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  • Writer's pictureMaema Njongmeta

Tragedy Into Triumph

“There is no ‘right moment.’ There is just this moment and what you choose to do with it.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, but almost my entire life revolves around football.

Like many, the year 2020 was filled with a lot of anguish, and despair, lined with moments of growth and clarity. A lot of this anguish had to do with my involvement with football last year.

People don’t realize just how mentally taxing a normal season can be for an athlete, between balancing a full schedule as a student, finding time to sleep, train, recover and perform at your best on game day… it’s a lot. This dynamic was only further complicated by the demands of competing during a global pandemic.

To give some context, I started the year off fresh from a case of Rhabdomyolysis.

For the uninitiated, Rhabdo is a unique condition that occurs from overtraining and results in the disintegration of muscle tissue and release of myoglobin into the blood. Too much can damage the kidneys. In the least pleasant way possible, my urine looked like Coca-Cola for about a week, and I was sidelined from football for over a month.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Athletics

Just as I was recovering to my full cardiovascular and muscular strength from Rhabdo, the global stay-at-home orders began to take place. I kept a journal in the early days of the pandemic. I look back on it now, and the entries were dripping with fear: fear of the virus, of the unknown, of the deadliness and contagiousness of the virus. My Dad having a PhD in infectious diseases meant that pandemics were his expertise… watching even him not have all the answers in the early days of lockdown was frightening. Couple that with the unrelenting fear mongering across social media and late night news, March-May were some of the darkest months of my recent life.

Sometime in early April, I started to feel some serious pain in my lower abdomen, like every time I laughed, a knife was being twisted in my sternum. I dealt with the pain for a couple of days until I realized it wasn’t going away. A quick call to the trainers confirmed my suspicions: something was wrong. They didn’t know what yet, but best case scenario I couldn’t work out until the pain went away, and that could take weeks.

As I’m sure most can attest, in the summer of 2020, the news was mind-bogglingly sad. Between reports of racial injustices, rising Covid cases and a divisive presidential campaign, the summer months were exceptionally chaotic. Being physically trapped only contributed to feelings of being mentally trapped as well. I stayed upstairs in my room a lot during those days, what was the point of getting out of bed if I was just counting the hours until I could go back to sleep?

"What was the point of getting out of bed if I was just counting the hours until I could go back to sleep?"

The silver-linings of that time was the ability to see my family for longer than two weeks, something that I took for granted growing up.

As a collegiate athlete, I usually see my parents for what adds up to a month, split between my winter break, spring break, and summer break. Usually this time is spent madly rushing between eating mom’s food, catching the game with Dad, or watching a movie with my cousins.

In May, the team got the good news that we would start coming back to campus to start workouts in June. Finally. A bit of normalcy on the horizon. I said my goodbyes to my family with some reluctance and a lot of anticipation, eager to see what being back on campus could do for my mental and physical health. My eagerness was short-lived; on the second day of workouts, I felt something pop in my groin, I was struggling to walk. The trainers pulled me out and quietly informed me that I was done for the day.

All signs were pointing to surgery. The team flew me out to Philly three weeks later, and I got surgery the day after I landed. I was projected to be out for 6 to 7 weeks.

In spite of everything, I made it through rehab with a lot of optimism and some doubts: At this point, there were a lot of talks of the impossibility of a football season during the so called “Second Wave” of COVID-19. I held a lot of doubts about my own ability to be ready for the season after such a short training cycle. In a normal year, we would have 3-5 months of training as well as a spring ball period where we would get in pads and play actual football. With Covid and surgery, I instead had about 1/5th of that time, and I hadn’t lifted a weight in more than four months. During the entire rehab process, I kept thinking about how this was not the year I wanted, nor what I expected, but perhaps I could still roll with it.

Then, the week I was supposed to get cleared to return to sports, our season was cancelled. Devastated—that’s how I felt. It was an extra punch to the stomach that the news broke on Twitter before our coaches could even tell us.

After hearing the news, I went home for a week to recollect myself. The extra time was supposed to give me ample room to reflect and reload for an extended offseason. Instead, I spent a lot of time mad at the B1G 10 for cancelling our season while every other conference prepared to play, but grateful for the opportunity to fully get in shape before playing any type of football. I came back a week early before workouts were officially supposed to start. In that week, my housemates and I tested positive for Covid-19. The day that workouts were supposed to start, I began my quarantine protocol.

After the 14th day of quarantine, my roommate and I began the “Return to Play” protocol outlined by the B1G conference. The first thing on the protocol was to take an EKG. My roommate and I had the EKG administered at the exact same time. He received a text within the hour saying he was cleared to come into the facility the next day. As for me, I received radio silence.

When I eventually got the call from the trainers, I almost vomited.

The voice on the other side of the line told me that something was irregular in my EKG, and while the results were being reviewed again by a cardiologist, I wouldn’t be able to return to sports until further notice. At the time, the full extent of Covid-19 wasn’t clear to me, and so the instant I heard this news, my mind immediately jumped to the worst case scenario: namely irreparable heart damage like myocarditis or another career-ending condition.

After the call, I hopped on my moped and drove endlessly around campus.

I remember having an early morning meeting with the same trainer who had helped me through my surgery. I trusted her a lot because she’d helped me when I had been most vulnerable. She told me that I should mentally prepare myself to potentially be out of season for another 6 weeks. My heart scans just didn’t look good.

