Several recent Facebook posts had me reflecting on my minuscule sports career, the one that left me with nothing but memories following a pair of spinal-fusion surgeries.
I really never had much to offer as an athlete. I was mediocre at best, and relied on a bit of sleight of hand — I played every game as if it were my last; I often was the first player on the field and the last player off. I even felt strongly that if you don’t do it in practice, you won’t develop the instincts to do it in a game. And I am paying a steep price for all those times I stopped just long enough to put another wrap or bandage on an injury before racing back out to play some more.
The only athletic gift I was blessed with was an overabundance of adrenaline. But when that wore off after the games, I often was left in tears.
I lived and breathed softball. I would often lay awake and reflect on a great play or picture myself making one.
I chuckled at myself one day recently — while searching for something important, I came across my individual stats for every league softball game I ever played. And I fondly can recall my best defensive play at every position on the field.
Sure, I loved other sports. I enjoyed playing volleyball, so long as it was co-ed, since my 5-foot-8ish outside hitter frame was practically useless in the men’s game, where the net was almost too high to even touch. I loved being on the tennis court and the football field. If great hands were the only requirement to be a wide receiver in the NFL, I might have been an All-Pro. And I wish I was still in my 20s when mixed-martial arts hit the scene.
The only “official” times I ever became a “jock” were fast-pitch, slow-pitch and co-ed softball leagues, mostly in southern California. I sometimes played in all three leagues at once. Switching from fast-pitch to slow-pitch is akin to trying to switch from tennis to racquetball.
I lettered in high school as a manager on a baseball team that came within one out of playing for the California Interscholastic Federation State title. I also did the announcing for those games, and I was a whiz at scorekeeping. But I couldn’t be kept from the field — I showed up at every practice, and helped to warm up players before games — anything to put on a glove. When I broke my hand during tryouts my junior year, I borrowed the glove of a left-hander and patrolled the outfield, catching fly balls with my right hand.
I now am entering my 21st year as a sportswriter, and know way more about some sports than I ever did as a player.
I have covered just about every sport for five newspapers in two states, and have interviewed some of the best: a three-sport athlete named Donte Rosario at tiny Dayton High School in Oregon, who went on to play tight end in the NFL; a young driver from Emporia named Clint Bowyer; a four-sport star at Olpe named Michelle Stueve; the massive 6-foot-9 Phil Loadholt at Garden City Community College, who also played in the NFL; Sublette High, Kansas State and WNBA star Shalee Lehning; and several standout players at Cowley College.
If I could say anything to the athletes in my coverage area, I would tell them this: Cherish your time on the field, on the court — wherever you excel. Thank God for the talents you were blessed with and make Him proud of you. Play for the name on the front of the jersey — not the name on the back. Give back to the community that supports you and to the fans who pay your salary when you reach the Big Show. Be a beacon of light to your community — stay out of trouble.
Most of all, I think I would tell them this: Don’t ever forget those before you that paved the way. They might be dead, old or nearly crippled, but they are not ghosts. And leave something for those who will follow you, because every time you step to the plate, walk to the line of scrimmage, or step onto the court — someone young and impressionable is watching you.
And they want to be just like you.
Sports editor Joey Sprinkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.