Back in the day, I played football. I spent nine years of my life playing, by my count, and at nearly every turn I was smaller, slower, and weaker than almost everyone I lined up against. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, really—Chapel Hill has been basketball country for a long time. I had heart, though, and I cared a lot. I gave everything I could, and as is often the case for kids who are at a physical disadvantage in the violent game of football, I wound up hurt. Often.
I began to collect concussions, one after another, at a rate that eventually led to my being forbidden to play contact sports. That hurt was a different kind. The realization that I would never again get to play the sport I had loved for the majority of my life stung long after the headaches and memory quirks had faded.
Let’s be honest: no kid ever wants to hear that they can’t do something they love to do, even if the reason is perfectly valid. Losing that outlet I had always depended on, every fall since the Pee-Wee days, was a struggle for me. I was adrift for a while, trying to fill that oblong-shaped void in my life in any way I was able. Eventually, almost by accident, I rediscovered my passion for words and began to write, finding a more passive but no less potent form of catharsis.
Instead of taking the field on Friday nights, I began to take the ideas I hadn’t known were swimming around in my battered head and lay them out on paper. The joy I discovered as an indirect result of my hurt persists to this day, and has helped me to grow in ways the hurting eighteen-year-old couldn’t have imagined.
My hurt was never high-stakes, really; I realize that. I was never going to play at the next level, nor did I have any aspirations for any type of post-season. On the other hand, look at last season’s men’s basketball team. Injuries sprang up time and again, repeatedly derailing any shred of hope Tar Heels fans thought they had found. Anthony Harris, for example, saw a promising start to a freshman season be ended prematurely before a global pandemic ended everyone’s season early.
Cole Anthony, the one-and-done star, went down in the middle of the season with a knee injury, and then risked a sizable paycheck by taking the floor again 11 games later. Brandon Robinson missed games thanks to ankle injuries and a car accident, but was still able to gut it out when the Tar Heels really needed a leader.
In some small way, on a much smaller scale, I know the hurt. I know how bad it is to have a season ended on anything other than your own terms, like Harris. For Cole Anthony, the physical hurt must have been easier to bear than the hurt of not playing the game he loves. For Robinson, the hurt was just one more way to lead by example.
Sometimes, the hurt can be a good thing. Sure, you can try to ignore the hurt, and play through it, but eventually something’s got to give. It’s when you accept the hurting, and use it to grow, that really wonderful things happen. I lost a game I had loved to play since I could walk, yes, but I found another, far more constructive outlet.
Anthony Harris lost his freshman season, sure, but he’s now got a very long offseason to heal and get acclimated to the top-level college game, and has an opportunity come back even better than before. Cole Anthony was knocked out for 11 games, but didn’t let the hurt or the talking heads convince him to stay out, and showed NBA scouts a lot of what he was capable of. Brandon Robinson spent what seemed like his entire senior campaign hurt, but he kept coming back and dropped 18 points on his Senior Night, breaking out of a shooting slump and leading his Tar Heels to one last win in the Dean Dome.
I think we’re all hurting right now, hurting like hell. I’m not going to go any further into it, because mine isn’t a voice that needs to be heard at the moment. All I’m going to say is this: we have an opportunity to take this hurt, to sit in it and live with it and listen, so that we may learn from it. Only then can we begin to grow. With a lot of hard work, we can make sure this hurt isn’t for nothing. We can come back better than we were.
There are some types of hurt you can’t play through. Sometimes, that’s a good thing.