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It is 5-something a.m. on a Friday. The first lights of dawn have yet to color the sky. Even the most ambitious of students remain in the sanctity of their beds, not even the birds have risen – the morning air rendered still without their song. All of Arcadia University seems to be bewitched in a deep slumber, yet I find myself trekking to Easton Field, against a backdrop of stretching shadows, with my cleats clicking against cobblestone.
The turf field glows like a beacon, set ablaze by the overhead lights. As I make my way there, I am met by a cluster of girls. Idly, they stretch and talk, none yet adjusted to being conscious at this ungodly hour. But just the sight of them strikes panic into my heart. Some may say that cleanliness is next to godliness, but on Coach April Pollock’s lacrosse team, uniformity is next to godliness. All of the players wear the same patterned shorts, white T-shirts… and reversible pinnies. My stomach twists in knots as I picture my own, spilling out from my hamper – all the way back in my dorm room.
“I forgot my pinnie,” I say, to no one in particular.
A few girls are kind enough to make sympathetic noises. Others’ faces turn sour, not bothering to look up from tightening their sticks or lacing up their cleats.
“Well you better run,” the captain replies.
And run, I did.
I should have timed myself, because I was flying, propelled by images of possible repercussions for my tardiness or forgetfulness playing like horror movies in my head. By the time I get back, I am thoroughly spent. I have managed to sweat through my gray sweatshirt, render my legs into gelatin, and retrieve my pinnie from the other side of campus with two minutes to spare.
“Good timing, Derr,” Coach grins.
It’s times like those that make me question why I am a college athlete. After the hustle and anxiety that came from the college recruiting process, there was no better feeling than finally committing. I watched as the rest of my peers flustered and fretted over college applications, plagued with worry over whether or not they would get into their dream school. All the while, I sat back and relaxed, wearing the emblem of my school with pride. Teachers eagerly asked about my commitment. Photos and write-ups of my signing were published in the newspaper and on the internet. Each time I spoke to an adult about my future plans, I felt a surge of satisfaction letting them know I would be playing college sports. All the time and effort I had sacrificed to get to this point seemed justified. I had what it took to advance to the next level.
But they often don’t tell you this: Committing to play a college sport is a world easier than actually playing college sports.
My training regiment consumed the summer as I was determined that I would not completely embarrass myself during the running tests. I practice before the sun is up and long after it has set. Febreze has been my best friend. I am wrought with anxiety each time I step on the field, fearing that I will not perform to my highest potential. You see, even after being recruited to a team, there is no guarantee that you are going to play, regardless of how much the coach flattered your ego in the recruiting process. Each day is a battle to earn a spot.
I might tend to complain and protest as ready myself for a lift or practice. Still, if I did not have lacrosse in my life, I don’t know what I would do with myself. It gives my day structure. It forces me to take care of my body by eating right, hydrating, and stretching. And probably most importantly, it gives me a platform to better myself by competing against myself and others and working hard. There is a sort of purity in the grind required to improve in athletics. Thinking and strategizing will only get you so far. You simply have to put the time in and push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
Lacrosse also gives me a sense of identity, of belonging. It is liberating to be a part of something larger and greater than yourself. Oftentimes, athletes get a bad reputation for being vain or shallow, thinking they are better than everyone else. But many more of us use sports for a cause, like on a recent morning when we came together, wearing gray bandanas to raise awareness for childhood cancer in conjecture with the Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation. Though it was early and the morning’s events consisted of mountain climbers, push ups, and the like, the energy was electric. Through the sale of the bandanas, we raised nearly a thousand dollars for the foundation. As we concluded the conditioning, I felt such overwhelming pride to be part of an athletic organization such as this one.
Waking up at 5 am is never fun. Neither are sprints. Nor is forgetting your pinnie and having to run across the entire campus in the dark. Sometimes I think about how much easier my college experience would be without lacrosse. But in the same vein, I think about how much lacrosse has enriched my time thus far- from the people I’ve met to the challenges I’ve overcome. I think about being apart of a group of girls, all from different walks of life, but bonded by one common purpose. I think of taking to the turf, clad in scarlet and gray, adrenaline thrumming through my body. I think of how it is helping me to learn and grow as both a player and a person, leaving me with lessons that will remain relevant long after I have hung up my lacrosse stick.
In times like those, I remember why I am a college athlete.