SIDELINE SLANTS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JOE KLEINSASSER
If my records are correct, seven years ago I invited myself to give my one and only commencement address to Marion County athletes, parents, coaches, friends and distinguished readers.

It’s time to deliver another unsolicited commencement address to all high school and college student-athletes in the county.

Without further adieu, here are my remarks to the class of 2006.

* * *

Education comes in many forms. Today, you are receiving a diploma for completing studies related to academics and, for that, you deserve congratulations.

But you’ve also learned a lot outside the classroom. If you stop and reflect on all your experiences in athletics, you’ll realize you’ve learned a lot about athletics and competition.

Was it worth it?

Much has been made about quarterback and former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart choosing to return for his senior season at Southern Cal. The Trojans lost an exciting national championship game to Texas, but the truth is, coming back to play football at USC probably cost Leinart at least $10 million.

Was it worth it?

Only Leinart really knows why he stayed in school, but one reason is that he has enjoyed the college experience. Before Leinart announced he would return for his senior season, analyst Mel Kiper, among others, tabbed him as the top pick for last year’s NFL draft. His stock actually slipped by staying in college and playing football.

Was it worth it?

It’s quite possible none of you will ever make a multimillion-dollar salary playing sports, much less lose $10 million. But you still spent countless hours learning how to use your God-given talent to the best of your ability.

You spent countless hours practicing with sweat dripping from your forehead as you wondered if you could take another step. But after a night’s rest, you went back to work, doing it all over again. And you repeated this step day after day after day.

Was it worth it?

Maybe you played for a coach who was a yeller and screamer. Maybe you spent more time getting chewed on than a piece of bubble gum.

Maybe you are one of those who saw more pine time than playing time, even though you worked as hard as anyone else. Perhaps you just weren’t blessed with as much physical size or talent as your teammates, or you were in a system that didn’t fit your style. Maybe you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe you were on a team that won championships. If so, congratulations. If that’s the case, remember that you are the exception, not the rule. Most athletes aren’t as fortunate.

Maybe you are one of those who never won a championship or even came close to winning a championship. Maybe you played on a team that lost far more games than it won.

Was it worth it?

I can identify with those athletes who never won a championship in high school or college, although I played on some competitive teams. I was fortunate to get a lot of playing time, but I also know what it’s like to sit on the bench. I had some good moments in athletics and many not-so-great moments. Time has healed some of the hurts. But one thing time hasn’t taken away are the great memories and friendships I still cherish today.

As I conclude, let me repeat what I shared with graduates back in 1999. It’s a lesson that stems from my humble experience in athletics.

As you enter the next phase of your life, keep dreaming, aim high. If you don’t reach your dreams, don’t fret. The journey is the best part of the trip.

Was it worth it?

Your answer in the long term is more likely to be yes if your athletic career was not at the expense of academics and other development.

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