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The physical toll of four years

Jalay Knowles | Hartford Basketball

February 6, 2017, a day that my life took a drastic, unexpected, and heartbreaking turn. A sophomore at the University of Hartford, a nineteen year old hyperactive student-athlete. A kid still, living her dream. Receiving a full scholarship to play basketball and get the experience of a lifetime, all came to an abrupt end.

The year before, I was a freshman, new to the game of college basketball and a new world. Transitioning from my home environment to school was intense, there were times where I felt completely normal, then there were others where I felt like my head was spinning. Overall I was adjusting, I just knew that I wanted to play basketball, that is all I wanted to do. School was second in line and was for a while but I knew I needed my education to keep going. The demands that were put on college athletes were challenging, you don’t really know until you are in it. After my first summer session at the University of Hartford, getting accustomed to my new team, new coaches, and a new atmosphere. I felt my body changing over the summer, after a while I began to get more comfortable, I felt like I was on my way up.

The first week that school was in session, playing pick up in the gym, I never would have thought that an awkward fall would alter my entire collegiate career. I was in agonizing pain, didn’t understand what was going on, my teammates went looking for the trainer. The trainer suggested I get an MRI just to be safe, I really didn’t think much of it. I was an athlete and pushed through everything. About a week goes by, I went home for the weekend to see my family. I got a phone call from my trainer, she told me that I had two bulging discs in my back. I wasn’t sure how bad this injury was, I got an epidural a few weeks later. I recovered and played my entire freshman year, even through pain in my back that even went down into my legs.

Going into my sophomore year I felt good, despite having some more shots in my back, coaching changes, and a mentally and physically straining freshman year. Made it through the summer, preseason, and a handful of games with some pain but it was bearable. I kept pushing, some may have thought I was crazy for playing aggressively and fighting through the pain. It all caught up to me during the Thanksgiving Tournament that we were in that year, I took a charge and felt like someone was stabbing me in the back. The pain shot down my legs, numbness in my left leg came back, and walking was a struggle. A couple of weeks later I got another epidural, this time, I came back quicker than I should have. I was tired of missing games, my coaches wanted me to stay home for some away games so that I wouldn’t miss class, and I didn’t want to feel dependent on others to function. I pushed through everything and came back by the end of January. This was ultimately a tragic decision. February 6, 2017, a nineteen-year-old sophomore on the Hartford Hawks Women’s Basketball Team, played her last game ever. I took a fall and could not get up without assistance. The pain was not only in my legs but also in my neck and my shoulder. I was confused, scared, and devastated, and that was just the beginning.

After numerous visits to doctors, surgeons, physical therapists, the ultimate decision was made. It was best for me not to play basketball anymore. The risks were too great, one bad fall and the numbness won’t go away. The look of fear on some of my teammates’ face when I take a hard fall won’t go away. My parents coming up to doctors’ appointments when they should be at work and taking care of my brother. My trainer seeing the constant frustration and pain, all had to end. I thought that if I didn’t play, there would be a sense of relief that I would feel. I have never been so wrong in my life.

My first two years of college were my hardest physically, my last two years were my hardest mentally. I didn’t know what to do with myself, I will still a member of the team, still with my best friends at every game, still had to go to study hall. Most of the responsibilities were still there, but the most important one was gone. I felt like a failure, I felt like I wasn’t at school for the right reasons anymore, the one thing that identified me since I was six years old was taken away from me because of a stupid injury. Taken away because in a human body, the back is one of the most important parts. The absence of playing left a huge hole in my personality. With all this emptiness, with all the loneliness, with all the struggles, I had to learn how to utilize the people around me every day.

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Since I was young I wasn’t very open with people, especially if the person is new to me and my life. I still considered my teammates a little new to my life, I was open with them but not as much as I needed to be at the time. Once I realized they actually did care for me and my well-being, and when I stopped trying to talk myself out of using them, there was a change. The struggles, challenges, and troubles were still there, but we were able to do things together to shift my focus off them, even if it was just temporary. I started to get more involved in our schools Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, I began to use what little power I had within me to make bigger changes.

By the time that I graduated in May of 2019, I was a member of the America East Conference SAAC, I wrote a story for the America East Conference website, I was in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four program, and I was able to receive my degree in psychology. I was able to hold workshops to bring awareness to domestic violence, I tried my best to create a safe climate on campus. I was able to be a vocal leader on and off the court. I am now currently an Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach for Mercy College, and I am a Teaching Assistant at an elementary school where I live. With the new journey ahead of me, one thing I took from Hartford, from my situation, from my problems, is to be an advocate for mental health. By being an advocate, I intend to do my best in being accepting, being empathetic, and being a person that people can trust and depend upon. I was able to accomplish that at school, and now I want to accomplish that everywhere I go!

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