And just like that, it happened. I stared down my opponent from across the net and prepared to return serve. The match was close. I had lost the first set, and rallied back to win the second. Now, up 5-4, 40-30 in the third, I took a few deep breaths and told myself, “let’s go, right here. This is it.” After all, this was it. I was one point away from the win, and from the end of my career. The pressure I felt as I stood there was not from the score, but rather a fear of the unknown. Fifteen years of decision-making based on what time practice was, and on what I could do to keep improving, was seconds away. I gripped my racket a little bit tighter.
An article published for The International Review for the Sociology of Sport found that it is not uncommon for an athlete’s transition out of sports to be traumatic, especially when the athlete identifies strongly with the respective identity and role. “[The role] is often formed and internalized much earlier than other role identities,” researchers wrote. “[And] because of the public dimension and the kudos associated with sporting excellence, sporting identity is likely to dominate and subsume all other identities.”
Tennis was my life. Throughout my career, I crafted my identity from thousands of impactful moments. It began when I was named the number one ranked junior in the United States for my age division. I was eleven. Over the years people recognized me by other names: the New Jersey High School State Champ, The Bergen Record’s Player of the Year, the MVP, and the first position singles and doubles player at Fordham University. While the title varied, it always related to me being an athlete. So when it ended and that identity no longer existed, I felt incomplete.
Senior year came and went. I replaced the gaps in my new schedule with experiences to help reshape my identity. I tried hip-hop. I read books. I struggled, unsure of how my role fit into these activities. I took on a fifth year and witnessed the first-time successes of another athletic program. This year, Fordham’s football team seemed to prosper at a time when I needed inspiration most. As their achievements surfaced, a media frenzy ensued. But as the wins piled on, the former-athlete in me began to recognize an untold story.
It was the first time Fordham’s football team achieved a Top 5 ranking in the FCS. With their win over Temple, it was the first time they had earned a win over an NCAA FBS team. It was also the team’s first NCAA FCS playoff win at home. The story of this past season has included many firsts. However, for twelve of the Rams, it has been a story of firsts and lasts.
Brett Biestek and Steven Tapia are two seniors on Fordham’s football team. Brett comes from a long line of football players. For his family, the Biestek name and football are synonymous. Steven was also inspired to play through family. While watching an older cousin’s high school game, he fell in love, suited up the following season, and never looked back. Fordham’s second-round playoff loss to Towson on December 7th marked the end of Steven’s career. While Brett will be returning for his final season next fall, both players had interesting perspectives on what the end of football means to them.
“Coming out of halftime, I felt even more confident that we were going to win the game.” Steven was referring to the 14-point deficit his team had closed by the end of the second quarter against Towson. “Then penalties and other missed opportunities led us to try and overcome a three-possession game late in the fourth quarter. When the clock finally hit 00:00 and we [all] shook hands, I felt lost.” The offensive lineman could not block reality any longer. After twelve years, his pads were coming off forever.
Sitting in living room of the Walsh Hall apartment Steven and Brett have called home for the past two years, I asked the players what they are going to miss most about moving on. “The competitiveness of it,” Brett explained. “I’ve been competing against other people in the world of sports for my whole life.” Steven agreed that few experiences match the rush of adrenaline one feels on Saturdays going into a game. But he added that even the less dazzling moments, like 5:30 a.m. practices during training camp, meant a lot. “I’m going to miss those times that we stuck together through all of it and tried to make the best of it and had fun doing it.”
A sense of togetherness is what drives the chains down the field. Faces are obscured by helmets. Names are replaced with numbers. Perhaps more than any other sport, identities could be lost. However, Brett maintains that his was never lost in the huddle. “I’ve always strived to make sure that I’m Brett Biestek the person. [Ultimately] we came to Fordham to receive great educations so we don’t have to be the football guys for the rest of our lives.”
Before I left, Steven pointed out that in thinking about the rest of his life, he plans to embrace the future. “I’ve been through [change] before,” he said of his decision to leave his hometown in Texas and attend Fordham. “I told myself that I’m going to make the best of it and greet everything with open arms. I’m sure I’m not going to like a lot of it, but if I go into it with a positive attitude, I’m sure it’s going to be enjoyable”.
As students, senior year signals the end of college life. As student-athletes, it signals a time when we must face the last match, game, race or competition. We face the real world at the same time that we are detached from our pasts in the world of sports. We must find out who we are, not just what we want to become, without it. Yet some qualities, like adaptability, are never lost.Eventually everything, including sports, ends. We struggle. We learn from it. We move on. With a new sense of awareness, I thought back to the last moments in my final match.
As my opponent released the toss and fired the ball into action, everyone in attendance fell present to the moment. My instincts kicked into gear and I smacked the return crosscourt. In that moment I was unsure of what the world would feel like post match. But now I am confident I’ll be ok, I am confident we’re all going to be ok. With a final forehand assault to her backhand, she missed. And just like that, I shook her hand, packed my rackets and left the court.