Anyone who’s ever played sports is likely familiar with the level of commitment that goes into dedicating mind and body to a certain sport or end goal. Sports can become all-consuming; they can lead to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. While infinitely rewarding, sports at the highest level require tremendous discipline. The physical and emotional toll that accompanies committing your body to an objective in such a way can be incredibly taxing.
What happens when such a deeply embedded aspect of a person’s life is no longer there?
Current and former athletes shared their experiences with Vanguard, discussing what sports have helped them accomplish, how they’ve impacted their physical and mental health, and what goes through a person’s mind when they begin to prepare for life after sports.
Sports provide the opportunity to get in peak physical shape—the benefits to mental health are also well documented—but the opportunity for connection can be just as beneficial as any physical reward.
“Just being able to meet new people from all different places,” said Anthony Adams, redshirt junior on the Portland State football team. “Knowing people and creating opportunities for yourself, that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve gotten from being a student athlete.”
“I was a three-sport athlete for four years, and that may be my greatest accomplishment as an athlete,” said Greg Mulkey, former Oregon State University football player and current high school athletic director. “I look back now, at my age, and I’m probably more proud of that than anything because I gave everything I possibly could to my school and my community, my teammates—everybody.”
The benefits of playing sports can come in many forms, but those benefits often carry a physical cost. The chance of injury is a constant risk. Even those who consider themselves fortunate rarely avoid a few bumps and bruises along the way. For many athletes, remaining healthy enough to compete in the next game is considered a win.
“I’ve had really good luck with injuries,” said Jordan Stotler, a recent PSU graduate and former member of the women’s basketball team. “I haven’t really had major injuries, I’ve just had little ones as you get older and play basketball for a while. I’ve sprained my ankle a few times, I have pretty bad tendinitis in my knees, I jam my fingers a lot. I’ve had really bad jammed fingers, but that’s about it.”
“I fell pretty hard on my elbow this last season and it still hurts to this day. I can’t really bend it all that well,” Stotler said. “And I jammed my finger as well. I can’t bend it all the way down now, I’ve lost a lot of mobility in it.”
Adams shared Stotler’s feelings of gratitude for the health he has maintained up to this point in his career, but acknowledged his experience with lingering injuries as well.
“Luckily, I’ve been pretty fortunate—knock on wood—but I broke my right hand in high school my sophomore year in the last game of the season,” Adams said. “Then my senior year, I broke my foot.”
“Immediately I knew both of them hurt,” Adams said. “But I put them off for like a week, and I didn’t really do anything about either of them until finally I went into the doctor and heard they were both broken.”
“I still don’t have great mobility in a couple of my right fingers,” Adams said. “My foot is fine, I still have the metal plates in there. Fortunately, it hasn’t bugged me at all. I was supposed to get the plates taken out a year after the surgery, but then they decided not to because it wasn’t causing me any pain, so they just left them in there. I haven’t had any real big problems with long-lasting injuries.”
It’s not unusual for a young athlete’s only concern to be whether they are able to play in the next game, with little thought of future consequences, whether those consequences are felt in a week or 20 years down the road.
As the body ages, those injuries may have lasting effects. A nagging injury from one’s time spent playing can become a debilitating encumbrance for life.
“I do have an injury that occurred during college that definitely aggravates me now. I had a pretty bad neck injury,” Mulkey said. “It didn’t really bother me back then, but it does today.”
“Obviously the sport of football—it’s pretty violent,” Mulkey said. “I had something happen to me several times during practice or a game where I would get something called a stinger. That’s where you get your head down too far and it would compress your head, and then it would pinch nerves in your neck.”
“My arms would be temporarily paralyzed, for a very short period, where I couldn’t lift them,” Mulkey said. “But I dealt with it, I lived with it, I played with it, it didn’t have a long effect on me. Now, at 58 years old, yeah I definitely feel it.”
With the risk of injury constantly present, is the physical toll associated with participating in sports really worth it?
“I’ve had people ask me, would I go back and do it again? Absolutely,” Mulkey said. “Even with what I know today. Would I live with a little bit of pain now knowing what I do know? Yes, because it was well worth it in so many different ways in how it helped my life.”
“I think one of the things that has helped me more than anything is the discipline that [sports] instill in you to be able to fight through controversial issues,” Mulkey said.
“It wasn’t easy—football, especially at the college level, even at the high school level,” Mulkey said. “It wasn’t easy because of the rigor—especially at the college level—that we had to go through and had to fight through. A lot of kids can’t handle that mentally.”
The opportunity to participate in sports may end, but the memories made can last well beyond a person’s playing career.
“Something that I’ll never forget was winning the Big Sky [conference championship] a couple years ago,” Stotler said. “That was something I’ll never forget and something I’ll be able to tell my kids about. Going into the NCAA tournament—you can’t really explain it.”
For those fortunate enough to extend their playing career to the collegiate level, the possibility of playing professional sports can be a legitimate aspiration. But even then, fewer than 2% of NCAA student athletes go on to play professional sports.
“Obviously the goal is playing at the next level,” Adams said. “Whether that be the NFL, the Canadian league or whatever it is, that’s always there. But after that, I’m not really sure right now. There’s a lot of different avenues I feel like I could take.”
