Every once in a while over these past 25 years I’ve found myself sitting with a student – usually a senior – who is thinking about quitting a sports team. Poor souls. They come seeking advice and are instead subjected to a Hickey story.
It was 1978 and I was a senior playing tackle for Monsignor Hackett H.S. in Kalamazoo, Michigan when, during a pre-season scrimmage, I heard our head coach yell, "Hickey, you're out." I had lost my starting position to a junior.
Since I had started a couple games the previous season, I had it in mind that I would be playing a lot my senior year. That didn't happen. I had to instead adjust to life on the sidelines: no paint streaks from opposing helmets on my helmet (honor badges for linemen); one of the clean uniforms ignominiously trotting off the field at the end of muddy games.
I had some hope of getting on the field as the kicker, but that didn't go well either. I was the first soccer style kicker to play in the program and our coach, an old school, crew-cut type, just couldn't wrap his head around how anyone could kick a football from the side. I think it must have struck him as too European, maybe even a little Communist. We ran a lot of two point conversions that year.
It was a hard season, especially during those first weeks when I had to adjust to a reality I hadn't expected, all the while trying to not surrender to it. Practices were ok, but game days were a real struggle. I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, but I was just really hurt by the experience.
Where were my parents in all this? They were at all my games, rooting on our team and supporting me with their presence. But they never talked with me about my troubles, and I am pretty certain not with anyone else either. I think I know the reason why.
My troubles were about playing in games; my parents’ troubles were not. They were struggling to secure something beyond their humble roots and had already lived a lot of life, including the kind of losses that don't show up on a scoreboard. My dad had fought in Korea and returned from war bent on working whatever hours it took to move up in the world. My mom was busy raising the kids, including one with cerebral palsy. Their plates were full, as was their perspective on life.
No, my troubles were on my plate, not theirs. I was the one trying to play in football games, not them. So, it was up to me to work my way through this thing, which may seem like a curious notion to some now, but certainly wasn't one for them then.
I ended up staying with the team in both body and spirit throughout that season. I found enjoyment and satisfaction in small things, new friendships forged on those sidelines, all the while trying to prove something in practices (maybe just to myself). When I took off my equipment for the last time I was sad to do so. It was a good year, but for none of the reasons I had expected when it began.
By this time the student who had asked that initial question of me would invariably be seeking both an end to my story and a graceful exit from the room. I would finally answer the question: “You should definitely not quit the team, but it's difficult to really appreciate the reason why right now."
I'm fond of saying that no one goes through high school unscarred, a comment so ripe for misunderstanding that I probably shouldn't say it at all. It simply is true that the expectations we have for ourselves are not always shared by those around us, including those who make decisions that affect our lives. That's a lesson we usually first learn in high school. Encountering this truth hurts and, yes, can leave its mark, but that doesn't make it a bad thing.
I do feel for any high school student who experiences unmet expectations and the deep disappointment that comes with that. It’s just really difficult to watch them try to navigate such troubling waters. However, strange as it may sound, I wouldn't want to deny them the experience either. Much can be gained by confronting the challenge and seeing it through: resiliency, patience, humility, empathy, perspective, humor and even gratitude.
Better to learn these things when playing games in high school than to have to learn them in later years while playing for higher stakes in the game of life.