Nostalgia Blast: The Athlete

In sports, the athlete is always moving: running, shooting, passing, swimming, catching. The same could be said about my own history as an athlete moving between different sports. Over a span of 19 years, I’ve participated in an organized league over 40 times, with no sport exceeding 12 of those seasons. Those sports represented an eclectic mix, with diversity in their ranges of motion, levels of competitiveness, environments and rulebooks. And, of course, I was better at some sports more than others. As a whole, the array of sports I participated in built me up as a sports fan and my experience provides the strongest endorsement I know for the merits of the multi-sport athlete. 

These are the stories of the many hats, helmets, masks, pinnies, suits, pads, singlets and short shorts I have worn as an athlete. And while I may have been the same athlete, I had a different persona in each sport, which I’ll incorporate into each sport’s section. 

The Runner: Distance Running (12 seasons)

Distance running was never part of the plan. A well-intentioned Halloween fun run went disastrously in my elementary school years, and my mom once sentenced me to 10 laps around our house as a punishment. But in my other sports, I was never the fastest or biggest guy, but the one who absolutely hated being taken out of games and would play for hours if given the chance. I joined track to condition for basketball, but another honest truth is that my seventh-grade self did not want to lose to any girls in a race. The endurance built up over years and years of playing sports translated to track in seventh grade, and after I enjoyed huge drops of time and won a couple races, distance running replaced basketball as my primary sport and my focus for high school sports.

Distance running was the most intensive and fulfilling experience of any of the sports I played. When I swam, I thought getting 30th in the A race was the greatest thing in the world, and I couldn’t have dreamed of winning the whole thing. In running, I could compete for the win and strategize as early as my freshman year. Running allowed me to live out my deferred dreams from basketball and football and see my competitiveness directly translate to results.

Competing at a state level was incredible, and the recognition I received from running was unlike anything I’d experienced before. For better or for worse (and at times it was both), running was how people knew me in high school. I poured more into distance running than any other sport and got more out, though it certainly took a lot out of me in the process. And, most surprisingly, I never got injured, which made running a consistently great experience. 

Running was something I did more than who I was, and I could never be into running as much as I was into football or basketball. I enjoyed being on my high school team, but it only took a couple days into college life to realize that I wanted to move onto other athletic endeavors. I didn’t want people to know me as just a runner, and I realized the burnout that I was feeling from six years of intense competition. But I will always have a connection with and fondness for all those hours spent on the roads, courses, and tracks of Maryland. 

The Shooter: Basketball (10)

Basketball’s greatest appeal is that it’s universal. The bouncing of the basketball, the shooting at the basket — these seem irresistible to the human condition. That’s the primary reason why I think the Basketball Hall of Fame (which has dozens of basketball hoops on its first floor) is one of the greatest places in the world — it understands the sport and its impact on its community. Basketball is also the most mobile game, working as well with one, six, or ten people, and lending itself to mini-games such as knockout, H-O-R-S-E, and three-point contests. 

It’s also one of the most cruel. Basketball rewards the players with height, jumping ability, and ridiculous wingspans, for which I’ve always been 0 for 3. For every day in which every shot seems to go in, there seem to be exponentially more where every shot clanks off the rim or rolls out at the last second. I’ve seen my fair share of clunkers. Getting cut after the first tryout in seventh and eighth grade gave me my first taste of rejection. I moved to distance running because I saw the writing on the wall (literally, on the locker room wall) and chose a sport with a better future. 

But it’s a sport that always pulls you back. Building an arsenal of ball-handling and shooting maneuvers, mixing it up with new teammates and games, watching March Madness buzzer beaters and becoming inspired to imagine your own moments of glory — basketball is fun and universal, no matter how long it takes to pick up the ball again. 

The Passer: Flag Football (7)

The most fun sport growing up. When tackle football was ruled out as a sports option by my mom, I pivoted to the next closest alternative, flag football. The flag football leagues quickly pushed soccer out of the rotation, as it finally let me emulate the NFL players I watched every Sunday. I don’t know if there is any greater high than snagging an interception and running it back for a touchdown. 

It’s also the most fun sport to reminisce about and hype up my former self. But it’s true — I was great back in the day. I was more above average in flag football than any other sport growing up because I could throw far, catch consistently, understood plays and had a passion for the game. My friend Ben Blutstein and I were the dynamic duo, alternating between passing and receiving duties and winning a ton of games in the process. My greatest strength was in reading the receivers and finding them in stride, though the touchdown celebrations afterward were always great. 

Flag football doesn’t work as well as basketball or soccer as a “play for hours”-type game, but it was a staple of my Super Bowl parties and is always my number one option when it is run well. It also is the one that makes me want to relive my glory days the most. 

