Lacrosse: A Love Story, Part 4 (14/30)
Thirty essays in thirty days, number fourteen
It was the final week of my senior year when they announced the All-Conference selections. There it was: Alex Michael, Midfielder from Houston, Texas. First team. Finally.
I was proud. Sort of.
By my senior year I had sampled everything that college had to offer. In addition to playing lacrosse and being president of the fraternity, I had started a business with a few friends and was working on a capstone research project for my economics degree that I would end up presenting at the Dallas Federal Reserve. I knew what it felt like to have lacrosse taken away, and I didn’t like the void that existed without it. Now my identity had redundancies.
As far as the team went, we brought in a new assistant coach around the start of my senior year, a defensive-minded guy with a strong resume whose energy and style seemed to suit us. My recruiting class also now had three seasons of experience under our belt—sans injuries and transfers, that is—and we knew what to expect and what the contours of the year could bring. Our leadership set the tone for the team.
The combination of the new coaching staff and our senior leadership made something click. We won ten games during my final season, doubling our total from the year before and setting a program record for our short time in the NCAA (to date our second best season, trailing only the 2022 team). Our defense created nightmares for our opponents. We came up short in the conference championship against the rivals who’d always had our number, but it was the best we’d ever played against them. All told, it was a big step forward for the program.
As for me, it was certainly a step forward. A fresh start with the coaches and the two seasons of experience served me well, and my game-sense and athleticism allowed me to make a significant impact. I was second in the conference in assists per game and helped set the tone for the offense. Making All-Conference felt sweet, to be sure. But there were two things that soured it.
The first was that our conference only had four teams in it. By my senior year a bunch of the teams that had been in the SCAC for years split off and joined another conference, which left us and three other teams—two of which were terrible. The accomplishment was nothing to sneeze at, but it didn’t mean what it once did.
The second and most sobering thing was that I knew I still didn’t play at the level I was capable of. It was a strong season by all accounts—I was productive, made some key plays, and helped lead us to our best season yet—but it was a shell of my potential. I was still playing tense and constrained lacrosse. A big reason for our record-setting year was our defense; the offense, which was my domain, struggled at crucial moments and often had to be bailed out.
All in all, a step forward, without a doubt. A season to be proud of. But it was far from the college lacrosse career I had envisioned for myself.
I graduated and moved back to Houston. After the years of daily practices and film sessions and rehab in the training room, it was nice to have a little break from lacrosse. But I couldn’t stay away from the sport for long. After less than a year, I joined a men’s league team.
It took about twenty minutes before I fell back in love with the game.
Being in a new environment, away from the pressure and expectations of the college game, had an unshackling effect. My brain turned off and my body took over. The creativity, the spontaneity, the skill—it all came back. Lacrosse was fun again.
One weekend we drove up to Austin to play two of the men’s league teams there. One of my best friends, a college teammate and fraternity brother, was playing against us in the second game. I had something like eight points that game. When we hugged at midfield afterward, the first thing he said to me was, “Where the hell was that in college?”
While men’s league lacrosse had its share of guys who were unskilled or out of shape—easy prey—I was surprised by the level of talent on some of the teams. There were former Division 1 players and top Division 2 and 3 guys scattered throughout the league. We got to play some really high-level lacrosse.
One such time was at a summer tournament in San Marcos. We had put together a stacked team, and we weren’t the only one. In the semi-finals we faced off against a group full of top college players and one professional player—the MLL’s 9th overall pick and one of the league’s best defenders. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a lacrosse field. We beat them handily, and I added a fun little notch to my belt when I juked past the pro player and scored.
Men’s league lacrosse had also become its own sort of fraternity. Our team was sponsored by a local bar, and we’d always hang out there after our games. I made a ton of lifelong friends. One of those friends ended up becoming a roommate and co-worker, and he would later play a big part in this story.
I was having a blast, playing some of the best and most fun lacrosse of my life.
