Wednesday words: I coulda been a contender

JoAnn Neil AYSO pic

Back in the 70s, in my goalkeeper uniform.

All my life I’ve been a deep thinker and it’s gotten me nowhere.  Yesterday morning, we started off poorly in the Neil household.  It was Miss T’s birthday and I’d disappointed her.  I won’t go into the reasons why and they were ultimately fixed, but on top of her sadness, Goldie was upset to hear I couldn’t go to her last freshman volleyball game.  I hung my head, confused at their perceived shortcomings in my mothering abilities.  I really am doing the best I can.

Regardless, I drove Miss T and Bun Bun to school with a heavy heart and a contemplative head.  Maybe I can do better.  Maybe I should fly away.  I showed up for a school meeting with smart adults and we talked about future projects and expanding the school.  Halfway through, I was fine and no longer felt like Betty Draper, who I think is a horrible mother.

The point I want to make is that when I am actively involved in something, even if it’s just the laundry (okay, maybe not the laundry), my psyche is fine.  But give me an opportunity for deep thought and I’m screwed, and usually sad.  I drive A LOT, which leaves far too many opportunities to question the meaning of life.  So even though I’d recovered from bad-mommy syndrome yesterday, and re-arranged my schedule to be able to attend Goldie’s game, the day had its heavy moments.

First, the exit off the freeway to head to Goldie’s game is the exit for where my mom lived.  I’ve had no occasion since she died to take that exit.  So boo hoo.  I became very quiet in the car.

Second, Goldie’s team was playing my former high school.  I’ve certainly been there since graduating a few years ago (Ha!) but remember, yesterday was already heavy and I was feeling unaccomplished.  Girls I graduated with are now doctors and have important jobs out there.  (And this isn’t a plea for any one of you to tell me I’m a good and useful person, honestly.)

Third, and this was entirely unexpected, I got into a conversation at the end of the volleyball match with the father of one of Goldie’s teammates and found a soul mate.  Don’t worry, it wasn’t romantic, just profound.  We started out talking about how many miles we drive each week so our kids can play sports.  I told him I thought it was my way of reconciling my own lost athletic career.  Turns out he had almost exactly the same story to tell as I, and the same regrets.  We were quick to confirm our own current happiness, while not denying that life didn’t turn out the way we thought it would when we were thirteen.

I wrote an essay and submitted it to a contest at Real Simple Magazine last year.  I didn’t win (damn), but I offer it here as an explanation.  Allow me to bare my soul:

“I Coulda Been a Contender” (Maybe they didn’t like the title.  It’s pretty lame.)

Elementary school was a long time ago and much of it has been forgotten, though the broad strokes still remain – itchy wool uniforms, knee socks held in place with rubber bands, crumbling asphalt, skinned knees, and sports.  I played them all: basketball, volleyball, kickball, handball, flag football.  Outside of school there was soccer, softball, and me with a tennis racket wherever I could find a wall to hit the ball against.  I got good grades, had plenty of friends, and occasionally washed my hair.  But nothing ever felt as good, or as important, as my athletic efforts.  Nothing.

There are more memories of high school.  So much of who I became was formed in the hallways between classes, even sometimes during.  I recall much of European history, including the spittle that often formed in the corner of our teacher’s mouth during a lecture.  At the all-girls Catholic prep that I attended, we allowed the nuns to be our academic and spiritual leaders, but at home with the parents, enduring adolescence in its final stages, we began to pull away, to form our own opinions, and make our own choices.  We grew up in high school, to varying degrees, and then went beyond, to college and all that comes after.

Years later, and it’s been more than a few, the moments I recall from childhood continue to surprise me.  They’re mostly happy, some of them benign.  But a few are etched, chiseled even, because they changed my path, my journey.  Some are people: the coach who taught me about championing life while demonstrating the proper way to field a hard grounder.  Some are sadly, surprisingly profound: I continue to wonder what life would be like had my mother never asked me in the car, during the first week of my freshman year in high school: “You’re not going to keep playing soccer and softball, are you?”

It’s one thing to have a tone-deaf child and gently encourage her to pursue something other than music.  It’s another thing when your daughter consistently stands out on All-Star teams and then is pressed to drop the ball, literally and figuratively.  I can still hear the sound of my mother’s voice, the leading way she asked, and after, how I stammered and then quietly mumbled, “Well, uh, no, I don’t think so.  I guess not.”  I wasn’t expecting the question.  To this day, I’m not entirely sure why she asked it but I have some ideas.  I’d had a sense that my mother was afraid my tomboyish nature was more than just wearing a flannel shirt every now and then.  She worried that I was a lesbian.  And though she was and is a liberal thinker, parents want their children to be happy and a homosexual life, then and now, is more difficult.  She must have thought that continued involvement in sports wasn’t in my best interests as a young woman.  High school was a fresh start, not just for me but for her.  As far as she was concerned, it was time to head down a different road, one that felt more comfortable in her grand scheme, if she had one, for my future.