The Wall: Soccer (5)

Soccer is that sport that every kid tries, and then when the fork in the road comes and you either choose travel or stay with your team and eventually quit. I stayed in long enough to stay on a team with a lot of my friends, but left for flag football quick enough to get out before I couldn’t keep up (either with the talent level or demands of a travel team). 

There is a reason soccer holds this place in society. I loved playing with my friends from elementary school and practicing in the backyards of various teammates. I got the nickname “The Wall” for my defensive prowess, and that should say it all about my soccer skill at the time. My greatest moment was being traded from my team to our opponent so that they wouldn’t have to forfeit, and then scoring three goals (my career high) against my friends. 

I didn’t love soccer as much as football or basketball, and honestly I was scared of getting hit with the ball. But we had some good times. 

The Slugger: Baseball (1)

For a kid who considers himself a huge baseball fan, you would think I would’ve played more than one season of organized baseball. But I didn’t. 

The zaniness of that lone season made up for it. This was a fifth-grade recreational league, with some of the sorry baseball athletes I’d ever seen (if I could’ve seen myself, I’d be in that category too). The league was autopitch, a rarity for a fifth-grade league, and about five or six kids in the outfield. That’s not the start of it. 

We had nine strikes before we struck out with the nice ump and four strikes before we struck out with the mean ump. One first baseman caught a ball, landed on his bottom on first base and happened to tag a nearby runner, and then the ump had to explain the concept of a triple play. The way we determined positions was we screamed at the coach, who was a high schooler, and he tried to restore defensive order. Oh, and we played the same team, the Mets, six times and we won all six. 

My favorite baseball memories came closer to home, at a location we like to call the Grasslot. It was an enclosed field next to my house in between neighborhoods that was curiously shaped like a diamond, with a drainage gutter of rocks separating the outfield from the bleachers. With usually only one or two other players, I loved to play home run derby, throwing the ball up to myself and trying to smack it over the rocks. We would also play two-person wiffle ball in the backyard, though many, many baseballs and wiffle balls cleared the outfield fence. 

The Participant: Swimming (2)

I was bad at swimming. I was lucky to even get into the A meets, and 30 seconds to freestyle swim the 25-meter pool seemed like a monumental feat. But that wasn’t really the point of being on swim team for first and second grade. 

The sport gave me my first sense of competition, albeit while criss-crossing into lane boundaries while attempting to do backstroke (when the coach keep your eye on the clouds, then the clouds start to move, you know you’re in for a fun one). There was somewhat of a training regimen — and by training regimen, I mean waking up for a 7 am practice and avoiding toads in the water — toward a goal of getting faster, which resurfaced almost a decade later. Same with the concept of cutting hair to go faster (the 2nd grade buzz cut vs the 10th grade faux hawk). Really, it just taught me how to swim, and I think my swimming career achieved that goal, regardless of how many #54 finish ribbons I racked up. 

The Jedi: Fencing (1)

I wanted to be in the Olympics. I loved Star Wars. So I put two and two together and decided that I wanted to try fencing. 

Fencing, as it turned out, wasn’t all that, and it paled in comparison with the legendary lightsaber battles forged in my basement. It took about four classes for the instructor to actually allow us to do the moves at each other, and the guy was weirdly enamored with The Princess Bride. Professional fencing is definitely cool, but restraining a bunch of kids from whacking each other with swords is a dubious move. 

The Rookie: Frisbee (1)

Once I decided to hang up the running shoes after arriving at college, I chose the club frisbee team as my newest athletic endeavor. I loved playing frisbee before cross country practice in high school, and ultimate combined elements of other, familiar sports like football and basketball. What I didn’t know was just how intense the team would be, and I quickly found myself at the bottom of the food chain (although my “chicken wing” throw is a secret weapon). While club ultimate didn’t work out in the end as I pivoted to other commitments, frisbee will always be a go-to sport when I’m looking to relax and run around a bit.

The King: Four Square

There was no organized “four square” league, but I was immensely invested in the four square arenas at recess in fifth grade and before Sunday School every week at church. Church four square was notably legendary. The play itself would typically be dominated by the oldest kids in the youth group or volunteers, and the line waiting to enter the four square court sometimes went two dozen deep and wound around the middle school room. 

As a sixth grader, I struggled with the coordination required to combat the nasty serves of the eighth graders and often just quit out of embarrassment after just a couple rounds. By eighth grade, I was on the other side of the equation. Us eighth grade boys formed an unbeatable alliance, building friendships that would last a lifetime and spelling death for all the timid souls who dared to venture into square four. Trust was broken. Knees were scraped. Arguments were had. My repertoire became otherworldly: a “Death Star” serve with incredible velocity, an unconventional “Twister” countermove aimed at hitting the fringes of the square, a between-the-legs volley, and, of course, the golden move. 

