I remember the kid sitting on the bench at Granby High School. The game was over. Her team had lost. She was crying softly. When I sat down beside her wondering if she was composed enough to talk, she offered this, "I'll never do this again, play high school basketball. This was my final game."
The final game. Most athletes don't think about that moment until it hits and even then, it's not always clear in that moment. There's often another level to aspire to; maybe you get there, maybe you don't. Putting down the ball, the mitt, the racket one last time doesn't seem real in the moment. There's always another game or at least probably another game, right?
Richmond's Becca Wann has put down the basketball and put away the soccer ball. She was set to be drafted in soccer, but that is no more. She might kick the ball around on her own or at a youth camp, but no more head games. One concussion too many brought her stellar career to an abrupt halt.
Wann was in Newport News two weeks ago as a speaker at the Atlantic 10's Student Athletic Advisory Committee's weekend conference. She reflected eloquently and poignantly about what she calls "the hardest six months of my life."
Her ambitious athletic career as a Division I athlete in two sports, soccer and basketball, ended Aug. 23 when she sustained a concussion after a header in a game against Old Dominion. Her aerial game was her trademark.
"I play soccer 25 percent with my feet and 75 percent with my head," she says.
She didn't admit to anyone for days that she suspected concussion, telling herself, "If I wake up tomorrow with a headache. . ." When the migraine didn't leave, she confessed the symptoms to her trainer. In consultation with a neurologist, both agreed she was done on the athletic field. That didn't just bring her brilliant soccer career to a close -- Wann won a gold medal playing with the Women's National Team at the 2012 FIFA U20 World Cup in Japan and was the first Spider to be named A-10 Rookie of the Year and A-10 Offensive Player of the Year -- her basketball career was over, too.
The chances of suffering another concussion were too great. She doesn't know how many she's had, but risking another wasn't worth the cost. In a room full of athletes at the SAAC event, she talked about hearing the story of a player who could do nothing but stay in a dark room for three months due to a concussion.
That can't be me, she realized. She can't risk looking across the table as a young woman and needing to be reminded who is on the other side.
Wann played her final game, and sports -- something she cherished and sacrificed for since her little girl days -- was gone as she knew it.
She is still a Spider. She goes to basketball practice every day and remains an active a part of the team as possible, whether that means handing out water bottles or exchanging high fives. Indeed, she cringes when she hears an athlete griping about going to practice. Wann works out on the treadmill these days, something she's learning to tolerate, but sure, she'd rather have the coach yelling at her on the court. Yet she is able to dig within herself to find this crux:
“In the end, my identity is in who I am, not what I do,” Wann said. “Who you are is more important that what you do.”
That's a message we can all learn from. Too often we are identified by our occupations; too often student-athletes are lost when they become just students, not athletes. When it is all you know, what happens when it's over? The door may be shut, Wann says, but a window is open.
"I don't question God with the good stuff; I didn't question him when I won a gold medal," she said. "How can I question him in the hard times?
"If I could do it all over again, I would just do it all over again," she said. "I wouldn't change anything. Well, there's a goal I would have scored in Japan. . . . But I would start those 15 years over starting with the girl in a ribbon in her hair (yes, she grimaced) in a second."
Unwavering faith, family, teammates and friends continue to strengthen her. She doesn't know where she's going -- grad school or coaching are in her mind -- but this much she understands. It's the end of her athletic career. It's the beginning of something else. What that is she doesn't know -- yet. But we have an idea it will be something great.