I’m not an ingrate, nor do I continue to fault my mother for much more than the pale Irish skin I was born with.  For me, two great aspects of getting older (and I’m not young) is that I care little, less, and least about what people think of me AND I’ve long moved on from blaming my parents.  But there’s value in examining our pasts.  I was twelve that day sitting in the car with my mom.  Is it fair to think that the decision I made then – to give up sports – was mine?  On the one hand, I was extremely impressionable and like all children, just wanted my mother’s approval.  I knew the answer she was seeking and so offered it.  But I was certainly capable of recognizing and honoring the pain I felt in my stomach at that moment, as if someone had kicked me, and hard.  I could just as easily have eked out the words, “I like playing sports, Mom.  I’m good at them.”  I could have trusted myself.  I could have done a full court press (excuse the sports metaphor, more coming).  Instead, I took my eye off the ball and fumbled.  I moved to the sidelines.  And now, these many years later, I continue to play Monday morning quarterback, second-guessing my response that day and wondering what my life would have been like had I made a different choice.

My best friend growing up was an athlete, too – a swimmer.  She went to college on a full scholarship, married her swim coach, and had two children who also attended college on swim scholarships.  She still competes in Masters meets and often wins.  Her home life growing up was unhealthy; several of her siblings have struggled with drugs, alcohol, and long stints in jail.  For her, looking back, sports was a matter of survival, of either going down a dead end or going down the road she’s still on, mostly smooth and mostly happy.  At twelve, I didn’t have her challenges or her need for escape.  But shortly after, even as I was pursuing my new passion for the performing arts, things changed.  I started gaining weight and feeling shame about my body.  As soon as someone handed me my first beer, I wanted six more.  My once confident self became riddled with doubt and so I put on airs of superiority to disguise an ever-increasing inferiority complex.  Years later, in the throes of alcoholism, I’d wonder what the hell happened.  After getting sober, I was forced to figure it out

Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Ugh — but he was right.  In my late 20s, I had to regroup and rethink.  Other than the physiological explanation for my addiction, why was I so interested in numbness?  In twisting my brain cells to feel anything other than reality?  Mostly, it was because I was sad.  I was just so sad.  If I had to reason why, it went back to that choice I made when I was twelve years old.  In giving up sports, I lost a colossal part of my identity.  Practically speaking, I gave up the number one thing that made me feel really, really good.  At the time, Title IX was still fairly young and who’s to say how far I would have gone in my athletic pursuits.  But it was the wrong choice to make.  I know that for certain.

So what happened?  I got sober and got back into sports.  Marathon training slimmed me down (and who knew beer was so fattening?), and I felt proud of myself again, which gave me confidence at work and at play.  I met my husband in the running group I’d joined and then we went and had three daughters.  Guess what?  Each one is more athletic than the next.

No one wants regrets but let’s be honest.  We all have them.  A true test of character is how we handle that remorse.  Can we go back?  Can we make a different choice?  No.  Would we?  Would I?  Absolutely, even looking at my life today.  I wouldn’t give up what I have because I believe I’d still have it (it’s mind-bending, I know) but I’m convinced the journey here would have been easier on my soul had I followed my heart.

Here’s the thing: life isn’t easy.  Sometimes it’s simple, often it’s complicated, and always it’s exactly what it is.

Knowing what I know, looking back the way I have, unraveling the vicissitudes of life… has its rewards.  I’m a better mother than I thought I’d be.  I coach the girls’ sports teams and try not to yell too much.  I know what it’s like to be out there on the pitch, on the court, running around the bases, and I know that the choices I made when I was around their age changed my life, so I’ll be extra careful when it’s time for them to make some decisions.  It’s a cliché, but they have to follow their heart.  There are no guarantees that it all works out in the end except one: no one ever regrets following their heart.


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    • Janet Fontaine says

      Thank you for sharing your wonderful piece JoAnn. I am moved and, as always, ever inspired.

      Sincerely yours,


  1. Michael says

    Great read, JoAnn. Though, my belief has always been if we could go back and change something, yes, the things that follow would be different. But different is not necessarily better, sometimes they’re worse.

  2. Cindy O'Connor says

    I really liked your post and article. I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown’s work lately and your story fits right in. It’s hard work to look back at the choices we made due to shame or in reaction to someone else’s shame, but the acknowledgement of the past and talking about it informs our relationships now. Just as you said – you will be extra careful when your girls make life direction choices. Be compassionate with yourself on during the heavy moments – that’s what I’m working on at least. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anne says

    You coulda been…and you ARE!! Here’s to that “all-girls Catholic prep that you…we… attended”…and here’s to the sporty lesbians that came out of it…and yes, I CAN say that!!!

  4. Mindy says

    I love your honesty, JoAnn. You’ve proven that deep thinking isn’t always bad. It can lead to great introspection and ultimately a wonderfully written article. Thanks for for being so courageous!

  5. Jo says

    Thank you all for the comments. It’s always interesting to me which posts will elicit the most responses. Clearly, we’ve all questioned some choices we’ve made in life and the paths we did or did not take. Be brave all! And thanks for the support. – Jo

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