New Year’s had just passed and I felt, all things considered, pretty good. I woke up in the morning with a little bit of pain in the front of my right shoulder, but, hey, I’m a card-carrying lefty (yes, seriously), it was only my right (read: superfluous) shoulder and no matter how much I tried, those boxes full of Christmas decorations weren’t going to put themselves away. So, I did.
Sure, the pain felt worse afterwards, but I was almost definitely just being overly sensitive – I’d been known to do that, frequently in fact, especially after being spiked on by kids half my age and twice my size – so I totally ignored the voices in my head that were practically screaming at this point “listen to your body!”
Instead, I downgraded my status from “probable” to “surviving” and played squash that evening.
It was the first night of five with zero sleep and extreme pain and I was as frustrated as someone who just turfed the first throw, with no defensive pressure…again….not that I would know about that.
So, the next morning, after writhing on the couch for hours and hours half-sleeping and dreaming a wonderful dream where an eager representative from my Masters’ team was stabbing me in the shoulder with a knife, I drove, one-armed, straight to emergency.
Even one sudden, quick movement sent a shockwave of nerve pain starting from my shoulder and radiating down my arm and back leaving me both tense and weak. I couldn’t get dressed by myself, couldn’t make food, couldn’t pick things up and going to the bathroom was embarrassingly painful and difficult.
I prayed constantly to any and all deities who may be nearby that I’d stop looking off the dump and hucking into double-coverage if only my shoulder could feel better.
I’d catch myself staring off into the dark, wincing, in a lack-of-sleep stupor, and thinking about the squash season that was quickly ticking away and the ultimate season that was fast approaching that I badly wanted to be fit for. The mere thought of running, jumping, catching and throwing my patented lefty flick huck (patent pending) brought a grimace to my face.
The next week was a full throttle ride of moaning, self-pity, pill popping and stress over a summer in a lawn chair watching ultimate ahead of me.
Damn, I hate being on the sidelines. Pretending to be excited “just to be there”. Watching my teammates with a painted-on-smile on my face, aching to be on the field.
I suck at being injured with a capital S. My cheerleading skills are minimal at best. Plus no one wants to see me in a skirt waving pom poms aside from my wife, and even then, I think she’s just attempting to be nice and supportive of my hobbies.
I love ultimate.
For the past 30 years, summer has meant one thing: racing around the field, throwing IO forehands and beating people up the line (and also playing mediocre defense and being below average at holding the mark, but those aren’t important right now).
While my motivation and enthusiasm have ebbed slightly as I’ve progressed into my late 30s and 40s, I still feel the passion for this wonderful game that I first felt that very first day I went out back in 1989.
I can’t imagine not playing, but as the years tick by and my body requires more and more work to get out there, the inevitability of the future is always there, in the back of my mind. As much as I continue to try to defy my age, I know that I have many fewer years ahead of me than I do behind and I want to take advantage of each and every moment and game as if it were my last.
Thankfully (knock on wood), I’ve had very good fortune, overall, with injuries. Sure I’ve had to miss a few games here and there, but for the most part, I can’t complain.
And then, in the middle of winter, after years of ignoring it like a true ultimate player, my old shoulder injury reappeared.
In my hopped-up-on-painkillers-partially-delusional state, I wondered – maybe this was how it ended for Tommy Paley, ultimate player – crying by himself in the dark on the couch, to old and banged up to play.
Was this how the feel-good story of the high school nerd who conquered his self-doubt and inability to throw a flick before defying all expectations would conclude?
Maybe this was how I went out – with a whimper and not a bang.
A single tear rolled down my cheek, followed by another and then another to complete the scene. The money invested in that eye dropper was already paying off in spades.
I need to be playing.
But, I was forced to confront the question that was looming in front of me and threatening to become reality – what would it mean if I had played my final game?
So much of my self-identity for the past almost 30 years has been as an ultimate player. What would it mean if I could no longer play? Who would I be then? Of course, my self-identity is as a father and a husband, a son and brother, an educator and a writer, a homecook and a squash player and so and so on, but being an ultimate player is essential to my being.
It defines me.
Playing ultimate has brought me a lifetime of happiness and satisfaction and community and friendship and belonging that is unique to ultimate. Back in 1989, when I was too short for basketball, too slight for football, too uncoordinated for soccer and too afraid for my life for rugby,
Ultimate was there.
Everyone was welcome – from the nerdy to the vertically challenged to the not-traditionally-considered-athletic (I’m a triple threat!) and everyone else. Where I’d been previously cut and picked last and asked to be manager, ultimate was there with warm, open (and, confusingly, furry like a muppet) arms. Everywhere I turned there were mentors and teachers and friends.
Almost overnight, ultimate was my home.
And, for 30 years, it’s remained that way.
