Winning Isn’t Everything: Ironside’s Title Run Left Me Searching

Playing with Ironside wasn't the dream I had built up in my head.

Ironside’s Thomas Edmonds catches the disc at the Chesapeake Open. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

This is the first post of a new series on Ultiworld — Clear Cut — that will feature writing and storytelling from elite players and coaches. If you are interested in writing for the series (or have ideas for it), please contact editor@ultiworld.com. Going forward, articles in this series will be available only to Ultiworld subscribers. This first article, however, is free.

The last point of the 2016 Men’s Club Championship was a roller coaster of emotions.

I was on the sideline and my heart sank as arguably the best men’s player in the game dropped a pass. Then, just as quickly as it had sunk, it rebounded, as one of the most decorated men in our sport turfed a routine flick. The next thing I knew, we threw a pass into the endzone. We’d done it. Boston Ironside had just defeated San Francisco Revolver to win a national championship.

My teammates and I rushed the field and, as we did so, something became quite clear: Winning this championship, being a part of this championship team, did not mean nearly as much to me as it did to the others who were now hugging their teammates, tears streaming down their faces. I was lost. I was confused. I felt alone. I found myself on the outside of every group hug, searching for teammates to embrace, while not being sought out by any. I felt very out of place in the swarm of my teammates, many of whom I have known for years.

How could this not feel special? Being selected to the Ironside roster had been a dream of mine ever since I started playing. Now, standing in that endzone, celebrating a national championship, wearing an Ironside jersey, all that crossed my mind was that I’d made the wrong decision.

2016 was the first year since 2009 that Boston sent two men’s teams to Nationals. In its ninth season, Ironside was winning its first title after making it to at least the semifinals in each year of the team’s existence. The other Boston squad, DiG, had just capped off an incredible, and largely unexpected, first season. After failing to earn a strength bid for the Northeast region, they managed to steal a spot in Rockford from Toronto GOAT.

DiG went to Nationals in year one. They made prequarters and came within a few points of knocking off perennial powerhouse Seattle Sockeye and advancing to the quarterfinals.

Had I not been selfish, had I not taken the easy way out, I would have been on that brand new team that came so close to upsetting Sockeye. I helped start DiG.

The idea for a new elite men’s team in Boston started following the 2015 club season. Alex Dagley and I worked together to try and recruit players from the greater Boston area. Understandably, nobody would commit to an unknown quantity.

Feeling scared that DiG would turn into nothing, I tried out for Ironside for the third time while still building the new team. I had never made Ironside before and after being cut twice, I had resorted to creating a new team that, in my eyes, would be able to challenge Ironside. After the final Ironside tryout, I got the phone call telling me I had made the team. In a moment of panicked disbelief, I accepted the roster spot.

The next phone call was a much tougher conversation. I was slated to tell a friend that I was essentially abandoning him and all of our work.

I was nervous, I was scared, and I was tense. I had never made a call like this before. I was about to blindside a friend and teammate. My brain was working a million miles a minute, running through scenarios of how the phone call would go, the things I should say, the possible fallout, and how to try and justify what I was doing.

I knew he wouldn’t be happy with my decision. I worried that my choice to not be his teammate might mean he would choose to not be my friend.

We both hung up the phone upset. Alex was rightfully frustrated with me and I felt guilty for having disappointed someone who I had worked towards a common goal with for the greater part of six months.

Despite my guilt about leaving DiG, my excitement to join Ironside shone through. I was finally part of The Boat.

My excitement for Ironside faded throughout the season. I did not feel like I was part of the Ironside team during the 2016 season. All players on a team should have a role and all players on a team should feel like they are important to a team’s success. I did not feel this way.

There were times throughout the season where I would inform the coaching staff that I was feeling really good before a game and be completely ignored. During our last regular season tournament, I caught a pass in the middle of the field; seeing no open options downfield, I turned and looked for my reset. The reset had set up directly behind me, making for a difficult space pass. The handler was struggling to get open, due to their incorrect original positioning, and I floated the pass. Easy block.

