“Joseph, this is Coach Grady from Swarthmore College, and I actually just watched your highlight video, and I was impressed by it. I’d like to see you live as soon as possible, and we actually have a recruiting one-day clinic this weekend. That would be awesome if you could attend. If not, we have a couple other opportunities coming up. But, give me a call back at your earliest convenience. My number is …. Hope all is well, and you have a great night.”
On March 23, 2016 at 7:17 p.m., I received this 35 second voicemail that I still have to this day. This 35 second voicemail set into motion a flurry of events that landed me at Swarthmore. Twenty minutes later, I was learning about Swarthmore for the first time on a phone call with the coach who had called me. Within a week, I was touring Swarthmore and speaking with the men’s soccer program’s head coach, Eric Wagner. A couple of months later, I played in a summer clinic on Swarthmore’s campus and was given the green light to apply to the college early decision as a recruited athlete. A few more months later, and just about five years to this day, I was accepted to Swarthmore and officially started my Division III athletic journey.
Division III college athletics are odd. In many ways, they mean absolutely nothing. Nearly every student-athlete competing at Swarthmore has no expectations to further their career past college and likely had a similar mindset to mine as a high school student: to use their athletic ability to supplement their college application and gain admission into a highly selective school.
However, in many other ways, Division III college athletics can mean a whole lot to some people, and I definitely would consider myself part of that cohort. Despite telling friends and family that I would not care about how my soccer career progressed once I was admitted to Swarthmore, it did not take long for me to become invested in the program that I had become a part of. On the very first day of my first Swarthmore soccer preseason, I stood on the track, anxiously awaiting the sound of a whistle to start running the team’s 6 A.M. fitness test. As soon as that whistle sounded, my heart raced, my breathing quickened; the “not caring” approach I had sworn to adopt became forgotten.
In hindsight, my mentality towards college soccer should have been obvious to me. Soccer was the thing for me throughout my entire childhood. I was never going to simply cease caring about it because I knew that my college schoolwork would be more important in the long run. So, care I did, and as many artists, academics, athletes, activists, etc. know, when you care about your craft, it becomes all-consuming. Your triumphs are elating, euphoric even, and your defeats are devastating. Four years of Swarthmore soccer saw my pendulum swing in both directions.
My first three years at Swarthmore, all pre-COVID, progressed nicely from a soccer perspective. I improved each season and so did my team, culminating in a great year in 2019. In many ways, ending on such a bittersweet note in 2019, losing in the NCAA Sweet 16 at home vs. Connecticut College only made me that much more excited for my senior season. However, my plans were stalled when the pandemic started and I, like everyone else, was flung into a world where all our futures became uncertain. When the time came for me to decide whether or not I would attend Swarthmore in the fall of 2020, I was faced with a tough decision: push on and graduate or take a year off in the hopes of returning to a relatively normal experience in 2021. In the end, a variety of factors led to me taking a gap year, but the primary driving force was my desire to play one last season of competitive soccer, not just in my Swarthmore career, but my overall career.
Throughout my gap year, I, along with several of my Swarthmore teammates living in the Philadelphia area, played on a men’s soccer team in West Chester, PA. Several nights a week, we would make a forty-minute commute to West Chester to play with some top Division III and Division I players. While we often returned back to Philadelphia late in the evening, we knew there was no better place for us to prepare for the upcoming season in 2021. It was a bit of a baptism by fire at first, with the Division I players playing at a pace none of us were accustomed to, but with time, my teammates and I caught up to the level and improved drastically. We were as ready as ever for the 2021 season.
This year started off exactly how I wanted it to. For the first time in my life, I was elected captain of a team. In our first game, I scored the game-winning goal with fifteen seconds remaining and shared an amazing celebration with my teammates, five of which being seniors who, like me, had put their lives on hold to come back and play one final season with the program.
Better moments followed, and it was clear that my gap year spent training hard was paying dividends. I felt that I was putting in the best performances of my life throughout the beginning of the season, culminating in a 2-1 comeback win over Gettysburg in which I had scored both goals. I felt confident, fast, and sharp. I was finally becoming the player I had always wanted to be.
Of course, life doesn’t like to play fair. Through illness and injury, I missed our next three games. Disappointed to miss three games of a season, something I had never done before, I worked hard to come back quickly from my injury. I stepped out on the field on October 9th against Muhlenberg College for what was supposed to be my glorious return to the field. Twenty minutes into the game, I got beat by a defender and turned to win the ball back. I planted my foot in the ground and felt my right knee twist and pop. The pain was immediate in my knee and I knew I was in trouble. Two weeks later, an MRI showed a torn ACL, effectively ending my soccer career.
Processing this injury, which essentially robbed me of a month and a half of soccer that I had envisioned to be the best of my career, is taking time. Imagine working very, very hard at a skill for a long period of time, becoming the best at it you’ve ever been, and then the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of your labor gets taken away from you. It may sound dramatic, but that’s what my experience with this injury has been like, especially because in sports, athletes are often conditioned to be results-driven. Wins, losses, goals, assists, trophies: these are all numbers that can define a player’s career. Shaking that mentality and finding meaning in a career where I never achieved my biggest goals has been a process.
However, finding silver linings is a skill that everyone should hone in life and, frankly, there are many that I do see when I look back on my career. Soccer paved the way for me to come to an institution where I’ve met some of the best people I’ll ever meet. It has given me memories that I’ll cherish forever, more than any trophy or individual accolade. And, as the very same coach who left me that voicemail setting me on the path to Swarthmore recently said to me over the phone, “How many people can truly say they’ve become the best version of themselves in something? You’ve learned what that process is like and you’ve felt the feeling of being at the top of your game. Be grateful for that. Now go be the best version of yourself in something else.”
Not bad for a silver lining.