October 6, 2005

Outdoor Corner

by Chris Feeney

I remember, back in the good old days when I was in high school, the wrestling coach pulled me aside in the hallway and encouraged me to come out for the team.

To be honest, I was quite shocked. As a freshman, I was a scrawny little 110-pound weakling (opposed to the 175-pound weakling I am today.) Sure I had wrestled back in elementary school and even won my weight class in fourth grade. (I think I probably still have the medal tucked away somewhere with my little league MVP trophy, the two hiding rather lonely in that relatively empty box of sports honors.) But I hadnít shown any interest in the sport since I had chosen to devote my time to basketball.

Unfortunately I wasnít experiencing much success on the hardwood. I devoted countless hours to playing hoops and trying to get better. I paid out the bucks to attend the summer camps. I was the 11th man on our elementary school team, basically an alternate that only traveled if someone else was sick or couldnít play.

I was shocked to read my name at the bottom of the list of players that successfully made the cut in seventh grade. I only got to play in B-team games, which were few and far between, and even then I simply was backup to the guys that sat the bench for the A-team and moved down to get the playing time in front of me. I repeated the experience in eighth grade, and again in 9th grade, as we had a freshman team. I established my goal as a sophomore to make the junior varsity squad so that by my junior year I might actually get some playing time at the jayvee level.

Apparently the wrestling coach thought I was ripe for a career change. He looked at me as being stalled in basketball, and offered me a way out.

He offered a compelling argument, telling me how I would only be facing guys my same size, not like in basketball where one always runs into a bigger opponent. Plus in wrestling, you are only dependent upon yourself. Sure you are part of a team, but ultimately it is an individual competition. Plus every week at practice, if you donít like where you stand on the depth chart, you can challenge the wrestler ahead of you to a match, and if you win, you take over that spot.

All of that seemed pretty appealing to me. In basketball, I was always the odd man out. Just good enough to make the team, but rarely skillful enough to earn much playing time. Sure, I wondered if I would ever get a chance to play. There were days I wondered if it was worth the effort, and yes I am human, I did occasionally feel overlooked by the coaches.

If this was a Disney movie, I would have switched to wrestling and went on to win the state championship, earn a sports scholarship and marry the homecoming queen.

Nope, I stayed with basketball. I donít remember ever really battling over the decision, and canít recall consciously choosing basketball over wrestling. (I did go on to marry the homecoming queen, who regularly beat me at basketball and went to college on an academic scholarship).

I did have a few highlights as a sophomore. Believe it or not, I worked my way past a few of the guards who had started ahead of me since sixth grade. Some of those guys turned their attention to other pursuits, while I actually surpassed others as my hard work paid off in slightly improving skills. But after just a few starts, I severely sprained my ankle. I missed over a week, and even then came back pretty gimpy.

I rode out the rest of the sophomore year and focused on getting healthy. My dream came true as a junior, as I did spend most of the year as the starting point guard for the junior varsity team. But it wasnít a perfect season, as I did have to face competition from below for the first time. A pair of underclassmen were chomping at my heels, eager to take my place.

I thought I might be signing my movie deal my senior year when I was anointed the starter for the season opener (I had a pretty good pre-season and the normal starter was also the starting quarterback and our football team had been in the playoffs). But the dream season ended about four minutes into the game, as I committed a couple of turnovers and was banished to the bench.

I started several games throughout the year, and saw very limited time in others. So it was a seesaw finale to a tumultuous career.

As the year neared its end, I realized my sports career was also closing out.

Would I have loved to play more? Sure. Did I deserve to play more? Regardless of what I believed or what my parents and my friends thought, that was the coachesí decision. Do I regret the years I devoted to the game? Not one second.

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