I was frustrated that he had set up in his original position, but he was adamant his positioning was perfectly acceptable and the throw had to be better. On-field mistakes were not met with advice, assistance, and subsequent encouragement. I would be informed that what I had done was wrong, but not why it was wrong or how to correct it for next time. I felt too uncomfortable to ask further questions. I was already an inconvenience.

I want to be clear: this is not a feeling brought on by a lack of playing time. This is a feeling of working the hardest you’ve ever worked for an entire season and getting no recognition for it. This is a feeling of joining a world-renowned team because you imagined—you hoped—that you would learn a lot about this game you love while becoming a much better player, and not end the season feeling empty and lost, questioning whether you developed at all despite being surrounded by world-class players and coaches.

This is a feeling of having the utmost confidence going into the season and having none when it was over. It’s a feeling of being on top of the world when you made this team and feeling like rock bottom when the season ended with us on top.

Weekend after weekend, more emphasis was placed on the top guys with less and less coming to the bottom of the roster. We were still playing a lot at practice, I’d even say that some of us were getting the most practice reps because guys would miss practice for various reasons, but the coaching staff paid less and less attention to us as the season wore on.

Northeast Regionals is one of my favorite tournaments of the year. It always triggers both happy and sad memories of my previous seasons’ ending. 2016 was the first year that I made it to Club Nationals, and it was the first year that I didn’t have a positive experience.

There was no celebration from Ironside when they won Regionals. We were supposed to win. To commemorate, we ran sprints and did push ups until we couldn’t push our bodies up off of the ground. All the excitement of winning the region was replaced with frustration fueled from the fires of exhaustion and displeasure. Ironside did their job and won regionals, I was set to attend my first Club Nationals—why was I unhappy? At the time, I’m not sure I could answer this question myself. I just knew that I wasn’t happy. I had imagined this moment would be exhilarating, not debilitating and confusing.

In the final men’s game of the day, DiG came back to defeat GOAT in the game to go. As I sat by myself in the Boston airport watching this happen on the Ultiworld periscope, I was overcome by positive emotions that overwhelmed me and made me proud. The DiG celebration was everything you’d expect: hugging, laughing, even a few tears.

I craved to be part of that celebration. Punching a ticket to Nationals was something I had just experienced with Ironside hours prior, but these two experiences were very different. I was an outsider looking in with a sense of longing and desire. At Ironside practice, we had always talked about winning a national championship and building a national championship team, but we had never talked about having any fun while doing it.

That year with Ironside left me with a lot of lessons learned. I worked harder than I ever had, and I was, in some sense, rewarded. I was also tested mentally, physically, and emotionally for an entire summer, and I believe this made me a stronger person. I am a better teammate, leader, and friend because of my experience on Ironside. I was fortunate to play for Boston DiG during the 2017 season, which quickly became one of my most exciting and memorable club seasons to date.

There are a lot of really tough decisions that we face as humans, and part of the inherent beauty of life is that we will never know what would have happened if we had chosen a different path. Hindsight has this ability to make you believe the path you didn’t choose would have been so much better than the path you did.

I have been reflecting on the 2016 season, and all the ambiguity surrounding it, for almost two years now. My gold medal is hanging up in my room, but I have traded away all of the Ironside gear from that season. It was tough for me to look at, let alone wear. Not only that, I have two DiG jerseys from 2016 that I wear all the time. It’s crazy to me that after all that happened during the 2016 season, I treasure the idea of the memories I could have had with DiG, more than the actual memories I formed on Ironside.

I’d like to think that if I went back in time I would have made a different decision, but like I said, you never know what is and isn’t right until you live it.

  1. Thomas Edmonds
    Thomas Edmonds

    Thomas Edmonds studied exercise physiology at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently living in Pittsburgh and playing for Pittsburgh Temper. He has also played for Boston DiG, Boston Ironside, Boston Garuda, and Portland Red Tide. You can reach him by email (thomasedmonds2@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@thomasedmonds8).

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