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The Emotions of Sports: The end of the game

One way or another, the careers of athletes and coaches at all levels come to a close

Posted: August 8, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 8, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Eric Olsson works in his office at Placerita Junior High School, where he has photos and mementos of a coaching career that included 14 years as the head coach of the Saugus boys varsity basketball team and eight years as the girls varsity coach.

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No one involved in sports knows when the day will come when they’ll have to wave goodbye to the world of competitive athletics.

At some point, it has to end.

In sports, more than any heartbreaking loss or excruciating injury, retiring can be the most painful experience one faces and the most difficult to accept.

“It’s disheartening because you want to keep playing,” says former Valencia High quarterback Michael Herrick. “You want to keep doing it and you want to be in that competition. You’ve been doing it your whole life since you were a little kid.”

Herrick holds the state high school record for career passing yards. He played four years at Northern Arizona University, where he continued to put up big numbers.

Now, Herrick’s college days are done, and he’s waiting for an NFL team to call.

The question is, how long will he wait by the phone?

“You never know when that happens,” Herrick says of the possible end of his career. “A lot of athletes don’t want to admit it. I don’t know if I want to admit it yet. I’m preparing if it is, but I’m also preparing if it isn’t.”

Unfortunately, no one is going to tell Herrick when it’s over. He’ll have to step away from the game that he’s played the majority of his life.

He’ll have to face the same situation Hart High graduate Taylor Lilley did just two months ago.

“Of course it hurts,” Lilley says. “It’s a bittersweet feeling really. It’s something I love to be around. I put a lot of sacrifice and time into it. It was a hard pill to swallow, but after I talked to my mom, then we moved forward.”

After illustrious basketball careers at Hart and the University of Oregon, Lilley spent the 2010 season as a member of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, seeing limited action.

On May 31, Lilley’s future as a player was put in serious doubt after she was cut from the team.

“It’s more a one-on-one talk between coach and I,” Lilley says. “I kind of had a feeling they were going to release me. I talked to (Mercury head coach) Corey (Gaines), I asked him what was going on in his mind. Obviously he was intending for me to be released.”

Shortly after that, Lilley decided to retire. It was a sudden ending to a long and successful career.

Lilley’s story is typical. She, like others, struggled to accept the reality of life after basketball.

Some wrestle with it so much, they can’t even stick with the idea of retirement — at least not at first.

Former Saugus basketball coach Eric Olsson headed the boys program for a total of 14 seasons and the girls program for eight. In 2003, Olsson resigned as girls basketball coach.

The following season, he accepted a coaching job for Clovis West High, where he won a CIF title in 2004. A year later, he was back at Saugus.

In 2007, he once again announced his retirement, but changed his mind 13 days later and returned to Saugus.

Finally, Olsson retired for good as a varsity coach following the 2008 season.

“For me, it was just time, because I realized after a while that a lot of people say they got out (of coaching) because of parents. They get out because of the time they’ve put in it,” Olsson says. “I didn’t think about any of that. For me, I got tired of going to bed and the last thing I think about is coaching. The first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning, you think about coaching.”

Though Olsson still coaches the JV girls tennis team at Hart, the transition away from the varsity basketball scene hasn’t been easy. Three years later, 80 pounds lighter and carrying far less stress, Olsson says he still feels tempted to get back into coaching from time to time.

“You miss the excitement,” he says. “You know what you really miss, you miss the anxiety, the knot in your stomach before a game. And believe it or not, this is going to sound crazy, you miss the anguish of losing. It’s that feeling that really levels you out.”

Ultimately, Olsson resists that temptation because he’d rather pursue other interests and hobbies in his life, including spending more time with his family.

At any level, sports can take up a lot of time. It can consume the lifetime of an athlete or coach.

An unexpected ending to a career can force athletes like Valencia graduate Rocky Maldonado to look at life in a different light.

In 2009, Maldonado injured his knee in the fifth game of the varsity football season, knocking him out for the rest of his senior year.

As a starting linebacker, he didn’t handle it well at first, knowing his days in a Vikings uniform were over.

“I was really down and out because I really wanted to be able to play and get out there on the field with my teammates and I just wanted to be able to continue to contribute in that way,” he says. “But I knew that I had some kind of leadership role on the team, so I couldn’t let them see me down. I couldn’t let my brothers down on the field.”

In Maldonado’s case, it wasn’t completely the end. He now plays at Occidental College, where he is now a sophomore.
It isn’t the end for Maldonado yet, but his perspective has changed.

“My life is not going to be defined by football and it’s not going to be defined by my achievements in football,” Maldonado says. “It’s going to be defined by a lot of other things that I’m going to do to contribute to society and make the world a better place.”

His career isn’t over yet. But some day, he’ll have to make the same decision every athlete makes at some point. He’ll have to figure out how to move on just like anyone else.

“Life is not over,” Herrick says. “Football isn’t everything. There are other great things in life.”

For most, the desire never goes away. The same thing that makes someone want to start playing sports can stay with them forever, but the physical and emotional stress is too much to handle for a lifetime.

In the toughest times, sports figures can take solace in the fact that there is life outside of the athletic world. There is a life after sports.

Signal Sports Editor Cary Osborne contributed to this story.

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