In March of 2007, I was at the tail end of my first and only year as a member of the Huntsville Havoc, a minor professional ice hockey team based in Northern Alabama. I had enjoyed a successful college career, and I was proud to earn money as an athlete, living out a smaller version of my wildest childhood dreams.
In one of my last games, we were playing at home against our biggest rival, the Knoxville (TN) IceBears. They were first in the standings and notorious for their physical style of play. We were leading by two or three goals toward the end of the first period, and our fans were rocking.
Then, it happened. One of their players wrapped the puck around the boards. It skittered into open space. I planted my feet from my defensive position and bolted for the puck, determined to beat my man, collect it, and transition to offense. I was so focused on my job, I didn’t notice that Knoxville’s largest forward, #7 Rob Flynn, was going to reach the puck first. I couldn’t turn back. I had already committed. It’s one of the first rules that young defensemen are taught at hockey clinics: “If you pinch up, get the puck or hit the man. Both cannot get by you!” The rule was part of me. I couldn’t have ignored it even if I’d wanted to. I wasn’t going to get the puck, so I had to hit the man.
Flynn didn’t see me, either. His head was down, making sure he had full control of the puck. I bent my knees low as I charged toward him, reaching top speed. He turned up ice, lifting his head to find me blocking his path. I exploded up into him, my shoulder connecting dead center with his chest, a perfectly formed bodycheck. Flynn flew backward, his legs ending up above my head as he sailed to the ice with a grunt and a thud.
The crowd erupted into cheer. I was not known as a hitter. I was all speed and finesse and technical passing. The check on Flynn was by far the biggest I had ever thrown in my hockey-playing life. In fact, it surprised me. I had no idea that I could hit with such force.
The play soon ended up back in my defensive zone. I regrouped and poked the puck off their centerman’s stick and passed it up to my left wing when I caught a flash of blue and orange (Knoxville’s colors) in my peripheral vision. It was Rob Flynn’s giant gloved hand.
He grabbed me by the side of my helmet and gripped my whole head like it was nothing more than a basketball. He tugged me toward him the slightest bit before shoving with all his might, sending my head crashing against the Plexiglas that circled the rink. I bounced off and hit the ice, my vision flashing red and gray, my mind moving in and out of slow motion. I lay on the ice, disoriented. Flynn reached down and slammed my face against the cold sheet, laughing. I managed to get up and hobble to the bench for a line change.
I don’t know if I decided right then—struggling in pain on the bench in front seven thousand spectators, trying to hide my glassy eyes from the training staff—or not. But if it wasn’t right then, it was very soon after. I was done playing competitive ice hockey. It was time to give up on my childhood dream and start focusing on something else that was in my head. It was time for me to start writing.
After the head slamming, I was lucky. By the start of the next period, there was no glassy vision, no blurriness, no slow motion. I’d somehow avoided a concussion. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been so lucky in the past.
I’d spent most of my college years fighting memory and concentration issues. It began with the second hockey-related concussion of my freshman year and continued from there. I found myself struggling with class work for the first time. I couldn’t remember what I’d heard in lectures. I had to read and read and read, sometimes pouring over single paragraphs before I could move forward with the information. I needed to take naps in order to make it through my day, and I struggled to sleep at night, often waking up with headaches or bad dreams. I had to completely change the way I went about my life. It was frightening and maddening, but I managed to adjust and cope. Eventually, I figured out a routine and started excelling in school again.
When Rob Flynn slammed my head against the glass and smashed my face into the ice, all of those memories of my struggles came flooding back. I knew that I couldn’t afford to take any more hits to the head. I couldn’t go through that again.
When the season ended, I was hired by a private school to teach history and coach ice hockey. I knew I would be a good teacher. I knew I’d be able to reach the students and relate to them, but I also knew that without coaching, I wasn’t as attractive a candidate. My skill as a hockey player landed me the job over more experienced teachers.
I’ve enjoyed coaching hockey. I still have a passion for the sport, and I hope to stay involved with the game in the future. But I completely fell in love with teaching. Helping students learn and come into their own became addicting.
I was also writing with a purpose for the first time in my life. During a class in college, I’d learned how enjoyable writing could be and I was finally putting in the time at the computer, working through all of the stories that filled my head. Through teaching and writing (and not taking hits), my memory was also starting to come back. I no longer suffered from headaches, and I could finally enjoy and comprehend what I was reading again. It wasn’t a chore. I started devouring great books.
Writing soon took over most of my free time. It turned into something I needed to do for my peace of mind. My hockey life was fading into the background. It was writing that I wanted to move forward with. I knew that I needed to take the next step. I needed to learn about the craft. I applied to VCFA. It seemed like the perfect place for me to start a second life.
Which brings me to the present, MFA in hand, projects on the go. Ready to dig deeper. Ready to keep trying to find the roots of my characters and their authentic voices. My voice. Ready to keep moving forward with my second life, using my first as a quarry for my current and future writing projects.
And taking a moment like this to remember why I write, and to appreciate the fact that I get to.