It has given me a confidence and pride and self-esteem boost that I wouldn’t have thought possible when I first went out all those years ago.
I feel like one of the best versions of myself when I’m playing – smile on face, spirited, team player, but it wasn’t always that way.
Throughout the years, I’ve complained and argued, kicked cones and spiked hats, have been passive aggressive and not always been the best teammate. There were countless times I drove home frustrated and angry at how the game went, but also at myself for not keeping my emotions in check, again. Oh (cue violins), how I’ve grown and matured!
Those days seem (mostly) in the far rear mirror. I feel full of youthful glee and enthusiasm at the mere sight of a sunny day with the desire to “go throw” and would play every point in every game if we didn’t have subs (and the opponents weren’t elite club players and/or 24 years old).
I can’t even begin to count the way ultimate has changed me (I think it’s 7) for the better and I would (will) miss it tremendously when I can no longer lace up my cleats and line up on that line.
But, I get it, I won’t play forever; there will be a day when the ol’ body says “nope” with a wry, wistful smile on its face. Then what?
Hey, it’s not like I’m only an ultimate player.
I do have a life.
I’m a father, husband, writer, cook, educator and so and so on and, at age 47, ultimate is a relatively small part of my weekly schedule now especially compared to my past. And yet, closing the book on my ultimate career will be fully admitting that I’m old and washed up. It will mean that I won’t have a chance to show the young kids (many who are my ex-students) that “Paley still has it”. It will mean that my own children won’t be able to see their dad when he feels most free and happy and confident. It will mean working hard to replace it with something else that can fill the void that is more fitting an older gentleman (Parchizzi? Backgammon? Lawn Bowling?). It will be a time of upheaval and transition that, in the back of my head, I’m dreading.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it would leave a massive hole in my heart and my soul, if I could no longer play. Fully embracing my melodramatic side especially while discussing contested foul calls is my New Year’s resolution, by the way.
As these thoughts crept from my subconscious to my conscious, I passed the time watching the annoyingly healthy, athletic, young U24 players in Australia seemed to be playing solely to mock me. Their grace and speed and joy reminded me of my age and stiffness and plight.
The pain was unreal! What had I possibly done to make it this bad?
What the f$%k?!?!
And then, out of nowhere, it hit me.
The year was 1998.
It was mid-August, my hair was an untamed Afro, and I had just picked up with an International Mixed team at Worlds in Minnesota before heading to Canadian Nationals to play with my team, doGbOy (a name that just doesn’t age well, but is still infinitely better than the other choice, Bitch Slap, which proves, once again, that communally naming a team when also finishing off a keg isn’t always a good idea).
It was our second-to-last game of the tourney, it was windy, just before halftime and we were in quite the battle as we were fighting to make ninals. We were near the endzone and I, the middle handler, initiated my trademark up-the-line cut. The throw went up and right away I could tell the wind was taking it a bit too far and, while fast and athletic, I was not one who laid out. I’m not sure what came over me – the adrenalin? The cute girl on the sideline? My God complex? A secret, perplexing desire to damage my shoulder for the next 20 years? I leapt, mostly horizontally and attempted to lead by example and laid out, with incredibly poor form, hitting the ground like a ton of bricks and somehow caught the throw to take us to half.
The team celebrated around me as I lay, broken, on the ground. Instantly it hurt. A lot. Why did they keep celebrating when I was clearly in need of medical and psychological assistance? But, it was nationals, I was a captain, it wasn’t my throwing arm and I believed the team needed me, so I jumped up, did a few arm circles, popped a few ibus, gave a thumbs up and soldiered on.
Upon returning home champions (in our own mind; we finished 11th), I did a bit of icing, the pain settled down and I promptly forgot about it. Played fall league, went to squash and life went on. Sure, I could no longer do that stretch where I grab my hands behind my back (note: Googled this and it’s called Cow Face pose). I also couldn’t erase chalkboards above my head at work for more than a little bit at a time before feeling muscle soreness and fatigue. But, I didn’t think much of it – it was my wrong arm, it never stopped me from playing or functioning as human (stop laughing).
And then, after years of laying dormant, out of nowhere, it came back. Hello!
Could this all be karma? No! I was a good person! I’d flossed, I’d avoided trans fats, I’d thrown to all of my teammates including the ones who were super-tempting to look off and once, true story, I’d even helped a little old lady across the street.
I was spending way too much time at the computer looking at New Year’s social media posts which all involved super-active and healthy people somehow resolving to being even more super-active and healthy.
I couldn’t decide if I was envious or jealous.
But, one thing was for certain, I wasn’t going to quit.
I decided to dive into my rehab head first. More than anything, I was determined to get back on the court and the field. I was turning 47 soon and couldn’t, wouldn’t let any time be wasted.
