Truck Stop has 8. My team, Revolver, has 5.
It’s halftime in the quarterfinals of Nationals. Elimination time. With the new format, no team is untouchable — even us, with our number one seed. From bottom to top we may be the better team, but they are playing the better game. The Pressure is palpable; it covers me, clogging my pores, fogging my head. I can’t tell if it’s the slight fever I picked up yesterday or if I’m just sick from fear. We lost last year in quarters. Both teams know this. I slump under the tent trying to hide from the grueling sun, attempting to mask myself from The Pressure.
I take a sip of Gatorade. It tastes of rotten chalk. My thoughts rush through all the work I’ve done over the last year, but none of it matters. My usual confidence is in shambles; an injury to my rib has kept me from playing at a high level for almost three months and now our team’s life is on the line.
I take a sip of air. It hurts my sore throat. I start drowning in doubt.
“I can’t do it….we can’t do it.”
There is a pause, an audible pause, in my train of thought. I’ve never thought that before.
I had never felt Pressure of this kind. It was like being dragged to unknown depths of a dark ocean trench, crumpling my insides, crippling my outsides. No one else was down there.
Only I could save me. I’d become a self-absorbed personification of the player I hate, the one who can only see himself.
Even my teammates are blurry unknown objects; they thankfully have no idea how mentally unstable I’ve become. They must not find out, or it would spread like the disease it is. I make sure to avoid eye contact and paste on a firm grimace to let everyone know to leave me alone. Let me go alone. I have to try. I know the regret, I know so well the feeling that comes with letting a team down… letting myself down.
I go over our situation, searching for a solution on the slippery slope of uncertainty. We need breaks, but we also need to score the offensive points — and both sides are struggling. What can I do? There is no way I can play effectively every single point. There is also the wind. An enemy but also an ally if used properly. Okay. I must trust the O to score downwind. I will help them upwind and help the D in both directions. We need breaks, and not just any breaks — difficult upwind breaks.
Now how do we get blocks? Truck Stop is not giving up the disc. Their top players have played in big games, they are not scared of us, they will not just give us this game. The two players seeming to touch the disc the most are Seth and Nicky, surrounded by a crew of great receivers. Of the two, Nicky seems to be the one they throw to more. Perhaps if I shut him down, they will fall apart and I can at least set a large frantic mark that will not give him the easy looks he wants.
Half time is wrapping up — there is no more time to dwell in depths of despair. It is time to sink or swim. My team brings it in for a rah rah huddle that does little for me. The game begins and my mind tries to hide under its familiar blanket quilted from determination and desire — though it’s a tattered small blanket and my legs are still exposed to the cold fear that lingers.
My battle with Nicky begins. It’s rare that I devote my entire focus on one player — I usually look to poach and help deep. There is no way I could cover every cut, but I try to shut down his easy open side resets and not give him easy throws — both things his team seem to rely on.
As expected, covering Nicky proves difficult, but I manage to slap down a short pass and a small bit of hope returns. Unfortunately, we still have to go the whole field upwind and my hope lasts only seconds as Truck gets it back and scores quickly. Despair stands by, grinning and beckoning me in for a suffocating hug.
At some point I remember thinking “There’s not enough time for us to grind them. We need to generate turns faster.” The easiest, yet riskiest way to do that is to push a receiver deep and make him look open enough that the thrower instinctively throws it. It’s amazing how effectively this can work, but you better be able to make up whatever distance you give, or else it’s just bad defense. It works: they throw it, I catch up and put myself between the player and the disc. Unfortunately my hamstring cramps and I have to take a sub. Like some cheesy movie, in comes the young kid who I’ve trained all year, my roommate, my captain, my friend Cassidy. For months, I’ve been trying to make him stronger physically and mentally and now he is the one I need to be strong for me. Normally I would cheer and care about Cassidy, but I don’t even watch the point, that’s how stuck in my own Pressure I had become. Somehow we score.
Fast forward. Now Truck is going upwind and I’m back on Nicky. The wind is coming slightly from the right, my hope is that I can get him to throw enough lateral upwind throws that one of them catches the wind. A few throws later my wish comes true and someone on my team leaps to catch the D. Three throws later we score.
We still need one more upwind break. There are not many chances left, time has run out, the soft cap is on. My throat has shaggy wool stuck in it and my legs would start a fire if they touch kindling. We pull the disc and I trot after it, going to cover one of their best receivers, Peter Prial. I have not covered him all game and I am about to force him deep in hopes of a turn. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Seth has the disc and I know he will huck it if I provide the proper bait. I put myself between Peter and the disc. To be honest, I don’t mean to give Peter that much space and wouldn’t have been able to make up the 10 yards I gave him, but thankfully the wind catches the disc and it sails out the back. Our disc.
Another pause as we all wait for the disc to be walked up to the line and checked in. I had cut deep twice on the D line and both times had failed, Truck will be ready for it. My only option is get it under, complete an upwind throw, and, of course, to trust my teammates. All year my team has been teaching trust — now I am about to be given the test. I can’t register the play call and get it under for a nice gain. I turn and find a player making a great in-cut. As the disc leaves my hand, I think, “it’s up to you now.” A few throws later we score upwind.
We take the lead 12 to 11. We pull to Truck, and in about six passes they score upwind to tie the game.
12 to 12, game to 13. Double Game Point.
One would think that after all this, after proving I could play well, lots of touches with zero turns, that I would be confident going into DGP. I am not. All I see is the dark abyss on the ocean floor where The Pressure crushes my soul. What if they get a Callahan on us?
They pull the disc and with a sigh of relief I watch as it strikes the back line. We’ll at least get it at the brick and they won’t get a Callahan. Disc in hand, some teammate is walking to the brick slowly while my mind races: maybe someone else will cut, maybe someone else will win the game for me, maybe I can hide on the weak side, maybe I can take an injury sub.
Suddenly, a friend’s calm voice from the sideline somehow reaches down through the abyss and pulls me up. My head emerges from the dark waters into reality, my brain gasps in the fresh air, everything rushes in like a flash flood.
First the noise, yelling from all sides, people screaming, my team cheering, the other team making noise for the sake of it, parents preaching nonsensical advice.
I finally see everything, too. My teammates are no longer blobs, but people, people who have played extremely hard and well to get us this far. They are my friends who I love more than I will ever admit, their faces are sweaty, but not scared, their passion and determination shines through, burning off any of my remaining fog of failure.
I am not alone. I am part of a team.
The person with the disc is not just someone, it’s Ashlin. I know Ashlin. He’s my favorite thrower on the team, and lo and behold, the mark on Ashlin is giving him the forehand. My defender stands next to me. No poaches. The deep space and endzone are wide open and Ashlin has that throw, we have made that connection many times and practiced it many more. I also see clearly that no one was going to save me from this self-made Prison of Pressure I’d created. With a final inhale I spin and dove deep. The throw was perfect, my legs held true. People have asked me why I kept running after I scored that final goal, and at the time I didn’t have the courage to say it, but that’s what a man looks like when he finally breaks free from his own prison.
We went on to win semis and finals, where I played with renewed confidence and focus, wanting the disc and leading by calm example, giving my teammates the trust they deserve and wanting them to play up to their potential. I’ve played a lot of tough games and lost a lot big games too, but no game was ever as difficult as that Truck game.
It just goes to show that the mental prisons we put ourselves in are the hardest to escape from. Sometimes the secret to freedom is simply having the courage to trust the keys you already hold in your hand.