Lacrosse: A Love Story, Part 2 (10/30)
Thirty essays in thirty days, number ten
If you missed it, here’s Part 1.
“I’m trying, coach. I really am.”
He didn’t say anything.
It was toward the end of my junior season, and I was in my coach’s office after practice watching film, trying to figure out what my problem was. There were a lot of them, it turned out. I was pressing. I was hesitant. I wasn’t shooting well. I wasn’t shooting enough. I wasn’t leading.
The avoidance of eye contact and slight snarl on his face signaled that he had an opinion as to the problem behind the problems, but he opted not to share it with me. I stared at him for a few moments, waiting in vain for a response, before I left his office. I walked back to the fraternity house wondering what was going on and how the hell to fix it.
I arrived for my freshman year at Southwestern to high expectations. Word had apparently gotten around that I was going to be the next Andrew Webb, a similarly small and speedy Southwestern legend who had set records for the program. One night in the fall of that first year, standing next to an old piano in one of the fraternity houses, someone came up and asked how long I thought it would take before I broke Andrew’s all-time points mark.
Our whole recruiting class was similarly hyped. After the program’s inaugural year in the NCAA during which they won only one game, the thirteen of us were the first real varsity recruiting class. We were stacked with talent, and the team was expected to take a huge step forward.
That first season went well by all measures. We won seven games, including a huge upset of an established Division 2 team. Personally, I felt comfortable at the college level, and I got better and better as the season went on, starting at midfield and having a productive year. The coaches had a ton of confidence in me. The prospects for our sophomore campaign were bright, and we couldn’t wait to get back out there.
But our return to campus the following fall came with some shitty news. Three of the guys in my recruiting class, some of our best players, had transferred to other schools. A student body of 1,300 wasn’t the kind of college experience they wanted, and for them, the juice of Division 3 lacrosse wasn’t worth the squeeze.
It turned out that this was not the most notable piece of news we’d receive. Over winter break, after a great month of fall practices, I was sitting at my parents’ kitchen table when I got an email from our school’s athletic director. It was short and unceremonious. The message: our head coach, the one who had recruited me, had been fired. There was no mention of why.
I started firing off calls and texts trying to figure out what was going on. Nobody knew. Over the next couple of days rumors swirled before we finally got some real answers. Our coach had been fired for an NCAA violation. As part of an effort to motivate us to stick to our fall workout program, coach had split us up into teams and offered a prize for the group that was most consistent with their workouts, a breach of NCAA rules around paying student-athletes. The prize: a pair of custom shorts. He got fired over a pair of shorts.
The excitement for the season had quickly turned into confusion. We were less than two months out from our first game, and we had no clue who our coach would be or what we were supposed to do.
Some weeks later, not long before our first practice, we learned that the program’s longtime assistant coach had been promoted to the head role, and a new assistant coach was being brought in. The assistant was a guy who had done some strength and conditioning work with us in the past. He came with a strong reputation and was well-liked.
Once the shock wore off, the excitement slowly began to return. Despite losing some key players, we still had a strong team, bolstered by another solid recruiting class. Our new coaching staff brought a fresh energy and philosophy. The team continued to gel as we approached the season opener, and everyone bought into the new system. I was named a captain and was again starting on the first midfield line. The coaches told me there was no reason I shouldn’t make First Team All-Conference.
Our season opener did not go well, but we felt confident going into our second game, a home contest against a team from St. Louis. The game was tight after the first half. A few minutes into the third quarter, I was running the ball up the field in transition when I saw what looked like an opening between two defenders. I tried to shoot the gap, but it closed quicker than I expected, and I bounced off the defender on the left as I was trying to get through. As my body went backwards I felt a strong impact against the back of my head. It was the other defender’s stick—a thirty-inch shaft made of some kind of metal.
My memory of the moments immediately after is blurry, but I remember being examined by our athletic trainer on the sideline. She asked me some orientation questions, who and where I was and all that, then told me to count backwards from one hundred by increments of seven. I answered the questions without issue. All I was thinking about was getting back in the game. Finally, I had passed all of the tests that I could pass, and she reluctantly told me I could return to play. But she left me with a warning: if I felt any kind of headache I needed to come off the field right away. If I didn’t, and I took another hit, I could die.
At the next stoppage of play I stepped back onto the field. It took about thirty seconds of denial before I had to admit that something wasn’t right. My head was killing me, and I couldn’t focus. I ran off the field, sat on a bench away from everyone, and hurled my helmet at the ground.
After the game they took me to the training room to do a bunch of tests. Balance, cognition, that sort of thing. It was pretty clear I had a concussion. I had a lingering headache and was a bit spacey. Light and noise didn’t do me any favors. All the telltale signs.
There are three ‘grades’ of concussions, each of which correspond to a level of severity. Grade 1 is the least severe and is what I was diagnosed with. It was expected that I would be back to normal in three or four days and that I’d be able to play in our next game. In the meantime, I was to adhere to strict rules: no class, no reading, no music, no alcohol. No activity. Minimize light and noise. Basically, just sit and stare at the wall. But don’t stare too hard.
At least it would only be a few days of this.
I did as I was told and sat around for a few days, waiting for the headache to subside and the clarity to return. Three days passed. Then four. Then five, then six, then…how long was this supposed to last again?
Back in the training room on day seven, our athletic trainer told me that the concussion might have been more severe than they thought—a Grade 2. It could be another week or two before I returned to normal. Awesome.
I went back to my room to stare at the wall as the weeks went by. One week. Two weeks. Three weeks. Four. No change. I had followed all the rules, lived like a monk for weeks on end, but there was no improvement. My default state was still a dull headache and a low tolerance for any kind of sensory or cognitive stimulation. I felt like a geriatric cat.
My unchanged condition called for outside help. They sent me off for a CT scan, then for further evaluation with the concussion specialist for the Houston Texans. I spent a day with her doing all kinds of weird tests.
The next day I returned to her office in the medical center near downtown Houston. This was clearly a Grade 3 concussion, she told me, the most severe. I would not be returning to play that season. I would also not be going to class for the rest of the semester; I needed to work with my professors to come up with a plan for making up what I could over the summer. In the meantime, it was back to monk mode until the symptoms resolved, which could be months.
A month prior I had been mentally preparing for a record-breaking season. Now, I had to mentally prepare to put on pants.
Not quite the college career I had envisioned thus far.
Stay tuned for Part 3.