Hanging Up Your Cleats

A reflection on retiring from ultimate and a reminder to love every moment.

It’s the end of an era for Fury, as they’ll start the Series without Alex Snyder for the first time since 2005. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

This article and the research within were submitted to Ultiworld by Grant Farrington. You can find more of his writing at Skyd Magazine, USA Ultimate, and Spin Ultimate. All opinions are those of the authors unless otherwise expressed.

“They always have a big game at the end and someone always hits a walk-off grand slam, which almost never happens. Baseball careers end on a ground ball to short.” –Ron Shelton, Writer/Director, Bull Durham (1988)1

Every person who plays this game has a finite amount of time left on the field.

Most people don’t think about how their ultimate careers will end, nor should they. It’s much more palatable and familiar to go about the routines we have developed to help us enjoy the game—from going to pickup, to hitting the weight room, to watching videos on Ultiworld, to looking forward to getting that next new jersey. Everybody has a different level of commitment and passion they ascribe to ultimate, but we all share enthusiasm for a game that can’t be played forever.

When the end of your career comes, do you think you will recognize it? Will you walk off the field, having just won the Club Championships, catching the game winning goal on double game point? Or will you wake up one day, having stepped away from the game for a few years, and realize that, despite sustained optimism you’ll cleat up again once life calms down, the ultimate chapter passed you by and you just didn’t realize it? For most folks, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

I wish we could all be so lucky to call it a day on our terms, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we get injured to the point that our bodies fail us and won’t let us compete anymore. Sometimes life responsibilities continue to build and we must make the decision to step away and “be an adult.” Sometimes the opportunities dry up and there’s nowhere left to play.

The truth is, the more we invest in this game, the more it’s bound to hurt us. Many of us will love this game more than it will ever love us.

There’s no playbook for how we are supposed to feel when our playing time is done. Whether you take it in stride and look forward to the next challenge, or you dwell on the past, thinking about the good, bad, and memorable times that have lead to this moment, there is no right or wrong answer. Only when you are done playing will you know exactly what the other side–the retirement side—feels like.

Some people reading this know that at sundown this Sunday, that’ll be it. Their moment will come in that last placement game at Club Regionals, or getting knocked out of the backdoor bracket. A lucky few will get to delay their moment until the end of October.

I reached my moment this summer and I wish I could say I was one of those people that was prepared for the end. I didn’t realize that, over the course of 15 years, you develop habits and routines that activate a familiar responses: Spring time? Get ready for tryouts! Summer time? Keep your cleats and a disc next to the door at all times! Fall? Get ready to plan for off season condition…. oh…I guess not this year.

I’ve also been smacked in the face with the realization that we collect a lot of physical reminders that litter the household, like a drawer of workout clothes that’s only jerseys from past teams, discs everywhere and a social media feed that’s predominantly Frisbee friends and their happy exploits.

The summation of those reminders? It turns out we spend a lot of time doing something we really, really, really enjoy with people who share that common bond and have become great friends as a result.

And that will always be the best part. When you climb the competitive ladder, you reach end up playing with an edge that can be hard to file back down. You may not necessarily get the same thrill playing low-level pickup as you used to after attending Nationals, or Regionals, or even Lei Out. And that’s ok. Having gone as far as we can, or have wanted to, whatever that may be, playing a silly game inspired by a pie tin (that’s still almost completely foreign to most people) is special. We found joy in ultimate and it hooked us. Maybe just for a summer, or a year, or 10, but that enjoyment is unimpeachable.

For the folks who get the opportunity to step out on the field for the first time this fall as a first-year in college, or the last time as a senior next spring, or any of the thousands of club players who will lace up for another summer of fun next year: enjoy every moment however you can. Enjoy discovering the facets of a new sport, meeting new people who share a common interest, pushing yourself to be the best player, and elevating your team higher. But most of all, enjoy playing ultimate, whatever level you compete at—none of it is wasted. If it matters to you, it’s important and should be cherished. It sounds easy to read and even easier to type, but all of those small moments add up. At some time in the future, our lives will go from a steady dose of chasing plastic with cleats on to stepping off the field forever. It will seem like the blink of an eye.

The truth is, that final step off the field may not be our choice, but there will be a duffel bag full of memories waiting for you on the sideline.

  1. From Chris Nawshawty’s 2012 piece for Sports Illustrated “Worshipping At The Church Of Baseball“ 

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