“I’m planning on playing overseas,” Stotler said. “I just signed with an agent a few weeks ago, so I’ve been chatting with him about places I might want to go, and he’s been talking with coaches. I should have a decision in July on where I’ll be going, but playing overseas is what’s next for me.”
“After the season stopped, I realized how much I miss it and how much I would miss it if I didn’t continue,” Stotler said. “I have the opportunity now, so I decided I can’t let it go, because it’s kind of the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m just going to go and enjoy myself and make some memories and stay in a new country for a while.”
Whether an athlete’s participation in organized sports ends at the high school, college or professional level, the decision will eventually have to be made to step away from their sport. What determines when it’s time to let go?
“I think injury, and then also, just losing love for the game would really be the only things that would make me quit playing,” Adams said.
“I think about my body, and I think my body will tell me when I’ve had enough of sports, just because I want to be able to move when I’m 40 and 50,” Stotler said. “So I think when my mind’s had enough, when my ankles, my knees, all my joints—when I wake up every day and I can’t move, I think that will be when I know that I’ve had enough.”
“If I can play tomorrow, I want to, and I will,” Stotler said. “But also, I need to think about my future, because my future is my future, you know, it’s all I have.”
“I need to be smart, but also, I’m not going to stop playing right now because I don’t need to,” Stotler said.
Walking away from the game can be incredibly challenging. When such a fulfilling aspect of one’s existence is taken away, it can be difficult to fill the gap.
“That was a very sad day in my life,” Mulkey said of the day his playing career came to an end. “My entire career, since I was in seventh grade, I was always playing football, I was always preparing to play football. I did that from my seventh grade year until the end of my senior year in college. So it was pretty hard.”
Once an athlete can no longer compete, the chance to watch their children participate in sports can be the best way to remain connected to athletics. However, as injury concerns within youth sports remain at the forefront of the conversation surrounding athletics, the question persists: Would you want your child to participate in sports?
“Obviously it’s up to them, ultimately,” Adams said. “I wouldn’t force them to play anything that they didn’t want to do. But yeah I would want them to play sports, and I would want them to play football.”
“I don’t know how early I would want them to start playing football,” Adams said. “Because I started in second grade, and if they did start a sport that early, then I would really emphasize them playing other sports as well. Because I think playing one sport for that long is just way too much effort and time into one sport.”
“I think I might start them in football later than everything else, maybe once they get into middle school,” Adams said. “Because I don’t see a huge need for second, third and fourth graders to be running into each other that young.”
“I would love if my kids played sports,” Stotler said. “It just gives you so many opportunities for college and social life—your physical life. I would never be mad if they didn’t, but I would definitely put them in sports to see what sport they want. I wouldn’t just put them in one sport and make them play that one. I would give them a wide variety and let them choose themselves.”
Perhaps the greatest value of sports is its ability to educate. The lessons learned often extend well beyond wins, losses and the strategies involved. Once an athlete’s playing days are over, the lessons and values instilled can be passed on to the next generation of athletes.
“Some advice I would give to my child if they were starting to play football would be, just don’t get down on yourself too easily,” Adams said. “Because it’s a hard game, and nobody’s going to be perfect. Bad stuff is going to happen.”
“I would say don’t be afraid to lose and don’t be afraid to fail,” Stotler said. “Because you can always do better, and I think when you’ve worked as hard as you can, that’s success in itself.”
“I have a niece right now who’s starting to play basketball, and every time she misses she wants to stop playing,” Stotler said. “So I just have to keep telling her, keep going, because it’ll pay off eventually if it’s what you really want. I think it’s worth it if you really want it.”
For parents, how they approach their child’s participation in sports can determine the child’s perspective of sports for the rest of their life.
“The most important thing is to support them,” Mulkey said. “I strongly believe that. Encourage them, support them, allow them to participate.”
“Even more today than ever, because we have too many other factors in life that [deter] kids from participating in something in high school,” Mulkey said. “I don’t care if it’s band, choir, forensics, drama—whatever it may be, get involved.”
“I’m in athletics now and education,” Mulkey said. “I’ve been the athletic director at Marshfield [high school] for some time. I’m always preaching to kids about trying to take advantage of the opportunities when they’re there, because you don’t get a second chance.”
Committing to anything with the intensity that athletes commit to their sport can lead to uncertainties. It can be easy to question the decisions leading up to a certain point in one’s career when so many sacrifices have been necessary to reach that moment. For those athletes who have already achieved a certain level of success, is there anything they would have done differently?
“That’s a tough question because right now it’s easy to say that I would go back and try and do a different sport,” Adams said. “Just because I’ve been playing football for the last three years, and I miss the other sports that I was playing in high school.”
“I think there’s always something you could change about what you’ve done,” Stotler said. “I wouldn’t change any of the sports that I’ve played.”
“I would’ve played the exact same sports, there’d be no doubt in my mind,” Mulkey said. “I was built to play football.”
Sports require an enormous level of commitment, and success rarely comes without sacrifice. But for those willing to embrace the challenge, the rewards can last a lifetime.
“It’s probably an experience that you’ll never forget, because I’ve made a lot of good friendships and I’ve learned a lot about basketball,” Stotler said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself as well, just how I am and how I deal with stuff that’s hard.”
“There are so many fond memories. I would say the most, for me, was the relationships that I built with teammates that still are alive today,” Mulkey said. “I have two or three college guys that I still stay in contact with, that’s very special. Because athletics gave me life long friendships.”