Open Letter to a Freshman College Athlete

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Open Letter to a Freshman College Athlete

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Tommy Doles

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September 17, 2021

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I’m told it’s 2021 and you’re just getting started. First, congrats! It took a tremendous amount of hard work and dumb luck to get to where you are now, not to mention faithful investment from parents, coaches, teachers, teammates, and others in your community. 

You rose to the top of the food chain in high school, and are understandably nervous about your promotion to the bottom of a new one. So if the world hasn’t changed too much since I graduated in 2018, and I recognize the size of that “if,” I may have a couple of ideas for you to consider while you head to Target to populate a dorm room with all the cheap but classy trinkets you need to survive what just might be the best four years of your life. 

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS

As long as you can remember, people told you that college will be the best four years of your life. How much more so as a student-athlete! The glory days are in sight, and society was kind enough to tell you ahead of time so you wouldn’t miss them. 

But then, in a shocking turn of events, you’re six months into the fairytale and hate it! You miss home, school is hard, you’re not a starter, and your relationships feel shallow compared to the squad you took prom pictures with. You’re mostly just trying to fit in. 

What happened? Nothing unusual, really. Carry on, don’t transfer, and let’s check back in come springtime. 

I can’t promise that things will be great by spring, but if you’re armed with the knowledge that most everyone struggles with the adjustment, you won’t be surprised when you find something to loathe this fall! Stay the course, because the very reason things are tough at first is why they can become so fantastic down the road. 

Growth is a process. What’s more, relationships take time to form. They will be the product of hours upon hours of conversations and shared experiences. Of course things will be superficial and awkward at first! 

Take it one day at a time and look forward to the genuine friendships that will develop. Then, don’t be surprised when you look back and agree that college was the best four years of your life.

For me, Athletes in Action was the resource I needed to understand success from God’s perspective.

SOME THINGS MATTER MORE THAN OTHERS

Early morning weights are done and class doesn’t start until noon. Sunday rolls around and it’s up to you how to spend it. Now that you’re in college, you will have more control over your time than in the past. 

You’ll also be responsible for your own success. Those two ideas overlap in a very important way, because you will need to define what success looks like and then spend your time in ways that align with what you came up with. 

Overwhelmed and unsure you can figure that out on your own? You probably can’t. But, that’s actually one of the best parts about college. You’ll be around others asking the same questions and will have opportunities to explore what true success looks like. 

For me, Athletes in Action was the resource I needed to understand success from God’s perspective; it has something to do with loving God, loving people, and glorifying Him through your sport. As a community, we’d dig into these questions and strive towards success together. 

Please, don’t go it alone. Your coach and academic advisor will surely point you towards success from their perspective, and you’d do well to listen to them too. 

You’re going to make decisions about how to spend your time and energy, and some things matter more than others. Sometimes the decision will be easy: Do your homework or rob a convenience store? You figured that one out in high school. 

But what about when you could study, stretch, review the playbook, or get to know a teammate? Those calls will take wisdom, so it helps to have someone wise walking alongside you. I met weekly with an AIA campus pastor and grew tremendously because of it.

Standing on the other side, I can tell you I’ve yet to meet someone who wishes they spent more time playing video games in college.

If you have a relationship with Jesus, your identity and purpose in life are very clear. Live in light of this truth! If not, what better time to explore the claims of Christianity and what having a relationship with Jesus means?

“When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge.” ~From Ithaca, Constantine P. Cavafy 1911

DON'T BE IN A HURRY

“When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

pray that the road is long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.”

~From Ithaca, Constantine P. Cavafy 1911

Late afternoon sun flowed into the old University Hall auditorium when we looked at this poem in my classics class, July 2014. The parallels between Odyseus’ trip to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey and our’s to graduation day were hard to miss. A long road to a treasured destination, full of sights to see and monsters to slay. 

Pray that the road is long. You’re about to set off on an amazing journey, so don’t be in a hurry. Enjoy the gift of today and unless you’re filling out a planner or dreaming about careers, don’t get too caught up in tomorrow. 

Anyways, I’ll let you get back to your Target run. If you get nothing else out of this letter, don’t forget a memory foam mattress topper — that will make all the difference in your dorm!

Tommy Doles was an offensive lineman and captain of the 2018 Northwestern University football team. He graduated in 2019 with a political science degree and master’s in management studies. After graduation, Doles had a short stint in the NFL and overseas with the La Courneuve Flash. He just finished training as a Civil Affairs Specialist for the Army Reserve and resides in Tennessee with his wife, Bethany.

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