In hindsight, coming out of retirement was a bad idea. By retirement, I mean competitive athletic retirement. By bad idea, well, you’ll see.
I played soccer in high school though I didn’t enjoy it much. I was a goalkeeper. During games, the position consisted of two contrasting modes: boredom (when play was at the other end of the field and I was reduced to a spectator while some subset of players viciously kicked each other in the shins), and terror (when the opposing team came bearing down like a ransacking horde after breaching my own side’s defenses, the ball having gotten past the 10 other dudes on the team and suddenly it was now my responsibility to keep the ball from getting past me, which often involved throwing myself on said ball in the midst of a scrum of teenagers viciously kicking each other in the shins, but now with my face shin-high).
As much as I liked sports, camaraderie, the smell of locker rooms, and clichéd motivational speeches by math and science teachers masquerading as Vince Lombardi, I gave up soccer after high school. In college, I fell in with a group of misfits who played ultimate—short for ultimate Frisbee—a sport without goalkeepers or shin-kicking, and I was free to roam about the field, throwing and catching the disc, and occasionally playing defense. I fell in love with ultimate. So much so that I spent the next 25 years playing ultimate whenever I could and devoting much of my spare time to playing or training for the sport.
I played on men’s teams, coed teams, masters teams (over 35), grandmasters teams (over 40), and even played in a national championship final. (We lost.)
A few years ago, I decided to retire from ultimate. It was my pride mostly—at 45, I was not what I once was as a player, and that frustrated the hell out of me. So I packed the cleats away in the basement with the rest of the sports equipment collecting dust down there— croquet mallets, badminton rackets, bocce balls—and doubled down on my other fitness-related hobbies like mountain biking and trail running and hiking the 35 Catskill peaks over 3,500 feet. (Not done yet.)
A couple months ago, I got a call from my dear old friend (and former ultimate teammate) Corey on the West Coast who told me he was going to be swinging through New York visiting folks and he’d love to catch up. Perhaps we could even play some ultimate at the pick-up game in New Paltz, just like back in college. This seemed like kismet, as I had been toying with the idea of playing again, mostly out of curiosity—to see if I had any game left in me. On June 16, about five months prior to my 51st birthday, I dusted off the cleats and drive down to New Paltz for a little tune-up at the pick-up game a week before Corey arrived. I took a jog around the field, did some desultory stretches, said hello to the couple of folks I knew among the sea of 20-somethings, and joined the game. The first point went well enough. We were on defense and I managed to maintain a pace somewhere between and jog and a trot behind the kid I was covering. I didn’t personally get scored on, though my team conceded the point. We were on offense the next point, and I ambled up the field to take my position. Seeing a lane, I sprinted back toward the thrower, hoping my defender wasn’t lurking right over my shoulder waiting to jump in front of me and block the disc in a humiliating (for me) display of youth and vigor.
As I was thinking this—and, in retrospect, perhaps I should have been paying more attention to the mechanics of running, though I do remember at one point in my life being able to run and think at the same time without any trouble—I heard a faint pop and I was on the ground, looking up at the kid who was defending me. (He was indeed right over my shoulder.) He pulled me to my feet, but there was something seriously wrong with my right calf; I couldn’t push off with the ball of my foot. Not even two full points in, and my day was done.
Tom, one of the few people I knew at the pickup game, helped me limp off the field. He seemed very concerned. I told him not to worry. I’d been injured before and I knew the rest-and-rehab drill. Tom shook his head. “It’s not that,” he said. Tom looked me up and down and asked, “I’m 33 now, how long do I have?” Instead of telling him to perform an impossible act on himself (my first instinct), I told Tom my age, which soothed him. He cantered back onto the field and I grabbed my bag and drove to the hospital.
The emergency room visit was uneventful. A leg X-ray found no broken bones. I was sent home in a splint with a referral to a podiatrist. The next day, after an MRI, I got in with the podiatrist. The podiatrist explained that there are three basic kinds of Achilles tears: lower, middle, and upper. The low tear, near the heel, most often happens to competitive athletes; the mid-level tear occurs mostly in middle-aged “weekend warrior” athletes; and the high tear is suffered mostly by seniors stepping off curbs and playing shuffleboard. The podiatrist then told me I suffered a high tear—an injury that typically happens to the elderly—and just let it sit there in the silent room without explanation for a minute before he added, “I can’t explain it.”
The good news: the high tear is easiest to rehab and I won’t need surgery. The bad news: I must wear the dreaded immobilization boot for an indeterminate amount of time. Worse news: In early July, because my leg was immobilized, I developed blood clots in my leg that traveled to my lungs. A pulmonary embolism. After a CT scan confirmed this in one hospital, I was sent to another, bigger hospital where they could perform open-heart surgery if needed. But it wasn’t needed. Blood-thinning drugs did the trick. I was released after a weekend of observation.
All because of a silly game. Like I said, coming out of retirement was a bad idea.
*Sorry not sorry to Stephen O’Connor, whose brilliant and hilarious collection of short stories from 2010 this title is borrowed from.