Goodbye to the Game

By
Updated: April 20, 2017

Rob Pannullo is a senior at Cornell in the ILR School. At Cornell, he served as a four-year starter at quarterback on the varsity sprint football team. On the varsity baseball team, Pannullo has thrown for two years as a relief pitcher. After graduation, he will be attending law school, where he looks to prepare himself for a career in sports labor law.

For as long as I can remember, it has been my dream to jump into a massive dog pile in the middle of the field, celebrating a hard-earned championship. So much time and effort spent working toward that goal with hundreds of teammates, and I’ve seen it done so many times. However, I have never been a part of one myself.

That goal may seem insignificant to people who think sports are just a game, but anyone who has invested a great deal into their craft will tell you that sports represent much more. To me, sports are part of my identity — an integral piece of my existence that will soon become a collection of memories to nostalgically reminisce upon after graduation. As I quickly approach the end of my athletic career, I’ve begun to take some time to reflect on what the sports to which I’ve dedicated a substantial portion of my life mean to me.

When I think about those experiences, I like to think about the often-overlooked details that make them special. Those subtleties, like the simple sights and sounds, are some of the things that I’ll miss most after the last pitch is thrown. From the laughs in the locker room, to pushing out the last rep at a 6 AM workout, to a bat crisply squaring up a baseball, or to our friends and families proudly cheering us on from the stands, I realize that the sounds that are so prevalent today will soon be replaced by silence tomorrow. No more locker room banter, no more chatter from the dugout, and no more vibrations from a blindside hit in football. Silence.

I’ve also come to appreciate other minor aspects of sports. Former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton once noted, “A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and, in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

I now realize how true this statement is. Whether it’s been working on throwing different pitches in baseball or adjusting the grip of a football, such a large portion of my life has been spent attempting to perfect small details to advance myself as an athlete. Ultimately, the reality is that these sports have been gripping me the whole time.

That’s why I’d say Jim Bouton’s observation is an accurate depiction of my career as an athlete. When you’re so zoned in, it’s easy to look past the specific nuances that make the game special. The time you devote to mastering the intricacies eventually begins to shape who you are. In a sense, all of that time you spent learning how to grip a ball was really just that sport gripping you and carrying you along for an unforgettable journey.

However, that journey is different for everyone. Yet, through the ups and downs of this experience, the game doesn’t change. The same amount of people are on the field, the ball is the same size, and the rules are the same. You have changed though. You’ve grown so much since you began playing the sports that you love, and you can’t help but credit part of that growth to your experiences on the field or in the locker room.

But, that growth is wasted if you don’t learn from the lessons that are in front of you. As someone who has had two very different roles in the sports that I play here, one thing I’ve learned about is the importance of perspective. On the sprint football team, I was a four-year starter and a team captain. In baseball, I made the team as a walk-on during my junior year. I previously failed to earn a spot on the roster as a freshman, and I am now proud to contribute in any way the team needs.

I realize that those roles carry vastly different responsibilities. Being a star player on one team and being one of the last players off the bench on the other team has given me a totally new perspective on sports — a view for which I am endlessly grateful. For that reason, I want to lend some advice to the athletes who will continue to represent Cornell on and off the field.

To the star player — appreciate your role and don’t take it lightly. Your teammates work every day to be the player you are, and they look up to you, so set a strong example, and be a good leader.

To the athlete whose role resembles mine in baseball — don’t give up. One of the special things about sports is that they prepare us for real-life situations. It isn’t always easy waking up at 5:30 AM to workout after spending a late night in the library, knowing that you will only sit on the bench for the whole game that weekend. But, the discipline you develop every day as you work toward a goal will serve you well for the rest of your life. Whenever you have doubts about continuing, just think about why you started playing the game in the first place and how much fun you had when you did. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control because your time will eventually come.

To everyone, including the last man off the bench and the star player, my advice is to be the best teammate possible because when it is all said and done, the individual statistics you compile don’t matter. The relationships that you build and the team accomplishments that you reach will last a lifetime. Sometimes, it is just as important to be a good follower as it is to be a good leader.

Personally, I’ve learned a great deal about myself over the last four years. I’ve gone through the highs of helping my teams win games as well as the lows of throwing a game-losing interception and battling back from a torn ACL and a fracture in my neck. Yet, through those ups and downs, I’ve learned invaluable lessons about how to deal with both heartwarming success and gut-wrenching failure, all while creating some unforgettable memories with my teammates in the process. While it’s been frustrating to see that my body isn’t capable of doing the things it once was, I’ve learned that I can contribute in other ways. You don’t need to be the best on the team, but you need to be the best for the team to help achieve a common goal.

So, as I begin to say my final goodbye to the games that I love, I’m trying to take it all in stride. I’m realizing how thankful I am for all of the people who helped me to get to where I am today — from my unbelievably supportive family, to all of my coaches, trainers, rehab therapists, teammates, and friends. Sports have given me so much in my life, and I’m just trying to pay them back by giving them all I can in return.

But, for now, all I’m focused on is doing whatever I can to help us get to that dog pile.

 

 

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