My experiences over the last five years have ranged drastically as a Carnegie Mellon student-athlete. I have gone to thinking I was unstoppable on the field, regardless of the number of people that were put in front of me, to contemplating quitting because each movement resulted in an ache that refused to dull. There are multiple stories I could go on and on about to describe my CMU career as both a student and an athlete, each one providing a completely different perspective of the last five years. But overall I think the best descriptor of my time as an athlete at CMU has been overcoming adversity with help of others.
Adversity is something we all face on a daily basis. It’s part of being human. We plan in order to maximize time, while still getting the results that we want. We plan and plan and plan, doing everything in our power to make sure we get these results we so badly desire. But as I have learned in a rather difficult manner, it rarely goes as smoothly as planned. Some outside force, whether it be another human-being, a time restriction, or even spreading oneself too thin over a number of tasks always causes the plans to change. Adversity presents itself in various forms, but it is not how it presents itself, or the degree of adversity that is important. What is important is how one chooses to address these challenging moments, because these are the moments that usually have the largest impact on the life of a college student. My mental toughness was challenged during camp of my sophomore year when I tore my ACL during the scrimmage against Waynesburg. Coming off a solid freshman performance, I only wanted to get better and continue to add value to the defensive side of the ball. I dedicated my summer to becoming more explosive this year than I was in the previous one, but this plan of mine came to a halt on my first play of the scrimmage. With this injury I was faced with two choices, work relentlessly to strengthen my knee so I could get back on the field with the same or greater explosiveness, or feel sorry for myself and go through the motions during the rehab process. I chose the latter.
Over the next year I clearly illustrated where I stood in regards to mental toughness. Mental toughness was something I previously thought I possessed, but as I look back on that year, I realize I had none. Even as Adam [head trainer] urged me to become more consistent in the training room, the only thing that remained consistent was the number of rehab days I missed. Sam Thompson (’13) had the same injury the year before and was in the training room every day it was open strengthening his knee. When he returned he broke the school single-season interception record, proving that even an injury as serious as an ACL tear can be overcame as long as the mental battle is won. At this time I was not yet capable of breaking everything down into its smallest form and attacking it piece-by-piece to restore health to my body.
Because I lost this mental battle during the most crucial part of the recovery process, the next three years on the field led to many physical challenges. Constant aches in my knees. My good knee was over compensating for the bad one, eventually leading to it hurting just as much. Some plays I was able to fire off at the snap of the ball feeling glimpses of the old me, and on a similar play I found that I could not get the same results regardless of effort. Once I finally became comfortable and stopped thinking about my knees while playing, I partially tore my pectoral in the weight room pushing myself too hard after staying up all night preparing for a test, sidelining me for the next three weeks.
It was at this point I knew that I would be returning for a fifth year. When I learned my pectoral was torn I remember crying to my parents on the phone, thinking I would have to have another surgery, ending my football career not even playing the game I loved. When the MRI showed that it was only a 25% tear and surgery wasn’t absolutely necessary, I felt I caught my first break since freshman year. The way things had been going, naturally, I tore a ligament in my thumb two weeks later and was again faced with the choice of surgery to repair the ligament. I again declined.
At this point I was in the training room doing rehab for my thumb, my knees, and my chest. Initially, I viewed this as a negative and only looked at it from the perspective of lost time. But as time went on I grew to love the training room. Adam and the rest of the training staff made it an environment that was not just bearable, but fun to be apart of. Adam began incrementally educating me on the health of my body, he constructed a nutrition plan to improve my daily well-being and help keep my weight down while it was difficult for me to run, as well as explaining to me that everything in the body is connected and should be treated with care to avoid future problems in other areas. Because of this relationship I found it easy to be in the training room everyday during my final season; the first season since freshman year I was able to play every game.
I have realized that tearing my ACL has been nothing short of a blessing. When I came to Carnegie Mellon as a freshman, I defined myself as an athlete, because that is what I had best associated with in high school, whether it was swimming in the state championships or football playoffs under the lights. Temporarily losing what I identified with the most allowed me to grasp the bigger picture as well as becoming more than just that. My actions and demeanor on the football field, in the training room, and the weight room all translated over to school and other aspects of life. Through sports, we as athletes develop both good and bad habits. These habits eventually appear in other areas, affecting not just our performance on the field of play, but our daily approach to life as well. If I had not torn my ACL and gotten an extra year of eligibility I am not sure that I would have learned this lesson while still an athlete.
Of my five years on the team, we have had four different defensive line coaches. I remember meeting Coach Kamberis during spring ball when I was still unsure if my body could take another season of football. Upon meeting him I was immediately convinced that it was worth enduring for a final season. He brought a level of excitement to the team that we needed. Every single day he put his best foot forward when coaching us. He was able to find the perfect balance between befriending us as players, while making sure we knew he was still the coach. He not only pushed us each day in practice and in games, but also made us compete with one another and want to get better on our own accord. His ability to positively motivate players makes him one of the best coaches I have ever had. He was critical in restoring my love of football after so many injuries. Had I not torn my ACL I would have never gotten the pleasure of meeting and playing for Coach Kamberis.
The extra year of eligibility also allowed me to form relationships that I did not have previously. I became much closer to Coach Bodnar during my final season, which is something that I could not have predicted. One minute he was yelling at me for not playing my assignment correctly, and the next I was laughing as he made fun of me. Each and everyday he asked me how my day was and attempted to connect on more than just a player-coach level. What I admired most was his passion for winning. When you put a certain amount of time and effort into something you expect results, and when we as a defense did not perform to his expectations, he made it known and demanded more. Even when we did perform to his liking, he demanded more. His dismissal of complacent attitudes has, and will continue to stick with me.
My fifth season also brought me much closer to many of my teammates. From this year alone I have gained a number of lifelong friends. When my closest friends graduated I was unsure of who I would spend the majority of my time with. I first found comfort in my position group, where I’ve become best friends with guys much younger than myself. There is also the very tight knit junior class that took me in and helped make this one of the more memorable college years. Many of these guys are driven and have indirectly led to me pushing myself on the field as well as in the classroom. I believe next year’s football team is in good hands as the class continues to mold their talent and emerge as leaders.
The one aspect of Carnegie Mellon that has not altered regardless of my injury status is Coach Lackner. I remember my father telling me my decision of where I go to school was my choice, but he always hinted and pushed me in the direction of Carnegie Mellon. When I finally asked why this was, he said, “I trust Coach Lackner the most to groom you into a respectable young man while you’re away from home.” At the time it sounded cliché and that he really wanted me to select the best school, but his words to me as a high school senior still resonate. Coach Lackner has had nothing but his players’ best interest at heart. Even as he went through very hard times of his own, he was always there when anyone of us needed him. He has continuously preached that our priorities should be faith, family, academics, and football and that everything else would only get in the way of achieving our goals. I am still not sure what it is Coach Lackner said to my father to make him feel so strongly, but I do know that he has more than met my father’s expectations and I hope he continues to have the same positive impact on future players and families as he has for me and my family.
If I had not had what many would consider an injury plagued college career, it is possible that my stats would have been better. I may have even gotten lucky enough to receive an award or recognition of some sort, but through my injury I instead learned how to properly handle adversity and adapt when things do not go according to plan. I gained a wealth of experience that have and will continue to positively contribute to my growth moving forward as a man. Above all, I formed unbreakable bonds with my teammates, coaches, and the training staff that would not have been nearly as strong if not for that one play of the Waynesburg scrimmage during my sophomore year.