The air was icy cold and the freezing wind was, at times, brutal, but my layers kept me warm. Two pairs of socks, shin guards held up by duct tape, new cleats that hadn’t gotten much use (and wouldn’t be getting much use from there on out). Sliding shorts underneath my own white shorts that were just slightly different from everyone else’s. My hair was fashioned into a french braid that pulled back into a ponytail. Everyone had to have some sort of braid in their hair–for good luck, of course. We were a very superstitious team, and we couldn’t risk breaking any of our many rituals on November 9th.
Finally, and most important to the uniform, a long-sleeved number 19 jersey that I wore with an unsure sense of pride. Sure I was proud of my school, proud of my soccer program, proud of my community, but this jersey indicated that I was proud of myself. This jersey, the same one that was framed and hung on my bedroom wall once it was all over, was proof that I was part of this team. It didn’t say I was a small part, the most insignificant part, but people knew. And I couldn’t stop myself from wondering. All of the validation I crammed into my head was fleeting to say the least, and didn’t prevent the same old thoughts from creeping in.
What am I doing here? Do I even belong? What did I do to deserve all of this?
Then again, it’s not like it mattered. No one was focused on me anyhow.
I checked out the other team. They didn’t feel like my opponent, but I sized them up for the sake of the team. Mason High School. They’d always had a strong team. This certainly wasn’t their first time to the state championships, so they had that one up on us. Their forwards were fast and good shots. I was glad I wouldn’t be going up against them that day. Lucky. Relieved. That would’ve been the worst day to crack under the pressure of being a defender.
I warmed up with the team, silent through it all. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, and I didn’t want to bother anyone who was trying to focus. I was just along for the ride. Like a little kid on bring your kid to work day. They showed me how it was done and I watched with awe.
The only problem I had with being so quiet was that I was alone with my thoughts, which was the worst. I wanted to feel like everyone else on the team. Pure pride and satisfaction. But when I was pondering these thoughts, I came to the conclusion that everyone hated me. I did half the work, had a tenth of the talent, but still got this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It just didn’t make sense.
I couldn’t bear the thought of it anymore, so I looked around and took it all in. It was beautiful. The sky was dark black and the stadium lights shone down on us like spotlights. The field was pristine. A field I would’ve loved to play on, just not that day. I had felt myself falling out of love with the game for a while at this point, but this vision ignited a spark that would last just a few months more. Sure, that spark was meant to burn out eventually, but it kept me going for a little while longer.
I looked at the student section and saw all of these familiar faces, but I didn’t make eye contact with a single one because none of them were looking at me.
And why would they? They were looking at the 2012 dream team! A perfect season with 23 wins, 108 total goals scored with just 5 goals against. Led by Maddy Williams and Molly Whitacre–amazing athletes who went on to play at Purdue and Ohio University. Goalkeeper Chloe Buehler who came back from a devastating injury, only to break records and save the team countless times throughout the season. These were the players to watch. Who was I? Sammy Neiswander, junior, wasn’t she on JV? Oh, Sean’s little sister! He’s so good! Sucks about his ACL though…
That was my legacy. My brother was a player that I never lived up to, but his time got cut short due to a very unfortunate ACL tear. Then he went and tore his other one. Twice. He would never play soccer again. This game that he adored stabbed him in the back, and now he has to watch other people do what he had once dedicated his life to.
It wasn’t fair that I was living what was so many people’s dreams when I had done nothing thus far to deserve it.
I thought of the all the others. I thought of the girls whose places I took. Becca, Kenzi, Vicki, Maddy. They were all older than me, all arguably more talented and more suited for the team than me. Why was I the one chosen? Because I played defense? Because I stayed healthy throughout my entire career? Those weren’t good enough reasons for me.
I turned my attention back to the stands. I studied the sea of parents, overwhelmed with pride for their talented children. After all, this is what these soccer moms had been dreaming of for over a decade. All of the time, effort, and money. All of the carpooling and snack schedules and kissing the asses of the various coaches. All of it was paid off for them. They were living through their daughters that day, so life was good.
I looked back at the student section. Something kept drawing my eyes back to them. I was meant to be up there with them. I was a poser on the field. A glorified fan, really. I was dressed to play, but we all knew that I would be warming the bench all night.
And that I did. Sure, I was invested in the game. I sat on the edge of my seat. I jumped at every shot a player made and thanked God every time Chloe saved the day. And I rushed the field with every other person dressed in a black and gold jersey when the 90 minutes were up, thinking what every other person in the stands was thinking that night.
They did it! They won the state championships!
The game had ended. My own personal Hell that involved me sitting on the bench, drowning in my thoughts and contradicting feelings, was finally over. But it was really just the beginning.
I got swept up in the whole mess of it. We were recognized at a basketball game, the Walleye game, the state house, and the holiday parade. We signed hundreds of Christmas cards and set them to local businesses, thanking them for their support. We got sweatshirts, sweatpants, t-shirts and jewelry, all labeled 2012 State Champion.
What an achievement.
Countless girls have told me how that night was the single best night of their life. How that is their favorite memory from high school and how that is the biggest accomplishment they’ve ever made. And how can I disagree? What have I done that is bigger than being a part of that team?
Until I can come up with a good answer, I have to live with this. With my face on the wall of Perrysburg High School. With my jersey hung up in my room with my name engraved in perfect font. With my state ring, gathering dust inside my jewelry box, haunting me. I can never wear it because I never earned it, but I can’t get rid of it because it’s proof of my greatest success.
And soon it won’t fit. My fingers won’t always be the same size that they were when I was 16. I just hope that when the day comes that it is too small, I won’t need it anymore.