We’re all invincible until the moment we’re not. My own moment of mortality came one innocuous fall day, in a meaningless basketball game as a junior. A single elbow to the back of my head set off a chain of events that spiraled far beyond that single blow. It was a moment that did not immediately reveal itself to me as one of importance; only after months of persistent, suffocating symptoms did I begin to peer through the mirage of my own invincibility. Two years, two lost seasons, and one unfulfilled athletic career later, the myth of our invincibility has been revealed to me in painstaking detail.
To tell this story in its full breadth I must begin at its beginning: when a younger version of myself fell totally, and completely in love with sports. The most fundamental elements of sports – the ecstasy of victory, the agony of defeat, the camaraderie and friendships, and the overarching sense of struggle and triumph – gives us a rush like few other things in life. From an early age I learned to appreciate the cycle of peaks and valleys within sports: the hope of victory always hangs on the near horizon of even the worst of defeats. There would always be another game, another chance, another time. It was this sense of boundless possibility, that no matter the circumstances I could change the situation. To be the master of one’s own fate is pure, exhilarating freedom.
This freedom was sucked from me the moment that the elbow struck my skull. Sure, I had experienced my fair share of injuries in the years prior. I’d broken bones and sprained ankles in basketball, banged heads and already had minor concussions in football, but these were always temporary roadblocks of varying sizes and duration on my continuous upward journey. I accepted the nature of setbacks as inherent to sports. What I could not accept was an injury that lingered beyond the reaches of my control, without a firm timetable for return or an easy MRI. As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into agonizing months, the void remained and the freedom I once enjoyed crumbled around me. Each waking day I saw the same external physical appearance, but I was a hollow shell of myself. Mirrors lied. Only the slight glaze that settled in my eyes betrayed the outward appearance. The doctors never officially ruled out playing my junior year basketball season but the smothering symptoms of the concussion refused to leave. December turned into April. Too late. Yet, despite the debilitating pain of watching our team’s peaks and valleys and in-betweens as a total bystander and the seemingly endlessly blank days where it hurt just to think, I still believed in the long arc of sports; although I had missed an entire season, the tantalizing hope of returning my senior year still remained.
It was this final chance that kept me going through all of the dark days. It drove me to return better than before, to reassert ownership of my fate, to recover the identity that sports once gave me. The first full game – after months of tedious recovery – was a disorienting, head-spinning whirlwind in which I played terrible. It was thrilling. The same rush of pure joy had returned and all of the trepidations, fears, concerns faded into the nothingness behind the graceful arc of sports. Now, was I taking a risk playing in games before the season? Absolutely. I just couldn’t help myself; the allure of that next game, possession, moment dragged me back into basketball wholeheartedly.
Fast forward several months. I was coming off of several summer months of happy, healthy playing. I’d gotten to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine and play in Germany and Ireland with a team assembled by my coach. The thoughts of the lost season, the lingering effects of the concussion, the fear of another setback had all settled firmly in the foreground of my mind, never fully eliminated but definitively minimized. The promise of my senior year hung so tantalizingly close, a oasis I could almost place myself at. If I could make it a month without incident I would arrive, quench the thirst that mocked me. Fate laughed. Another elbow struck my head in a fall league game. There would be no happy movie ending.
One week later. I sat waiting in the doctor’s office for two excruciating hours pondering the cruel machinations of fate, the different scenarios streaming across my mindwith frenzied frequency. I didn’t know exactly what they would tell me, what language they would use, which sympathetic gaze I would be bestowed: all I knew was that the news, stripped of the formalities, would seize my ownership of my career. I can’t remember a single thing that ensued in the appointment except for the photo on the opposite wall. It was a twirling shot of a dancer whose glossy surface pitched light in just the right way to show me a twisted reflection of my blank gaze, nodding along to accept the new terms and conditions of my life.
No more basketball. No more enjoying the peaks and valleys of competition. That chapter of my life was firmly closed and with it came a profound loss of identity. Sports were a backbone of who I considered myself to be and without them I was adrift in the sea of failed promises and lost opportunities. The burning hope of returning that drove me my junior year to stay positive, both externally and internally, had dried up. I couldn’t drag myself to practices anymore or stand the sight of a court. I tried to push basketball as far from my life as possible while still maintaining some role on a team I was supposed to be a captain of. I felt an obligation to go to every game, to maintain the threads of a crumbling piece of my identity. I grew accustomed to answering the inevitable questions about why I wasn’t playing with a dulled response and a weak smile. I learned to forget the sometimes unintentional, sometimes pointed comments about why I was “soft” and couldn’t just “tough it out and play”, it was after all only a “little knock to the head”. In truth, I had no answer for them. How can you make someone else feel the headaches and drifting gaze, make them see the spots dancing in your eyes that freeze time and move you somewhere else. You can’t. You can only tell them the symptoms are worse than giving up on a sport you love, giving up on believing in the long arc of peak and valley.
The season is long over and I’ll be nearly graduated by the time this comes out, but I feel compelled to share this story nonetheless. I’ve came to live with the decision I was forced to take, appreciate the path I avoided by not playing. I learned to relish in the moments of simply being healthy and alive because there’s been a missing piece of this story I find more and more essential to understanding it: my privileged life was never supposed to happen in the first place. For when I was but two days old I came down with a rare and fatal spinal meningitis that wrapped around my tiny, spinal cord and marched towards my brain. The team of specialists told my parents not to expect me to survive, that in the off chance I did somehow pull through I would be severely handicapped for the rest of my life, physically and mentally. And yet somehow I not only survived, but I never had any lingering effects. A 1% chance became my reality. But, I was still a baby, the only token that still reminds me of this immensely important and random event is the tiny scars on my forearm from the IV drip. I never gave the tremendous chance I was gifted the due it deserved until sports, that vital chunk of my identity, was seized from me. These past two years the full breadth of how unlikely and fortunate I am to have any semblance of a normal life has dawned on me. Sure, it still pains me to see people playing pickup basketball and I still have symptoms that linger from my concussions, but my belief in the long arc of fate has returned. After each fall there will be a rise. After every valley, there is a peak. After each moment of darkness there will be light.
Edited By: Brett Middleton