For over a decade, I was a sports writer who primarily covered high school athletics.
Like so many other jobs, that one had a nice rhythm to it. The calendar started in the hazy days of summer. We’d gather on far-flung football fields around our region and listen to coaches cautiously talk up their teams as their players lined up for pictures in pristine jerseys that had not yet collected so much as a grass stain. Everyone was undefeated, and hope hung as heavy as the gathering humidity.
Of course, the Friday night lights eventually came on, and reality bore itself out over a 10-week season. There were winners and losers. Adversity and fortune came like thieves in the night, changing the trajectories of each team along the way. Meanwhile, the same scenario was playing itself out in all the other fall sports, and before you knew it, fall had given way to winter.
Short winter days most often ended inside a warm, bright basketball gymnasium, and reality bore itself out once again. By the time postseason basketball tournaments rolled around, the days were getting longer and the landscape outside the car window was turning green.
Spring sports were always a blur of activity, a sprint to the finish that wrapped up just as summer arrived once again, providing an ending to the beginning that started the summer before.
Every season for every team in every sport culminated in a moment so compelling I could never take my eyes off it. That moment came during an elimination game when a group of players and coaches realized the end had come. With the clock winding down and all options exhausted, the finality of it all roosted like a buzzard at the end of their bench. Shoulders slumped. Heads hung. Tears flowed. Then the final buzzer sounded.
My quest for quotes from the winners and losers would take me through a landscape of sobbing seniors embracing their teammates and coaches. Many of those seniors would sit in the locker room as long as possible to delay taking off their jerseys for the last time.
When I was first starting out, I found myself wishing seasons didn’t have to end for these kids, especially the seniors. But as I got older and (hopefully) wiser, I started to see the importance of this rite of passage. It provided closure. And besides, it wasn’t the end – it was just the end of the beginning.
I thought of that rite of passage last Wednesday when Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced students will not return to their school buildings this spring. Shortly after that announcement, the TSSAA released a statement confirming all spring sports had been cancelled along with the state basketball tournament, which had been hanging in limbo since March.
In a way, the wish of a young, foolish sports writer has now come true. For high school athletes around our region, their suspended seasons will never end. They’ll never have to taste that sting of elimination and the finality that comes with it.
But the tragedy of it all is they’ll never experience that sense of closure that is so valuable in life. At some point before this “new normal” ground everything to a halt, those seniors took off their jerseys for the last time. The cruel twist is they didn’t realize it. There was no reluctance. There were no tears. As a result, this stage of their lives will forever be a beginning without a definitive end.
While efforts are ongoing to salvage proms and graduation ceremonies, there is a real danger that every high school senior may have to enter the next chapter of their lives without experiencing crowning moments we used to take for granted. All of our lives are suddenly without a rhythm at the very moment the academic and athletic careers of these young people are supposed to be hitting a crescendo.
It’s heartbreaking to say the least, but my experience covering high school sports gives me hope for the future. I watched high school kids time and again weather injuries, disappointment, failure and loss. But more often than not, they picked themselves up and kept on going.
Once high school ended, so many of them took the lessons learned from those experiences into the real world. Many of the kids I got to know along the way are now doctors and lawyers, teachers and coaches, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
And so it will be for the class of 2020, which will find a way to turn the page and navigate all the twists and turns that lie ahead.
Dave Ongie is the News Editor at the Johnson City News & Neighbor. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.