September 13th, 2014. Darkwing is lacing cleats, bracing up, and getting their stretch on in the brisk early morning at East New England Sectionals. Jokes are being cracked, laughs and smiles cutting through edginess and nerves. The grass is wet with dew, so a dropped disc makes the warm up that much harder. Teammates with gloves are getting hassled, but they know they made the right call. Team plyos across the endzone start: cherry pickers, supermans, opening and closing gate. Then a team go-to drill with a mark that changes from forehand to backhand before they switch to a half field ho-huck drill. The team is ready for the first game, ready for the day, and ready for regionals.
This is all speculation, of course. I spent that Saturday morning on my couch, watching SportsCenter and eating a few bowls of Multigrain Cheerios (I know it’s no Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but I’ve been on a health kick). For the first time in three years, I didn’t play a single tournament with Darkwing. For the first time in six years, I didn’t play Sectionals. For the first time in seven years, I didn’t play at all.
Ever since starting ultimate in college ( I founded the team at a DIII school in New Hampshire), I have played year-round, almost non-stop. College practices ran through the winter, when we played on a small basketball court in the back of the gym, and into spring. In the summer, there was league in Rhode Island, along with the usual pick-up games at home with local friends. I started playing club in sophomore year, which meant two sectionals tournaments a year for three years before graduation forced me to downsize from two teams to one.
At that point, playing so often (and not just in terms of the number of tournaments I attended. I played almost every single point of every tournament my college team went to.) had taken its toll on me. A sprained wrist, two sprained ankles, one separated collar bone, a few broken ribs, jumper’s knee in both knees, shin splints, and the occasional bruises and turf burn were all on my list of injuries, along with five stitches in my tongue from a disc to the face. In plain terms, I used to beat the hell out of my body, weekend in and weekend out.
I loved ultimate. Absolutely loved every aspect of the game: the competition, the leadership, the community, the teammates. Everything. If there was a disc flying near me, you can bet I was laying out to catch or D it. Whether or not I thought I could get to it was irrelevant– I’d always make the effort, my terrible form usually bringing me down hard on a knee or shoulder. Since college, I’ve separated both shoulders, strained some muscles in my side, played a tournament the weekend after getting my foot run over by a forklift, and played sectionals with a cracked zygomatic bone. Suffice to say, I’ve got a propensity for accumulating injuries without giving my mind a break or my body time to properly heal.
That brings us to last year tryouts. Me being me, I went a little too hard and ended up really hurting my back. I got home and lay down on the floor with my feet on a chair and my back on the hardwood for three hours. I had been hurt before, but it was never like this. It took a few days of painful sitting at a computer desk for work and taking ibuprofen like Pez, but I soon realized that the situation wasn’t good. I got some x-rays and was told I had slipped a disc in my back.
Most players would realize that they were done for the year. It really shouldn’t even be thought of as a decision, but rather a fact of life. Really, continuing to play would be downright idiotic. But I never said I was smart, and I loved playing ultimate. So I got some muscle relaxers and some Percocet, and I nodded my head when the doctor told me to take some time off, get some reading done, and do some physical therapy.
I downplayed my injury to my team’s captain and most of the players, saying it wasn’t too bad, that the muscle relaxers made it bearable to play. When they asked on the sideline or saw me trying to stretch or not collapse due to the pain, I would just shrug them off; it was my problem, not theirs, and I didn’t want to be the team baby that everyone would try to take care of.
I played every tournament that year, taking half a muscle relaxer on Friday night and half on Saturday night just to get through the next day. I would often go for walks away from our bags or try to stay on the opposite sideline just so that teammates wouldn’t see how much pain I was in. Every cut, every jump, every pivot was a knife driving into the base of my spine. But it was ultimate, I was with my friends, and I was doing what I knew how to do.
I played several tournaments that year, starting from May at Bell Crack, where I was so drugged up on Saturday night that I couldn’t find the bathroom in our motel room, all the way through to Regionals– the first Regionals I have ever played in. I think that was a driving factor too. I could see where the team was heading, and I thought we could make it that year, and I wanted to stick with it.
Why did I put myself through this? Why play through the pain for months? Because ultimate was what I did. I hadn’t gone a month without playing in seven years. What would I do without it? I didn’t want to stop. There was also a side of ultimate that helped me deal with some personal issues I was having. The game was always something in my life that I had complete control over. It was a straightforward machine; I got out of it what I put in. At school, I created the team and busted ass to play local tournaments and create a program to leave behind. For club, I would get to practice an hour before the rest of the team to work on pulls, do a short track workout, or work on throwing accuracy. No matter what was going on outside of those lines, I could escape by playing ultimate as hard as I could.
But regionals ended on a sour note after we lost in the game-to-go to the game-to-go against a team we could have beat. I took my cleats off and sat on the fields, thinking about the season and all the work I put in, and all the pills I took and the pain I pushed through. And I realized it wasn’t worth it. Whether or not we would have made Nationals didn’t matter at that point, and if we had had lost every game at regionals, that wouldn’t have mattered either. In retrospect, let me tell you right now: if you are ever seriously hurt, don’t try to play through it. Your team can play without you, and it’s definitely not worth the damage you’ll do to your body.
After the season, I finally made the right call: I decided to take a year off. No winter league, no spring league, no club this summer. I did play summer league in a diminished fashion, not trying to play 100%. My back is close to normal now and I’ve begun working out and starting a training regimen for the offseason so that I can come back the player I was before my injury.
But right now, I’m sitting here thinking about regionals next weekend, about Darkwing competing, and about me sitting on my couch. Maybe I’ll spice it up with an omlet instead of cereal.
There’s no way around it: taking a year off sucks. You don’t get to see your friends as much, you miss out on all the new inside jokes, and you spend your weekends at home instead of camping or packing eight people into a hotel room. It’s a lonely time. The thing is, I put this on myself. I ignored my friends when they told me to stop playing, I discouraged my captain from sitting me (sorry, Steve), and I played my hardest every point despite needing four injury timeouts throughout the season, which feels like a record.
I don’t regret taking this year off– it was the right choice. But I do regret letting it get to that point. Listen to your doctors and take your time to rehab from injuries. When your body is creaking and hurting, put down the disc. Trust me.