by Mike Sonntag, Co-Publisher
If you are a young athlete and have a passion for competing with your friends, you have probably heard the phrase “wait ‘til next year” after losing the final game of the season. Maybe you have been fortunate enough to be part of winning a team championship. If you have, never take that experience for granted!
Regardless of your experience, as a youth or teenager who has grown up playing sports in general, you are conditioned to think playing sports and competing will last forever. I know that’s how I felt 25 years ago.
I had the good fortune to play baseball through American Legion and football from fifth grade through college at the NCAA Division 3 level. I remember winning the title in fifth grade and again in sixth grade, both seasons going undefeated for the Redskins in the White Bear Lake Youth Football Association. Winning seemed easy and I recall thinking it would always be that way. Little did I know I would never again be part of a football team that would be the last team standing and celebrating a title with my best friends on the field or in the locker room.
My freshman year in high school the varsity team advanced to the state tournament the same year the Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1987. I cracked the varsity lineup as a sophomore and we lost in the section finals. My junior year we lost in the section semi-finals, and my senior year we got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. After we lost our final high school game, my teammates and I sat on the field for so long that they turned the lights off. We did not want it to end!
In college, my teams went 42-5-1 with three of the five losses coming in the NCAA Division 3 National Semi-Finals. I remember crying so hard on my dad’s shoulder following the last game of my college career because I was not going to celebrate a national championship with my best friends. There will always be “next year” right? Not for me. My playing career was officially over.
Then it happened. The next time I went to a football game I had to do the unthinkable… I had to buy a ticket. Make no mistake, I had bought tickets to plenty of Vikings and Gophers football games over the years. I’m talking about going to a game at a level I had played at before and instead of participating I had to buy a ticket to be there. There was no pre-game meal, thumb taping, stretching, or speech from a coach. I was 22 years old and I was done playing competitive sports.
I have now coached football at the youth and high school levels for the better part of the last 16 years, and aside from trying to teach how to block, tackle, learn life’s lessons, etc., I have made a point to convince kids and young men to play football and take advantage of every moment, because they can make a difference now. Parents now experience discussions and decisions with their young athletes whether or not to play this sport or that sport because they are considered better at one or like another sport better. I went through this with one of my sons. He played football, hockey, and baseball through the youth levels. He is a better athlete than I was at his age, but there was no illusion he had somehow inherited the gene that would lead him to a professional career. He was a nice hockey player and after freshman year had decided he was done with football to focus on hockey.
I know he had a hard time telling me of his decision, after all my name is Mike and I named my two sons Will and Sam. I was never going to make him do anything he didn’t want to do, but I did tell him this, “someday you WILL regret that decision and it will be too late to ever turn back the clock”. Fortunately for him, he changed his mind right before his sophomore high school season began and now he is still playing football now in his junior season of college.
What each young athlete needs to understand is eventually their only option to be part of football is to buy a ticket like the rest of us. The decision they made when they were too young to understand is eventually set in stone. I tell this every year to my players or friends of theirs who chose not to play football or another sport. I have seen a few eye rolls from a few of them over the years.
It is those same kids who have approached me five to seven years later thanking me and admitting I was right. I have yet to be approached by a former player saying how glad he is to be done or he has never once missed playing the game.
At 12, or 14, even 16 years old, your view of the world is too narrow to truly comprehend how your decisions made then will impact you later in life. If you just simply like football (or any sport) then I say play while you can and enjoy the experience. I have been buying tickets for over half my life and I have zero regrets!
Mike Sonntag is a former high school (Hill-Murray) and college (St. John’s University) football player. He currently is an assistant coach in high school and has coached at various levels the past 16 years. He resides in Lino Lakes with his wife. His two grown sons both are playing college football.