It was midsummer and Franklin Taylor ’19 was at a crossroads. Back home in Oak Park, an urban suburb of Chicago, Ill., he stared at the blinking cursor on his computer screen. It hovered over his email inbox, pointing to the question that had been needling him all summer long: would he don jersey number 86 in the fall?
Taylor is one of several student athletes at Bowdoin for whom the ultimate answer was no. He had been hit by a series of stomach problems earlier in the year—gastrointestinal complications that came after several arm and knee injuries in the earlier stages of his career on the men’s football team.
“I definitely felt lost after I stopped playing,” said Taylor. “Like I was losing a part of who I was, because that’s what I did at school … I was like, why am I not with the team? Why am I not on the field?”
At a college where as of 2016, 43 percent of the student body played a varsity sport, athletic culture is a palpable presence—if not most pointedly on the far right side of Thorne Dining Hall, it’s also felt on Pine Street with the construction of the new athletics facilities.
Athletes leave their sports for several reasons. Sometimes, they get injured; others become wary of team culture or coaching style. But no matter the impetus for leaving, choosing to quit a sport—for many a lifelong passion that far precedes college—is a singular decision that can either broaden one’s intellectual and social life at Bowdoin or leave students feeling stuck in a vacuum, scrambling for purpose.
“I had associated all my friends with the football team,” said Taylor. “It felt lonely for a while, because you’re not associated with the team—now you’re on your own.”
Taylor said he felt the absence most poignantly at mealtime, when teams often eat together following practice. It’s a tradition that defines most varsity sports, in and out of season, most days of the week: get out of class at 4:15, head to practice, shower, make it to the dining hall before it closes. Though team meals aren’t mandatory, meals are a communal activity that nonetheless function as one of the greatest determinants of social life at the College.
For Brooke Vahos ’21, a former member of the women’s volleyball team, grabbing meals with friends outside of volleyball during the off-season precipitated her first inkling that maybe the team wasn’t for her anymore.
“I felt like coming to Bowdoin was the main thing, and volleyball was just going to be this great extra part of it that I was still committed to but wasn’t going to be my whole life here or a defining part of my identity. And then it became that,” she said.
With team practices four days a week, speed drills and weight lifts approximately twice a week in the mornings, travel for away games on the weekends and team mixers every now and then, Vahos felt like being a team member often meant not doing much else extracurricularly. Since quitting, she’s become active with the Maine Democrats, Maine People’s Alliance and America Reads and Counts.
“I wanted to be involved in something that felt purposeful,” she added.
Such purpose can manifest in a multitude of ways; Taylor, for example, has taken to the arts as a staff photographer for student-run fashion publication Avant-Garb magazine; Vahos also writes satire for the Bowdoin Harpoon.
Timothy Bulens ’19, a former midfielder on the men’s lacrosse team, now fills his time with his duties as the head Residential Assistant of Harpswell Apartments and a teaching assistant for the German department. While it was anxiety and mental health issues that led him to leave the team, he still feels fondly towards his former teammates, who he describes as incredibly supportive and “most quality people.”
For Bulens, who is in his first semester off the team, the transition has been a time for both personal reflection and social transition.
“I really dreaded playing games. I didn’t really like going to practice, but it was such a huge part of who I was,” said Bulens. “And it took until my junior year where I had kind of come to the point where I was like … I don’t need to play lacrosse to approve of myself as a person. I thought, why am I doing this then?”
Bulens was lucky in that he had a group of friends outside of the team, friends who he felt he could count on in case things went south with the lacrosse team socially. But, he adds as gesture of thanks, they didn’t.
“I think there’s a lot of people who play sports in general who maybe won’t even let themselves entertain the idea of not playing,” he said. “Because they know that maybe deep down they don’t want to play, but they think there’s no other option because all of their social eggs are in the same basket.”
Anne Parrish ’19 was a walk-on to the women’s soccer team when she came to Bowdoin in the fall of 2015. Since leaving the team, Parrish has become more involved in water polo and comedy groups, Purity Pact and Improvabilities—activities that were previously sidelined.
“Soccer I’ve always had, I’ll always be able to play,” she said. “But I’ll never be able to like, stand up in Kresge or step on a stage probably [at] any other point in my life.”
Despite newfound passions, former athletes like Parrish, Taylor, Bulens and Vahos still find themselves reminiscing on glimmering moments of glory from time to time. They recall days spent on the field, court and locker room, endless hours spent with well-loved teammates and coaches, their most epic plays.
But for now, their lives indeed feel different, and divorcing sport from self can prove difficult.
“I feel like when I’m a senior, people are just going to be like, ‘Wait, you played volleyball?’” Vahos laughs.
It’s a reminder: of the strength it takes to change, and that the chasm between athlete and non-athlete can be quite a wide one to cross.