By Chandler Wilson
The grass is so green, so fresh and so flat under the florescent lights of Old Stadium. My jersey white and sharp in contrast to the black, worn-out leather Nike cleats they provided seven months ago. A few hours earlier, I put on the number nine jersey I’d sported since age 5 for the final time. How many different jerseys had I worn over the last 15 years, I wondered.
One last hype up in the locker room, dancing and laughing with my teammates, some of which I would never see again come May. One last warm-up. One last starting line-up. One last beginning whistle.
One last time to play the game that had identified me for 75 percent of my life.
As I stood looking across the field from my position at left defender, I suddenly wasn’t with my current teammates, looking out at fans I didn’t recognize from a soccer field I hardly claimed in Manhattan, Kansas, a town that was never mine.
I’m 5 years old in a neon blue jersey, playing in my first rec-league game. Soccer is so simple right now. Each match is no longer than 30 minutes and are only ten young girls aimlessly running and kicking the ball around without a clue for how to play the game. Not me though, I argued. I was better than them, I bragged naively.
I’m 10 years old, trying out for a competitive club team. The neon blue uniform is retired for classic black, white and red. B team, they said. No longer the star of the team, they said. I have never experienced soccer like this, I thought nervously. Eight girls a side, 60 minutes of play and coaches who aren’t afraid to cuss at you and say you will never be good enough.
I would prove them wrong, I hoped as the tears from tryouts subsided.
I love this game, I reminded myself.
I’m 15 years old, and I have grown to be thankful for the coaches who doubted me and pushed me near breaking points. A team, they said. Regional league starter, they said. Starting varsity as a freshman. The game keeps getting bigger, I realized excitedly. Eleven women on each side and 80 minutes of play, but 80 minutes wasn’t long enough.
I want to play all day.
I want to play forever.
I am going to play forever.
I’m 17 years old, and my dreams are cut short. You may never play again, they said. ACL, MCL, PCL, meniscus, patellar and at least a 10-month recovery and two years in a knee brace, they said. It can’t be true, I thought. The scouts were just starting to talk to me. I was expecting big offers from big universities, not surgery and rehab and months without the game that made me, me.
But I couldn’t be stopped; my dreams mattered.
Five months later, and I’m back on the field. But I’ve lost crucial time, I thought anxiously. This setback may be too big, I feared.
I’m 18 years old, and everyone has committed to play somewhere. Scholarships have run dry. There is no money left, but Kansas State is coming to watch on Friday. It’s my last chance.
I’m 19 years old, and I’ve committed and signed to play soccer at Kansas State University. Four year starter and two year captain on my high school team. All-city and all-district awards. All-state starter, captain and MVP. Everything I’ve worked for since my days in the neon blue jersey is coming to fruition.
It was a dream come true, until it wasn’t.
I’m almost 20 years old, and the tears fall as I tell my coaches and teammates I will not be returning to Kansas State in the fall. After 15 years playing the beautiful game, I have decided to hang up the boots and transfer home to the University of Oklahoma.
The grass was so green, so fresh and so flat under the florescent lights of Old Stadium. Oh, how I would miss it. As everything was changing, one thing never would – I loved this game, even if it had stopped being everything.
Growing up, I chose soccer over all things because I could. Coming to college, there was nothing else to choose from. It was all soccer all the time. The game had stopped being something I wanted to do and became something I had to do. I was a prisoner to the sport that had once given me so much life. My heart broke.
I had worked my entire life for something that wasn’t what I wanted or thought it would be. My future suddenly seemed daunting. While I was certain my old dreams still mattered, I was uncertain what my new dreams would be.
What would I do next?
What would I be next?
Who would I be next?
At K-State, I was one thing: athlete, and that was the problem. My identity was so lost in one passion and one sport that there wasn’t room for anything else.
OU could be different, I hoped.
I immediately applied for multiple CAC committees, started attending a church, joined a campus ministry, played intramurals and started volunteering in different organizations, but as I filled my schedule and got more involved, I still had no clue who I was. I felt alone, and the doubt crept in.
Was everyone right?
Had I made a mistake?
Would this university be different than the last?
These thoughts consumed me my first two months at OU, but time brought clarity. Just as soccer wasn’t forever, neither was my lack of identity or feeling of inadequacy.
As time went on, I narrowed down my involvement and settled into the university. I discovered friendships and passions I never knew existed. I declared a new major and learned independence, and somewhere along the way, I found me, a me I had never known before.
In those days when everything started to click, it struck me that I never actually gave up on my dreams. Rather, I traded up for new dreams, new opportunities and new joy.
Standing on that field nearly three years ago, I hoped it would all be worth it, and it was.
It still is.
I’m 22 years old, and I am a senior studying journalism pre-law at the greatest university in the world. Entering this final year of undergrad, I can’t help but think back. While my freshman year at K-State was an incredible time of growth, my 15 years as a soccer player grew me in a way I only recently discovered.
As I begin the process of law school applications, I see how those soul-crushing losses, unbearably hard practices, long bus rides, early mornings in the weight room and every place and emotion in between prepared me for this. The game taught me hard work, discipline, integrity, grit, teamwork, leadership, drive and love.
The game taught me everything.
I can confidently say I am going to be successful as an attorney, a dream fueled by everything soccer, including eventually leaving soccer, gave me.
The grass looks so green, so fresh and so flat under the florescent lights of John Crain Field. As I sit on the away side of the stands in a purple t-shirt watching my old teammates compete against OU, I can’t help but smile. One thing has never changed – I love this game.