In sport we don’t like talking about ‘the end’: when our time is up and someone else takes our place in the changing room. For some, retirement is a choice; for others it’s forced upon them. I faced retirement twice.
It’s been 20 years since I have been able to compete as a football player. In 2002, I had come out of “retirement” to play for a semi-pro football team in Denver, Colorado and we had been training for 6 months to play in a tournament in Vegas. As we all piled into the 15-seater van with 18 players, I sat on the lap of someone else and we slowly drove down the strip. It was a packed night, with cars going 5mph, and it took forever to get where we were going.
And that’s when it happened: my back seized up and I was in excruciating pain, yet we couldn’t get off the strip to get me out of the van. After what seemed like an hour, we were finally able to get to our destination and the crew slowly peeled me out of the van to lie on the grass unable to straighten out on my own. Thankfully, we had a massage therapist as a teammate, and she was able to get me moving and able to play for the weekend.
Anything for the game I loved. But when I got back to Denver, I saw the orthopaedist and he found that I had been competing on two fractured vertebrae and the muscles seized to protect my spine. End of playing career. End of that chapter. But this was the second “end” to my playing career, not the first.
My real football career ended seven years prior when I stopped playing in college my senior year.
Having played football my entire life, the dream of playing at the highest level was to get a football scholarship and to get selected to the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). The pathway was via several channels with high school, club, and then play for the ODP (Olympic Development Program). I was privileged enough to play all three and made it to the Regional ODP team and received a 4-year scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley.
However, the Women’s World Cup hadn’t been established yet and neither was football an Olympic sport. Since I played with and competed against some of those future World Cup competitors and Olympic Gold medalists, I knew I was not as good as them. I was good but they were elite. I knew the pinnacle of my game was the collegiate game because this was before a women’s professional league was set up in the US.
I had some phenomenal coaches at all levels of the game since I was a kid and for that, I am truly grateful. However, one of my college coaches became a negative influence on the morale of the team. He pitted players against one another, his ego was bigger than the program, and he wanted the accolades instead of recognizing the power of the women who drove the program.
Ultimately, I made the difficult decision to leave the team for my last season to keep my integrity and the promise to myself to support Cal women’s football. I went to every single home game to support my friends and teammates, and went home every night and sobbed. It’s a special thing to be a Cal Women’s Football player and my career was over.
As athletes, we are constantly focused on the next goal, and the next, and the next. What we rarely talk about is when that career ends and how to prepare for life after sport. Career prospects of collegiate athletes now are far greater than when I stopped competing for Berkeley in 1994. But the results are the same. We are left feeling lost, broken, fearful and then somehow, we rise.
What I didn’t realize was that my experience in 1994 would allow me to walk away from the game in 2002 with my back injury. I had previous experience of making the difficult decision to play or walk away. And in 2002, I wanted to walk (literally). And the decision to leave the sport I loved was easier the second time around so that I could rehab my back and continue to be physically active even if I couldn’t play my game anymore.
The path I have walked in my careers has mirrored that of my football journey. Since I wasn’t going to be paid to play my sport, I knew I needed to get an education and pursue a career. I went to graduate school and became a family therapist. Ultimately, I left that field, also in 2002, and began a career in sales.
After 10 years, I sold my first company just before the pandemic closed the world and I have been doing business and life coaching for others in transition.
I have been on both sides of the pitch as a player and coach, as a therapist and one who goes to therapy, and as a business owner and business coach.
Lessons we learn from our sport always transcend. And they are always relevant. While I miss competing on the pitch, I love being able to help others achieve their dreams. But what I love the most is being a bridge to help people get to their next chapter. If I can do it, so can you. You never lose your sport and what it gave you.