Hanging Up The Nittany Lion Jersey For The Last Time
The most difficult thing in the world for me to explain is the erratic mix of feelings I experience on game day. It begins the night before with a tussle of emotions as I try to combat nervousness with a positive visualization of the game. Those quarreling emotions reemerge after I first open my eyes in the morning, followed by a sense of nervousness that presides over everything — sitting and festering throughout my whole body.
As an athlete, being completely overpowered by nervousness can be damaging. For me, negative emotions fit that protocol pretty nicely. Even before my time at Penn State, I tried everything to stabilize my destructive mindset. I would try to force myself to not have a bad game and embarrass myself and the team. The pressure I administer on myself to perform and make sure I represent my team and university right can be crippling and it mutates into overall uncertainty in myself. These emotions can override my mind’s control with even the slightest bad touch out on the pitch, which then snowballs into a horrendous overall performance.
So, laying in bed the morning of game day with goosebumps enveloping my entire body, I have to force myself to remember — I’m a senior. I’ve dealt with these emotions throughout the past three years. My experience here at Penn State has been invaluable with helping me positively channel my thoughts. Over the course of my career, my routines became rituals. So much familiarity in the simplest of things leading up to the start of the game.
After a dip in the cold/hot tub, I’d meet with our training staff to relieve myself of additional tightness. I know that after my hot/cold plunge, when the trainers are talking to me while massaging my calves to get additional tightness out, they speak to me genuinely. They wonder how I feel, and they check to see how my mindset is. They care immensely, and so does everyone else involved with Penn State athletics. The hours they work and the extra miles they take are all to ensure that I am OK, and my experience here is bar none. They helped foster my athletic ability to be the best I can be and it’s been a learning process from my freshman year until now.
I also know if I can reinforce to myself that I’ve been playing well, and how my practice reps were continuing to build me into a better outside back, I am able to reverse the set of controls in my head and believe that I will have a good game. It is just soccer, and I take that mindset into the locker room, with only 10 minutes to go before I need to be at the field for warm-up. If I get it just right, I would be the only one in there; the last one to leave.
I always time it just right to make sure that I stand in there and soak up the last bit of individual serenity. My teammate’s lockers are empty; all their gear has been transported to the field. Our navy blue and white name tags glow under the fluorescent lights hanging down from the ceiling. [pullquote] Our navy blue and white name tags glow under the fluorescent lights hanging down from the ceiling. This will be the last time that my mind is clear and focused enough to remember everything. [/pullquote]
This will be the last time that my mind is clear and focused enough to remember everything. The moment I walk out of the locker room door, I’ll black out from excitement. The peace and quiet allows me to become exhilarated, and the laxness of my mind permits me to feel the eagerness to win and compete rather than tense up and have the pressure build. I’ll usually remember the national anthem playing with my right hand on my teammate’s shoulder in front of me, and my left hand over my Nittany Lion logo feeling my heart pound, but the rest is fuzzy. I’ll let my mind run rampant with all of that untamed, wild energy the moment the whistle blows for the start of the game, but then it all fades into oblivion. It all disappears until I hear that final whistle blow, ending another game as a Nittany Lion, but it begins the after-game tradition of singing the alma mater between the team and our supporters.
In my junior year, the soccer team started a tradition to sing Penn State’s alma mater after the game in chorus with the newly formed soccer student section, the Sons of Jeffrey. No matter a win or a loss, the team one-by-one high fives everyone in the student section from the field level and then puts their arms around one another, standing in front of the bleacher section, preparing for the alma mater instrumental to begin. Emulating the players on the field, the large supporters section joins in with the singing and softly serenades the rest of the remaining crowd exiting the gates of Jeffrey Field. Swaying back and forth (a little off cue, I must say) creates a spark of magic. I’m not only standing with 28 of my closest friends and teammates, but I’m also standing with my fellow peers and academic colleagues. We are united all under one cause: the Nittany Lion logo that trembles to the beat of my heart as it comes to rest after a full 90. It’s the same reason we all chose to be here: to support Penn State.
Nearing the end and belting “Dear Old State, Dear Old State,” my gaze centers in on the large remainder of admirers that still occupy the metal stands. New moms and dads with small children hold hands and join in with the enthusiastic ensemble. Elder Penn State soccer supporters clasp their ball caps close to their heart and proudly mumble lyrics that remind them of Penn State past. Pre-teens and elementary students alike crowd around one another with their right hand over their chest mimicking the proper procedures for “The Pledge of Allegiance” and look on in silence.
It’s in these moments where the label “Penn Stater” becomes extra meaningful. It’s because of pride in all these people from all over that I put my jersey on every day, battle for a hopeful victory, and continue Penn State’s great athletic dynasty. I find myself completely enthralled by the passion of Penn Staters but also how my sense of community, within not only State College, but the whole world becomes so close-knit in that moment. The feeling of belonging, the feeling of representing your peers on the athletic field that you call home, is a not only an accomplishment; it’s a privilege. I remind myself to rejoice in this revelation because before I know it, I will be hanging up my boots for the last time without experiencing another alma mater with almost 50,000 of my closest Penn State compatriots.
With that thought in mind, I carried it all the way to November 8, 2015 — my final game as a Nittany Lion. The Buckeyes always seemed to have our number when we played over in Columbus, but on this day, it was a life-or-death scenario. The competitive amateur career that I worked on for 16 years was culminating into a single elimination tournament game and the realization that it was all coming to an end was imminently terrifying. It’s so difficult to reflect on something that you have done for more than three-fourths of your life, and then for it to be on the brink of extinction.