Playing ultimate this spring was a non-negotiable as it was the first non-human or stuffed animal love of my life..
Plus I had just spent a lot of money on new cleats.
So, over the next six weeks (this would make an heartfelt, albeit cringeworthy montage in a heartfelt, albeit cringeworthy made-for-TV movie) I figuratively threw the kitchen sink at my shoulder (figuratively, as throwing anything with or at the shoulder was not recommended).
Nothing was going to stop me.
I saw the shoulder specialist 18 times, went to my shiatsu injury massage therapist 5 times, saw my chiropractor three times, and got acupuncture (a sheer joy for someone incredibly afraid of needles such as myself) 4 times. I also considered paying a team of middle-aged Chinese women $50 each to smack my backside with golf discs.
I didn’t care; I just wanted to get better!
I iced, I heated, I mobilized, I bathed in Epsom salts, I rubbed creams and lotions, I sniffed and snorted (don’t worry, I had a cold) and I stretched and strengthened. And slowly but surely, the shoulder loosed up. A tear dropped down my cheek when I was able to shrug my shoulders again.
What a milestone; what a time to be alive!
Despite some pain and discomfort, I was raring to go!
But, my team of professionals preached caution saying things like “we are not your team” and “walk before you can run” and “baby steps” and a series of other statements all involving bipedal movement which confused me as this was my shoulder we were talking about.
The squash match was over. I was keeled over, out of breath. Not a victor by the score, but finally back on court after 5 weeks. I had been cleared to resume most activities as long as I avoided any jarring crashes (there go my weekend plans!).
I had worked hard to get this far and I wasn’t stopping now.
Daydreams of the first pull of the season, cuts down the field reminiscent of the ones from my youth, jumping up, grabbing discs and being the energizer bunny around the disc as I always have been. The shoulder wasn’t there yet, but I was close.
I could feel it.
The appointments continue. The 45 minutes to an hour of rolling and stretching and bands attached to door knobs take up valuable evening time. The trips to yoga classes, to the gym, to the court by myself to work myself back into shape are time-consuming and exhausting, but I’m doing it all to be back on the field come April.
How many times did I do this in my 20s and even into my 30s? Felt something in my calf or ankle or hip or shoulder during a game, but kept on going.
I’d push myself to keep playing and stay on the field to impress at a tryout and to get more playing time and to show I’m not weak. I was a captain, a leader, a worker and, especially, when the sun was shining and there was a frisbee game to be played, I dropped everything and hit the field.
Again and again and again.
Why didn’t I listen to my body and stop the instant I felt pain? Sure, I love the sport and wanted to show myself and my team how strong I was, but, even at the time when I first injured my shoulder, there was a voice in my head saying “ummm, what do you think you are doing?” when I played on. That voice has only gotten stronger, less sympathetic and more snarkier over the years, and I have finally started to listen…a bit…sort of…occasionally…well, you get the idea.
And as time passed, I’d feel a pinch here, a tight muscle there; some weakness, some soreness and little by little I just got used to it. Some discomfort and lack of strength just became the new normal; it sort of became who I was. But, behind the scenes, unbeknownst to me, the calcium was depositing, the knots forming, the shoulder going down the path marked “fate”.
It was all starting to make sense now, I could only blame myself for this whole shoulder thing.
How I wish I could travel back in time and smack some sense into my younger self and place some bets on major sporting events while there!
As I age, it’s very easy to see why so many others have taken themselves out of the game. No more having to deal with the constant tightness and soreness and pain. No more physio and massage and chiro lining up to inflict pain, I mean treat me. No more countless hours getting the body ready or rehabbing injuries just to be a shadow of my younger self.
I’m not there yet; not even close.
I’ve been asked many times “why ultimate?” It’s a great, albeit borderline-not-completely- grammatically-correct question. It felt sort of random back in 1989 that I started playing, and I’ve often thought whether I’d be the person I am today if I played baseball or soccer. That’s impossible to answer, but I really feel like ultimate and I were meant for each other – it’s a perfect fit. The variety of skills, the unique people, the counterculture-non-mainstream-aspect back in the late 80s. The welcoming faces each time I arrive at the fields. The vibe and environment of tournaments. The smooth feel of a new disc as I caress it slowly and sensually in my hands. The chance to give back year after year as a high school coach and adult mentor and continue teaching and instilling spirit and love for this incredible game in future generations.
I just can’t wait to put those crusty cleats on and jog around the field before raising my arm for the first pull of the season.
Despite it all – the chronic discomfort, the constant stretching, the hours of rehab, the threat of injury – I love it, tremendously. Nothing can or will ever take ultimate’s place.
I love and have loved it all.
So, once again, all things being equal, come Spring, I’ll be out there playing ultimate, going as hard as I can and loving every minute of it.
Just try and stop me.