Sustaining a single concussion, as I’ve mentioned, increases your likelihood of having more. I was first reminded of this fact when I ate water while wakeboarding shortly after graduating—my second concussion. I was reminded again when I took another hard hit in a men’s league game, then again when I got up too quickly one morning, passed out, and hit my head on the corner of the bed, then again in some incident that I can’t remember. At age twenty-five, I was up to five concussions.
There is no firm number on how many concussions is too many. Some people have six and are fine. Others experience cognitive decline and chronic pain after two. We still know very little about the brain, and even less about brain injury. It wasn’t long ago that players got sent right back into a game after ‘getting their bell rung’. We’re only just starting to become familiar with the effects of CTE, as we watch former football players lose their minds and commit violent crimes.
All my knowledge about the long-term effects of multiple concussions lingered in my mind, and whenever I felt particularly sluggish or my memory failed, I instantly thought about brain damage. Sometime around my fourth or fifth concussion, I went back to see that specialist for the Houston Texans. She had the data from all the cognitive and functional testing I had done, from my baseline tests in college to all of the subsequent testing after my first concussion. I was ostensibly going to her to see if I was showing any signs of cognitive decline. What I really wanted, though, was for her to tell me that it was okay to keep playing lacrosse.
After a thorough repeat of all of the comprehensive testing I had done many times before, the doctor gave me good news: I wasn’t showing any clear signs of decline. That, along with the fact that I had no chronic pain, signaled that I hadn’t sustained any long-term damage yet. But she wouldn’t move on from the ‘yet’. She told me that, while it was my decision to make, I should strongly consider hanging up my stick. The research had nothing good to say about my future prospects should I sustain another concussion.
I had always leaned heavily on my intellect. I wasn’t the most knowledgeable guy, but I figured things out quickly and communicated well. This allowed me to be pretty effective in the world. The prospect of losing this capacity scared me. Was it really worth risking all of that for men’s league lacrosse?
At the same time, playing lacrosse brought a flavor of joy that I just couldn’t get anywhere else. I tried. It did something uniquely magical for me, regardless of what level I was playing at. Giving that up felt like slapping God in the face.
After a great deal of back and forth, I decided that I could keep playing if I pulled back a bit. As long as I didn't get myself into situations that were more likely to result in a big hit, I reasoned, I should be okay.
I continued to have a blast and played as much as I could. In the winter of 2017, three of us decided to fly up to Colorado and try out for a professional team, the Denver Outlaws. The tryouts were held at the Denver Broncos’ indoor practice facility. It was awesome. The talent level was insane, and we got to spend a whole day running drills and scrimmaging on that field, pushing hard at high altitude. One of our three, a good friend, ended up making the practice squad.
Later that year, during a game one summer weekend, I received a pass in the center of the field, dodged past a defender, and scored. I turned to high-five a teammate. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. BOOM.
It was the latest hit I’d ever been on the receiving end of. A friend would later tell me that It came almost three seconds after the ball grossed the goal line, and it was a cross-check to the head to boot—a brutal hit. After a few woozy minutes, I knew it: this was concussion number six. It was the end of my lacrosse career. Playing with five concussions was already pushing it; doing so with six was psychological suicide.
After recovering from that last concussion, I was fortunate enough to not have any lasting effects that I was aware of, and I wanted to keep it that way. I moved on with my life, getting a new job and relocating to Austin shortly after. I continued to watch lacrosse on TV and follow my alma mater, but outside of that I felt it necessary to create something of a distance between myself and the game. Watching my friends play when I couldn’t was a bit too much. The wound was still fresh.
A couple of years later a close friend and former high school teammate told me he had put together a team for a men’s league in Austin, a team that also included a few of my former college teammates. He mentioned it to me because he thought I might like to come watch them play. But the familiar itch came back. It had been years since I had stepped on a lacrosse field, and I really, really wanted to play.