Four square was truly a treasure of my childhood. My brothers and I built a four-square court in our basement to practice, and for something that passes off as a casual way to kill time before Sunday School, it was life or death.

The Terminator: Dodgeball

The day was March 19, 2017. The place was our church basement/high school room. The occasion was a high school blacklight dodgeball tournament. It was a night in which legends were born.

I rolled up to church that night with not one squad of friends, but two — DodgeBhalla Alpha and DodgeBhalla Beta. It became clear early on that the competition didn’t stand a chance. The team I played on, Alpha, took the one seed and reached the championship without dropping a game in any match. But when a team of ninth graders knocked the other four guys out of the game, I was left with a three-on-one with the title on the line. 

I hovered around the back line in the dark basement, keeping an eye out for any of the glowing dodgeballs that might be coming my way. One of the opponents ran up and fired a shot, one so sure that it hit me squarely in the chest and bounced off. Instinctually, I dove, body parallel to the cement floor, and kept the ball above the ground. It was the Edelman catch before Edelman. My dad, viewing from the hallway, saw the play and couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, the fireballer was out and one of my guys came back in to make it two-on-two. We left that blacklight court as champions, with Chipotle gift cards and a highlight reel for the ages. 

The dodgeball court was also the site of some not-so-stellar moments. In my weight training class sophomore year, we played in the tight quarters of the wrestling room for one of our “active rest” days. Midgame, I saw this lanky, wild-looking senior and took aim with my gator-skin ball. The throw clocked him in the head, but since I knew that head shots wouldn’t eliminate opponents, I wound up again and fired another. As soon as the poor guy got up from his doubled-down position, he got socked right in the gut. 

In slow motion, he rose up and locked in eye contact with me. He charged across the dodgeball court right at me, and I, being a sophomore just hours before my county championship track race, did not want to get beaten to a pulp. I retreated behind my teacher, who had tackled a police suspect a few years earlier. Instead of calling me out, my teacher told the dude to chill out and that it was just a game. And thankfully, the kid seemingly forgot and I got out of the locker room after weight training still alive. Those kind of stories scared the daylight out of me, and dodgeball has the potential to do that, but didn’t make dodgeball any less fun.

The Benchwarmer: Lacrosse

My lacrosse career was short-lived, to say the least. After becoming infatuated with the sport in May of sixth grade, I bought all of the lacrosse equipment in late May and then started a lacrosse-based camp in mid-June. Donning the $100 dollar helmet, the heavy pads, the $30 gloves and the comparatively cheap stick, I had a terrible time. It was a miracle that I made it past Day 2. I couldn’t cradle the lacrosse ball, and I couldn’t utilize my athleticism or sports background in any meaningful way. The highlight of the week was during the boys lax vs girls lax scrimmage, in which I took an attempted shot-on-goal from one of the girls to the groin and saved a goal. But considering all of the sports I became heavily involved in, I could afford (well, afford is stretching it) to take a wayward shot on a sport like lacrosse.

The Novice: Tennis

The sport of tennis has always interested me from the days of watching Wimbledon at the beach in my formative years. In contrast to the intensity of a major competition, my experience was casual — it became the stereotypical beach activity for our yearly summer trips, and occasionally I would play for a bit at the park by our house. Tennis is a lot like basketball in that the action of striking the tennis ball with a racket, much like shooting or dribbling a basketball, is universally fun. I was chosen to be a staffer at a tennis camp for a week and had to learn a lot of tennis on the fly, and along with the teachings of my friend Chase, I developed enough of a knowledge of tennis to enjoy playing, whether at the beach, park or anywhere else. Just don’t expect a 100 mph serve.

The Daredevil: Xtreme Sports

Xtreme sports has always been a fascination of mine, dating back to the days when the X Games ruled the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids. I had a skateboarding phase in elementary school that only amounted to the purchase of a $10 skateboard, and I became pretty proficient at the Ripstik after many evening hours riding in my driveway. But where I emulated the Shawn Whites and Tony Hawks of the world was on the Razor scooter. My neighbor would bring his ramp and park it at the bottom of our slightly sloped driveway, and we would take turns speeding down the driveway and trying to land what felt like “big air”. There was also the sport of “swing jumping” off the backyard swings, the battleground between overwhelming fear and pure thrill. Jeffrey was always the best at going straight up, but I could hold my own. Those daredevil stunts may have faded away, but they taught me that there aren’t many greater thrills than sports. 

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