This piece is not for everyone. This is about college athletes, and it is written with empathy; it is a piece for us, by one of us -- an important distinction, as most of the dialogue concerning our existence is had without our participation. This is about the aftermath: About life as an ex-athlete.
Critics of the NCAA (and of college athletes in general) often talk in broad strokes of finances and corruption; they write about the ruination of academia and misaligned priorities. They mention Miami, USC, and, of course, Penn State. (This is fair: There should be nothing newsworthy about an athlete who manages to not take favors from boosters or who graduates without ever landing on academic probation.) Occasionally, there surfaces a piece about imbalances unrectified by Title IX; more frequently, there is chatter about gender differences in professional sports (at Buzzfeed, my classmate and frequent training partner Allison McCann wrote about her struggles in the deteriorating WPS; there are similar narratives regarding the WNBA). The reality is that those stories -- the scandals and the professionals -- are the minority. There are over 400,000 NCAA athletes, and for the majority graduation is as far as sport will carry them. The mighty achievement of the scholarship will recede deep into the background, and they -- we -- will move forward into the world as former athletes. It is a part of the story no one writes about, and for which I was entirely unprepared.
For half our lives or more, our days have been measured in workouts and physical therapy appointments; our needs have been oriented around sleep and calories. Games won or lost faded into seasons played, and our commitment borne on a field in too-big shin guards or on a base with an oversized glove grew from a Saturday morning obligation into a state of being. There is no other way but to wake up each day and do it all again; it is as natural as breathing, as rhythmic as the too-slow beats of our oversized hearts.
The devotion is no different than that had by any other artist -- a concert pianist, a writer, a researcher: It is a commitment to our talents; a refusal to let them go to waste. The impulse cannot be easily aligned with an obsessive psyche; for athletes, neither can it be boiled down to a reliance on endorphins or an addiction to pain. We sacrifice similarly: We spend weeks nursing swollen joints and soaking seeping blisters; we study in waiting rooms and take naps in MRI machines. We become versed in fractures and sprains; in supplements and medications. We could, if asked, diagram our own shoulders and knees right down to our slowly-shredding cartilage. For the lucky ones, after four years everything simply hurts; for the others, the body quits. Too-tight tendons snap and bones weakened against the years shatter. Anti-inflammatories and painkillers sear into stomach linings and yet -- we remain, all of us, convinced that we can still be stronger, faster, better.
Injury, despite its heartbreak, can be easily understood: The body no longer works. Imagine you are a cellist with arthritic hands or a writer with early-onset Dementia. It is a definable loss of ability. This makes all the difference. Upon graduating, most athletes can still run or jump or shoot or swing as well as the day before; what is lost is the permission to orient a life around those skills. Swapped in a hand-off is one identity for another: Athlete for Graduate.
For the first time, we will play and race and lift weights with nothing at all at stake. And although the pressure is lifted, so too goes the feasibility of our ingrained state of existence as one at play. Most of us will end up at jobs indoors at desks with very real time constraints; we will have un-missable social obligations and maybe, in time, a family of our own. For happiness' sake, we can search for jobs that allow us to continue to play -- they exist. We can find partners who understand our needs or who feel similarly. Ours is a culture wherein many people define themselves by their jobs; at 22 or 23, most college athletes are forced into retirement. The adjustment is abrupt, but if we've played right we've made the most of the time we were given, and upon graduating can do things to cushion ourselves against the blow -- to strengthen the tiny networks of muscle around the injury.
In rehab, one makes friends: Cohorts of the co-commiserating variety. Bonds are formed across training tables. It was with one of these friends that in my senior year I aquajogged up and down Stanford's Olympic-sized pool for five hours in a successful attempt to break a (very unofficial and equally silly) school record. There was no particular reason for our endeavor: We had a long afternoon, and a curiosity to see what we could do. My point is this: Our careers as athletes may be sidelined to old trophies and medals; our titles may shrink to unofficial ones. It is crucial, though, that no matter what jobs we find or what shapes our new lifestyles take we never lose what we shared in those five hours on that typically-sunny California afternoon: We must never stop playing, and we must never stop wondering.
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