There was only one reason to even consider playing and a million reasons not to, reasons with which I was intimately familiar. I was twenty-seven years old. Exposing myself to a strong probability of lifelong brain damage for a few Sunday games wasn’t an idea to even entertain.
And yet, there was that one stubborn reason to entertain it anyway: I fucking loved it.
It was a lost cause. Once I started considering the possibility, there was never a chance I’d pass it up. I dug my gear out of my closet and went out to go practice shooting.
The moment I stepped on the field, I forgot why I had ever stepped off. I felt like a kid again. Being away from the game for that long, thinking I’d never play again, made me appreciate it that much more. I was floating.
Another bonus was that the ‘riding a bike’ effect was in play: my skill hadn’t yet disappeared. I felt great. Our team was stacked, and we won every game by a landslide. This happened to be a league that kept stats, and through the five games we had played, I was leading the league in points.
Then, of course, it happened. It was always going to happen. I was carrying the ball up the sideline during our sixth game when a defender tried to push me out of bounds and accidentally connected with my head.
Jog to the sideline, sit on the bench. Disoriented. Woozy. Headache. Concussion number seven.
Five years have gone by since number seven. I’ve made peace with the fact that I can no longer play. When I hung it up for good, people suggested I stay involved by coaching or staying around the game some other way. But I needed to separate myself from it for a while. I needed to find a source of joy that didn’t look or feel like lacrosse, something that connected with a different part of myself. This eventually led me to writing. I found that I got the same kind of joy from putting words on the page, with the added bonus of having a markedly lower risk of concussion.
Mercifully, it doesn’t seem like I have any lasting cognitive issues. I feel as sharp as I ever have, and I don’t have any trouble focusing. I don’t get headaches, nor am I sensitive to light or sound. My memory sucks, but my memory has always sucked. So I think I’m okay.
As I reflect back on my lacrosse story, the question of regret looms large. Do I regret not devoting as much time into college lacrosse as I could have? Do I regret continuing to play in men’s league games despite the very real risk of brain damage?
Regarding the latter, the answer is an unequivocal no. Perhaps I’d have a different opinion if my brain was now malfunctioning, but it isn’t. I have no regret about choosing to continue something that brought me a ridiculous childlike joy—a joy that it’s increasingly difficult to find as an adult. Sometimes the stupid decision is the right decision. Men’s league was some of the most fun lacrosse I got to play. After the seventh concussion I decided to stop tempting fate, but I have no regrets about repeatedly doing so up until that point.
The college question is a bit trickier. On one hand, the knowledge that I could have done more with a special opportunity sits in my stomach like a boulder. The prospect of wasted potential strikes a powerful chord against the backdrop of mortality. When I watch lacrosse, it’s easy to fall into the world of what could have been.
On the other hand, I had a spectacular college experience that I don’t think I would trade for anything. Many of my best friends today are fraternity brothers from college, and the experience I had with that group was beyond formative. I also loved the economics research, had a great time starting the business, and enjoyed the hell out of the social stuff. Many of the things I like about my life came about through experiences in college that happened off the lacrosse field.
Interestingly, some of those off-field experiences helped me get involved with lacrosse in another way. One day, a couple years back, that friend and roommate from men’s league came to me with an idea to solve an equipment-related problem in the sport. The more I thought about his idea, the more I realized how good it was. We decided to create a product and start a company. Much of the work involved in that—launching something new, seeking out partners, setting a strategic direction and getting everyone to move in that direction—was familiar to me, having done it all in college. We’ve now created a product that we believe will change the sport, and we plan to go to market this year.
It’s Saturday. February 3, 2024. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the temperature is perfect. The University of Richmond opens up their lacrosse season against Maryland today. My girlfriend and I get there half an hour early to watch the teams warm up. I’m doing my best not to talk her ear off about the players on both teams, about each team’s preseason ranking and how I think they’ll fare, about why Richmond is a sleeper pick, but I’m failing spectacularly. I’m a 32 year-old kid on Christmas.