign up for the team, the musical, the club. You will regret it if you don't. Even if you fail, few things can teach you the lessons that those cleats will.

Sincerely,

The Girl Who Hung Up Her Cleats

Cover Image Credit: Hannah Cook

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The Men's Ballon d'Or Lost All Its Credibility

This year's men's Ballon d'Or edition was probably one of the closest, and most controversial ceremonies in all of sports in the recent years.

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This year's men's Ballon d'Or edition was probably one of the closest, and most controversial ceremonies in all of sports in the recent years. Part of the reason why that is, is because for the first time in the past ten years someone who is not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo won the prestigious award.

However, the fact that Luka Modric was awarded the Ballon d'Or over the likes of Messi and Ronaldo does not bother me nor its the sole reason that made this award ceremony controversial. To be completely fair, Luka Modric had an astounding year and there was no question he had a legitimate claim to the award. Modric made invaluable contributions to both his club and country, winning the UEFA Champions League and leading a highly underrated Croatian national side to an almost unimaginable second place finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Despite playing in a position (central midfield) where being statistically notable is extremely difficult, Modric still managed to do visible impacts on the field.

He changed the course of many games with his elegance, touch, work rate and ability to find open spaces. Nevertheless, what made this award ceremony truly outrageous and ludicrous was not the fact that he won, but rather that there was one player who won almost everything there is to win both individually and collectively, and yet somehow he was not even included in the top 3, nor the top 4 finishers for that matter. Yeap, that's right, that player is Lionel Messi.

Let me be clear, for the longest time Lionel Andres Messi has been the best and most dominant force on a football pitch and this past year was no different. Every-time he walked out the locker rooms and stepped on the pitch, his presence was instantly felt by fans, players and coaches all around the world. Every touch he took seemed magical and mind-boggling. He scored, assisted, passed, and created chances at a higher rate than any other player on the planet but somehow was still not included in the top 3 players in the world last year. Sadly, I believe I know why that is, but before I share what the reason behind him not finishing in the top 3, let's lay something down. According to the Rules of Allocation, FIFA bestows the award "according to on-field performance and overall behaviour on and off the pitch." Given this definition, let's analyze what Messi did last year so you can figure out for yourself whether he deserved a spot in the top 3 or not.

As of December 8th, 2018, Messi has recorded 47 goals and 23 assists in 51 games. In 2018 he was the player who created the most chances in the world, the fastest player to score 100 Champions League goals and also became the Champions League all-time top scorer in the group stages. Messi also won the most "Man of the Match" awards (MOTM), the domestic double (La Liga and Copa Del Rey), the European Golden Boot, La Liga's MVP award, and both La Liga's top scorer and top assist provider awards. In short, besides not winning the Champions League and the World Cup, he almost won it all. Now, after reading this you may think "wow, how did he not make the top 3?" and to answer this question I have found a plausible answer made up by three points, which from my perspective, combined and ended up plotting against him.

One, the France Football committee decided to unjustly put more weight on 3-7 games from the World Cup than to all of the other 50-ish games he played throughout the year (which should definitely describe better how a player performs throughout the WHOLE year). Two, the committee is not judging the award based on pure individual proficiency. And three, the election committee is spoilt by Messi's brilliance. What I mean by "spoilt" is that Messi has been playing exceptionally well for so long to the point that other players, fans, and the France Football committee have unconsciously set higher standards for him to meet, rather than the ones they set for all the other players. For example, if you looked at the Ballon d'Or's final results, you'll notice that Antoine Griezmann was ranked above Messi by a significant margin (voting wise) and was included in the top 3. However, if you watched both editions of La Liga and the Champions League this past year (2017/2018), you probably noticed that Griezmann did nothing that could possibly compare to Messi's deeds. Atletico failed to qualify for the round of 16 in the Champions League, and finished second in La Liga behind Barcelona. Individually, Griezmann was not even close to playing on Messi's level and even though he did have a really good season, winning the World Cup with France, and the Europa League with "Los Colchoneros", these should have not been good enough reasons to justify his higher rank during the ceremony. Nonetheless, due to the fact that he won the World Cup and happened to be a pretty good player, the committee decided to rank him above Messi. This perfectly displays how the election committee set the expectations bar far lower for players who typically do not perform as well and it also shows how the Ballon d'Or is NO longer an individual award. Griezmann clearly underperformed in comparison to Messi but because he performed relatively well and won one trophy that was more important than the ones Messi won, he was ranked higher. All this leads me to believe that it was not Griezmann's individual talent or performances that got him the 3rd place in the voting, but rather it was the trophies both of his teams got. Under this logic, any player who performs well above his usual level (but not nearly as well as Messi) and wins a major piece of silverware, should have been ranked higher than Messi. In fact, following up with these standards, Messi might never win a Ballon d'Or again because I do not think he can perform any better than he is right now (because he is already something out of this world), which means he won't be able to raise the bar the French Football committee want him to raise so bad; and winning major trophies is not something only he can control. There are 10 other players in the field and a manager that contribute to winning a major trophy and Messi has not had a lot of luck with that lately, especially when looking at the massively underperforming Argentinian national team. Therefore, this lack of objectivity and judgement, courtesy of the French Football committee, took away this year's Men's Ballon d'Or's credibility. Sadly, Messi not ending in the top 5 may steal the spotlight Modric rightfully deserves, but at the same time, it will make the world open their eyes and see how undervalued Messi was this year after having given us, the fans, so much. I just hope Modric, does not go down in history as the Shevchenko or Michael Owen of our generation due to these controversial results, because like I said before, he deserved to win the prestigious trophy even though he was not on the top of my list.

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