A Dream Deferred: A dream deferred for high school athletes

The Island Now

By Andrew Malekoff

Competing in high school athletics meant everything to me during my teenage years growing up in New Jersey. I was a member of the football, wrestling and lacrosse teams. Participating gave me something to look forward to every season, year round. It kept me out of trouble after school and on weekends.

Each summer I would work out on my own, running miles and wind sprints. The summer season would culminate in two weeks of grueling “summer camp” as it is known. They call it camp, but it is no picnic. It consisted of three-a-day practices, weeks before anyone returned to school.

Summer camp is a rite of passage for many teenage boys, working out in the intense heat with full pads, one’s body becoming accustomed to jarring physical contact, banging into a variety of cloth-padded iron blocking sleds and what amounts to hand-to-hand combat with your teammates.

When we get together more than 50 years later, one of the favorite summer camp memories of my teammates was the time in 1966 when a particularly despised coach dared anyone to knock him off the two-man sled – a machine where the coach positions himself on the back of the sled by gripping two iron bars while, one by one, players “tackle” one of two large reinforced steel pads in the front of the sled.

If you get a good jump with a little momentum, you can lift the sled and coach off the ground.
Well, I was the guy at 15 years old who knocked that coach off the sled, onto the ground and flat on his ass. My friends laugh to this day retelling the story and the look on coach’s face.

Summer camp was days of chronic pain, when every inch of my body was sore. Lots of guys left the team in summer camp.

Emotionally, those were days filled with self-doubt and lessons to be learned about competition, cooperation, perseverance and resilience.

My teammates and I forged a special bond that has lasted a lifetime. We share memories that are indelible and generate instant recognition and lots of laughs, regardless of the passage of time.

All of this leads me to the challenges that today’s high school athletes are facing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic – seasons anticipated and then delayed or lost, as was the case for so many young people last spring.

For many senior year is when you reach the pinnacle of your physical prowess and athletic skill. It’s when you make your mark as a high school athlete.

Although it doesn’t always pan out precisely as you planned, it is the dream that keeps you motivated. For many, living in the context of the pandemic, it is a dream deferred.

When I try to put myself into their shoes, all I can conjure is devastation as disappointment is too mild an expression to adequately describe the feeling.

If you’re a high school athlete, I wish I could tell you more than hang in there, be hopeful and stay in shape.

For me, though, most memorable are not games or great moments on the field. They’re mostly about everything in between. It’s kind of like good music that one appreciates for the spaces between the sounds–-silent intervals–-as well as the sounds themselves.

What I remember best are my coaches, teammates, practices, bus rides, laughs, tears and, of course, summer camp.

I know there is no solace in my telling you how badly I feel for you. Nevertheless, having lived what feels like a long life, I can tell you that you will overcome this and you will bounce back and make your own memories about 2020, that fateful year of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Andrew Malekoff is a licensed clinical social worker in Long Beach and author of Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice (Guilford Press), now in its 3rd edition.

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