A searing bolt of electricity shot through my head as I crashed into the ground.
On my back, I looked into the afternoon sky and saw nothing. Literally, nothing, only blackness. I reached under the face mask of my football helmet, certain my eyes had popped out of my skull.
For an eternity of 30 seconds, this was my reality. Then, everything came back into focus.
This was just one of numerous hits, separate stories if you will, during my time playing semi-pro football.
My experiences are not unusual to anyone else in this unique brotherhood.
On our own time, we lifted weights and ran sprints. We bought our own equipment. Twice a week, we practiced together as a team, playing games on Saturday afternoons. Then we went to work at jobs as varied as our diverse teammates.
Back at work, people asked: “Are you hurt?” The quick retort was always the same, “If you’re not hurting, you’re not playing.”
We had an interesting mix of characters.
There was Griff—our quarterback who played preseason ball for an NFL team. Willie had been a running back in the Big 12. Fish was a chiropractor. Caleb played in NFL Europe.
There was Ryan, a sheriff’s deputy, and Travis. Well, Travis knew Ryan on the other side of the bars. He came to more than one practice wearing an ankle monitor.
On the defense, we called ourselves “The Dark Side.” Our star cornerback once played in the NFL. Two linebackers were Gulf War vets. At 6-feet 11-inches tall and 470 pounds, “House” was the centerpiece of our defense.
Then, there was me.
I was in my early 40s, living in Wisconsin and playing defensive end for the Fox Valley Force from 2006 to 2008. A college professor at the time, I was the only person on the team who had a Ph.D.
So why did I do it? Why endure the pain and other injuries that come with playing football?
The answer is simple: pure love of the game. Oh, and I wanted my daughters to see me play football.
Looking back, it was one of the best times of my life. My teammates felt the same.
We came from all sorts of backgrounds. While we didn’t always socialize with one another after the game, we were a tight-knit group on the field.
Together, we toiled through miserably hot and sweaty practices. We pushed each other through unpleasant conditioning drills. We traveled on the road together by chartered bus. And we won the league championship.
Through my time with this team, I learned many lessons.
Today, as a vice president at Piedmont College, I can sit at a meeting and recognize those who have played team sports or were members of a musical or theatrical ensemble.
These people know how to come together to work toward a common goal. They know they can only be successful when each member plays a valued part. And they will not let their colleagues down.
They put in their time, often quietly behind the scenes, because they know the value they bring to their team.
As for me, my third and final season playing semi-pro football was cut short during practice.
On that ever-so-vivid play, I shot across the line – a split second before a teammate’s helmet hit me in the neck, and his shoulder slammed into my clavicle, tearing it away from the sternum.
It was one of those hits we all worried about – the kind that would keep you from going into work the next day.
It meant I needed to hang up my cleats, one final time.
Would I do it, again?
In a heartbeat.
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