A Father Looks Back at Son's College Career
My little boy has graduated. Wearing a baseball uniform under his cap and gown, my boy of summer walked across the stage, picked up his sheepskin, and suddenly he is out of college.
Except for a couple of weeks of college baseball left to play at UNC Charlotte, O'Brien would be free to pursue his first real job. But that can wait a little while. He needs some time for himself, a chance to decompress. It's been a long, hard trip.
The experience of a college athlete isn't like that of other students. That's particularly true with baseball players, where they play 56 games in about 13 weeks. That's roughly five games a week, plus practice. They get one day off a week, if you don't count getting up at 6 a.m. for weightlifting as practice. Game days are about eight hours long, practice days take half of that. Throw in half-a-dozen weekend road trips to make it a little harder, and you can begin to appreciate how dedicated modern college athletes have to be.
Then there's school. There may be some universities where there isn't an expectation of fulfilling the "student" portion of "student-athlete," but that was not my son's experience. He took the same courses, was held to the same standards, and got the same degree other students got. So did his teammates. If you don't go to class, you don't play today. If you don't make the grades, you don't play this season. It's that simple.
It creates an incredible schedule for any student-athlete. For baseball players, it's like having two full-time jobs. Literally. They handle at least twice the load of most other students. It's no wonder most high draft choices opt to take the money and go when the pros come calling.
College athletes are the last indentured servants in America. It's true. They work ungodly hours for a pittance in scholarship money, their schedules are rigidly controlled by others most of the year, they rise early in the morning and go until late, and they physically work like dogs.
Because of NCAA rules, if a player doesn't like his situation once he gets there, they can't go somewhere else and play without being seriously penalized (sitting out a year). If you get hurt on the job, you get dumped on the sidelines faster than a leadoff hitter can go from home to second on a double down the line. If you need anything more than a team doctor can provide, you'd better have your own insurance, 'cause the team's not paying for it. If we imposed similar environments upon any other work group, it would violate every work law known to man.
If your son wants to play college sports, it takes tremendous discipline. At his first team meeting as a freshman, my son quoted the coach as saying, "I can't tell you that baseball is more important than your schoolwork. If you are going to play you have to make the grades. And I can't tell you that schoolwork is more important than baseball. If you are going to play, you are going to have to put the time in. In short, you have to do both."
What athletes give up is a normal college experience. They don't have the time to lay out on the quad on the first spring days, or hang out at the student center. Their off days are precious, spent playing catch-up on exhaustion, missed classes from traveling, or taking care of life's demands they don't have time for the other six days. Most never experience any of the glitz and glory that goes to the relatively few high-profile football and basketball programs. As the TV ad says, there are 300,000 student athletes in NCAA colleges and universities and most of them will go pro in something other than their sport.
My son has gotten his share of ink. He's been a hero to small-town kids during his summer ball. He's had kids stand in line for autographs, and stand in awe when he took time to talk with them after a game. It's a proud moment the first time a father sees his son as a hero in another child's eyes.
In my mind he's still back in time as a 4-year-old trying to learn to catch a rag ball in the front yard of our house in Roanoke. Another image comes of a slashing young soccer player. And then the hard-set jaw on a young boy's face after he walked the bases loaded, then struck out the side to get out of it. And then of a freshman in college, unkempt hair coming from under his cap, who went four for four in the fall "world series" game for his team. His facial expression coming toward us told me he knew he belonged at this level.
There are more memories than I can count of his playing career. I was his coach for a lot of them. That's part of the magic of being the parent of a student athlete -- in college, high school, or at any level. Every parent is proud of his child's accomplishments. It's the drama and immediacy of sports that make it different. Not necessarily better, just different.
Athletes are out there, with people watching every move. They are criticized publicly when they fail. It's the pressure to perform under pressure, the pressure to win, the pressure of not letting your team down that carves an athlete's persona.
Imagine standing in a batter's box in the bottom of the ninth inning, 1,000 people watching the runners on second and third, your team is down by two runs, with two outs, and you have a two-strike count. Whether you get a hit and drive in the tying run or not, you will never be the person you were before that moment. Whether you are 8 or 18, just putting yourself in that situation makes you a bigger person, just as standing on stage and singing to an audience does. If you repeat that situation enough times, it becomes something you handle with grace and skill.
As a parent, I've watched O'Brien grow each year through those kinds of experiences. It wasn't always a smooth ride. He red-shirted his freshman year, meaning it would automatically take him five years to get out, and a year of not playing at all. His first and second years found him as an everyday starter. Then an injury hit in his junior year and he struggled to get back in the lineup. This year he was unexpectedly benched at the beginning of the year, with no explanation, and sat for 12 games before getting his job back.
Each time, during good times and bad, he did not waver from his goals. He got discouraged at times, but never gave up. His is a story of hope for all of those kids out there who might not be the star that signs for a full ride to college amid great fanfare. Those are rare. But good players can find a place to play and be successful through hard work and devotion. O'Brien's is a hopeful story where things turn out the way they are supposed to.
Being the parent of a college athlete is different, too. O'Brien played in summer college wood bat leagues, too. That made about 100 games a year we've gone to for the past five years. It takes a lot of time from other things. I figure my wife, Lani, and I spent nearly1,000 hours a year watching our son play baseball. You give up a lot socially because you're gone all the time. People probably think we're crazy.
But I have been able to see my son a lot more than most dads do during his college years. We're still close, and I feel like I know him, as he heads off into the greater world. Sometimes the visits were brief because he had a lot to do. But he always knew we were there for him, and near the end I know he realizes and appreciates what we've done.
For my part, there's simply nothing I'd rather have done with my time and money. It's been my life, too. And as I watched him walk across the stage and shake hands with the chancellor, I know I did the right thing, no matter what comes next. He'll always be my kid.
Pat Taylor is the advertising director at The Pilot. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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