That was a dark period in my life… reckoning with a lost season, fresh off of surgery, and Covid messing me up the way it did. The thought of losing my identity as an athlete for the first time and maybe forever left me feeling empty.

"The thought of losing my identity as an athlete for the first time and maybe forever left me feeling empty."

I was out for roughly three more weeks before I eventually got cleared to play sports again. Although my EKG had changed, the doctor was confident that with careful monitoring, I would be able to continue to play collegiate sports. At this point, I’d been out of action since mid-April. I was returning after being out for 6-months.

Looking back at the practice tapes from that month, I get tired just watching myself hobble all over the field. Every rep was excruciating. It felt like my lower body was on fire. Everything hurt but, for the love of the sport, I tried to make do. In retrospect, I don’t think I had been quite ready to play that season, but I had rationalized that a few weeks of preparation would set me up to at least survive…I never made it that far.

5 days after being cleared from Covid, I was doing a routine pass rush drill, one that I’m normally very good at, but on this rep, I slipped, landed awkwardly and heard something pop.

The pain was blinding. I remember just laying and rolling on the carpet for what felt like an eternity, a couple of moments too long, a big no-no in our gladiator sport. I kept practicing with whatever the pain was.

I suited up for two more practices, but after that I couldn’t walk…that's when I knew something really might be up. The final prognosis was a torn groin.

I was sidelined for most of the season after that. Days turned into weeks turned into months of me being plagued by self-doubt, anxiety and fear. After all these injuries, had I fallen out of grace with my coaches? Would I ever be in the right shape to earn a position on the depth chart again? Would I be passed up by incoming freshmen who were getting crucial practice reps while I was watching from the side? Was I good enough to play at the D1 level?

As an athlete, you start to see yourself through the lens of the sport you play, especially when we spend so much time working on our craft. This was one of the darkest periods in my life—as my injuries kept me out of practicing and other team activities, I felt myself drift further and further from the people I once considered my family. I was in the worst mental shape I’d ever been in and found myself spending weekends in my room alone, unable to connect with teammates, or my family who didn’t understand the pressures of being a collegiate athlete. I considered medically retiring from football at one point.

"I was in the worst mental shape I’d ever been in and found myself spending weekends in my room alone, unable to connect with teammates, or my family who didn’t understand the pressures of being a collegiate athlete."

I used the time out of my sport to figure out my identity without football, who I was outside of the things that normally consumed my life on a daily basis. I read more than I ever had. I meditated and found time to dive into my books and football film. Ultimately, I made it a goal to create daily habits that would help enrich my life and prepare me for when I eventually returned to the sport. This was a healthy restructuring of my identity and was necessary because the alternatives were, by the day, proving to be extremely toxic. And when it was all said and done, I was a different man, more sure of who I was, tougher mentally and physically… more importantly, I was happier. This was the first time I was TRIED. Tested. It felt like a higher power was talking to me and saying “this is your test, rise to the occasion or fall.”

After about 8 weeks of rehab, I returned to practice the week of December 5th, just in time for the Indiana game. It had been 12 months since I had suited up for a game and almost 6 months since I’d actually practiced. I’d been tested, and I rose to the occasion. I was able to practice with the team for the remainder of the season (roughly 2.5 weeks).

The beauty of this story is I came back. The beauty is I came back to practice and was able to play in the bowl game, and I made my college debut for the last five plays of our post-season bowl game against Wake Forest.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Athletics

This was the first time in my life where there was real doubt into whether I could succeed, or make it out in the same shape. To have what I loved ripped from me hurt. It made me realize how ephemeral and transitory a lot of the things I truly cared about were. The running joke in the world of football is that NFL stands for “Not For Long,” and so I always knew sports wouldn't be around forever. But having to reckon with the sport being taken away from me so soon was bewildering to say the least. Without realizing it, I had put so much stock into my identity as a football player that when my sport came into jeopardy, it felt like who I was as a man came into jeopardy as well. At the same time, through this journey, I found out how stable and certain other things in my life were as well. When I first found out I’d be out for the season, I remember sitting in my room on a Saturday night just crying. I realized something that I’d always known but never wanted to admit; that the world wouldn’t stop just because I was injured. I felt alone because I realized that the game didn’t need me the way I needed the game. But the stable things in my life still needed me: namely my family, my friends and my calling to God. These were the stable things I was able to lean on in my darkest times.

"I realized that the game didn’t need me the way I needed the game. But the stable things in my life still needed me: namely my family, my friends and my calling to God."

It was one of those moments in my life where I found myself in a deep valley of fear, pain, despair and confusion. It’s hard because people only understand so much. People can only do so much for you at that point. But I never lost sight of the fact that whatever I was going through too would pass.

None of this is promised. I can think back to how many times before the pandemic I put off friendships, experiences, and even pursuing the things I wanted. I always put my happiness over the horizon, saving action for the fabled ‘near future.’ I’d always come up with a reason for why not to, “I’m not ready yet, etc.” Having a major part of my life derailed last year in the midst of a pandemic and a college football season taught me that the right moment may never come, and in waiting for it, I was only robbing myself of the enjoyment of living in the now.

Against all odds, I turned my greatest tragedy into triumph. -Maema Njongmeta


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