When you put so many years of devotion into a sport, it becomes a lifestyle; it’s difficult to prepare for the day it all ends when you hadn’t anticipated it coming to a close in the first place. People overuse the “blood, sweat and tears” cliché, but it’s true. The cliché becomes reality when the sand in the hourglass finally expires. [pullquote] People overuse the “blood, sweat and tears” cliché, but it’s true. The cliché becomes reality when the sand in the hourglass finally expires. [/pullquote]
On a defensive miscue and a fluke breakaway, my soccer world came crashing down. For other seniors, some collapsed to the hard grass surface, palms of hands in face, sobbing uncontrollably. Others’ eyes grew red and welled with tears, but I stood on the field, facing away from our goal, and watched the other team s
trip my childhood away from me. They basked in my defeat and in that moment, I felt Atlas pass the weight of the world from his shoulders on to mine. Frozen, I kept repeating, “My Penn State career is over.”
My Penn State career is over.
Consoled by teammates and coaches while walking over to the bench, it was a sliver of time in my life I will never forget. Looking into the eyes of devastated friends killed me. You live and breathe with these guys for months before getting to this point. After miles of running and thousands of pounds of weights being lifted, you solidify an unbreakable bond with your teammates that no one really grasps other than you. You work to forge relationships with these strangers for years before ultimately becoming family in the end. You win, you lose, and you fight as a team. For me and the other seniors, the team aspect was now a distant memory.
The most distinct moment to come out of this day though was seeing my parents standing behind the fence separating the field from the stands. With blankets curled up in their hands and tears forming in their eyes, I couldn’t compete with the emotion and broke down. I walked over toward them, wiping my eyes on my shoulder, realizing this would be the last time seeing them on the sidelines of the soccer field I just played on. Falling deep in to my mom’s warm embrace, she kept repeating, “I’m so proud of you.”
I’m so proud of you.
Her maternal grasp pulled me close but it proved fruitless. I gasped for air as I continued to sob and I couldn’t get the image of my parents crying out of my head. My dad never cries. To see him tear up is rare, and it curdles my blood. It will always hit home though because not only was my Penn State career coming to a close, but so was theirs. My mom and dad, a Kent State and Michigan State grad respectively, never really ventured to Penn State. I was one of the first from my family to sport the Navy blue and white, and it had dawned upon me that they were part of the Penn State family too. Not only was my status as a Nittany Lion stripped from me, it was also stripped from them too.
The tailgates attended, the friends made, the championships won, the trips to all of my games and practices, the years of their lives spent getting me to this point in my soccer career; it was over. I had brought them into this welcoming family and I unknowingly closed a huge chapter of their Penn State lives. I knew even though my mom and dad could still sport the gear and the hats and relive the memories, it doesn’t compare to the feeling of attending and becoming a part of the Penn State atmosphere; this is something all Penn Staters can attest to. There’s nothing like a Penn State sporting event. The fans and students of Penn State have created an atmosphere for not only me as a player, but also for my parents to relish and enjoy. I’ve added an extra loving bond with them and that is something I will never be able to say thank you enough times for, and it is something that I am going to miss most about being a Penn State student-athlete.
Months passed and I kept my phone distant from me. I was waiting for the text from my assistant coach booting us from the locker room. Soccer is a sport where seniors don’t normally play in the spring with the team. The turn-around is quick and they need to start preparing for the next season. But I will always distinctly remember the day I got it. It was right before Christmas break.
“Seniors. I hate to send this, but I need you to clean your stuff out of the locker room. Take everything and don’t leave anything behind.”
I waited until the day before Christmas break to clean it out. Walking down the hall leading to my locker room felt like a death sentence. Retired, washed up, old, the aura was eerie. There would be no more texts of what time practice was, no more schedules of when we leave and where we need to be, there was no more anything for me in this program.
I punched in the code to get in the door one last time. There was no one there. The lights were dim and I was one of the last seniors to clean out his locker but with three bags, I filled them up with miscellaneous gear and shoes and zippered it up nice and tight. Looking up at the name tag, with the Nittany Lion logo at the front and back of my name, it reminds me of when I came into preseason as a freshman, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. With a quick slip of my fingers I slid it out and put it in my pocket. I set the three bags on the ground in front of me and sat on my wooden seat in my locker. I put my face in my hands. It was a familiar feeling.
There was something about this locker room after winning a game and celebrating a victory with my teammates. There was something about consoling one another after a loss and then working our asses off the next week to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. There was something about the stories told and the laughs had that shaped me into the person I am today. I’m grateful for everything that happened and that Penn State gave me. [pullquote] There was something about this locker room after winning a game and celebrating a victory with my teammates. There was something about consoling one another after a loss and then working our asses off the next week to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. [/pullquote]
The easiest thing in the world for me to explain is the incredible feeling I get when I reflect on my experience as a Penn State athlete. I need to thank my team for friendship and hard work, my coaches for pushing me, my athletic advisers for helping me academically, the strength and conditioning staff for motivating me, the students for supporting soccer, and everyone else one-thousand times over for letting me be a Nittany Lion. It was a pleasure, and a privilege to represent this incredible institution; one that I will never be able to fully pay back in my time here.
Picking up the three bags and situating them on my shoulder, I take my pair of Nike cleats and head over to the cleat rack. On the rack where it reads “#20” I hang my cleats, right one then left one, and smile. This is the last time I will be doing this and I hope the lucky individual that inherits the No. 20 from me has the same breathtaking experience. I hope he sees the highs and I hope he gets through the lows, but at the end of the day, I hope it was all worthwhile — just like it was for me. I hope every single athlete that attends Penn State has the same gratifying experience as me and I hope it’s one that they will remember forever.
But then I remember, it’s Penn State. How could it not be?
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About the Author
Sandy Barbour will make an average of $1,269,000 per year as part of the new deal, which runs through August 2023.
With more than 500 songs and a run-time of more than 30 hours, this playlist will make it seem like THON never ended.
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