Few authors have captured the beauty and complexity of competing as a student-athlete as eloquently as the late Pat Conroy, a 1967 graduate from the Citadel Military College of South Carolina and the captain of the 1966-1967 Citadel basketball team. The rhythmic and majestic story told in Conroy’s memoir My Losing Season feels impossible to describe, and any words that I use will fail to capture the intensity of his award-winning book. Nevertheless, I will try. Conroy would.
I was 11 years-old when I first listened Chuck Montgomery read Conroy’s memoir My Losing Season on audiobook, and from that first sentence of “I was born to be a point guard,” until the one of the last sentiments in the book – “I love my teammates and I never told them” – I felt myself gripped by the story of the young basketball player.
Conroy’s book details his senior year at The Citadel, and he shares the raw stories of hazing rituals he experienced as a student, and the ups and downs he encountered as a basketball player on a team plagued by loss. His book, however, is far more about life than basketball, and far more about character than about sports.
In many ways, Conroy’s story bears no resemblance to my own. He grew up with an abusive feather, I grew up with an incredibly loving and supportive family – the perfect sports parents. Conroy moved dozens of times in his childhood as a military kid, I lived in the same house for 18 years. Conroy played for an aggressive coach who degraded him at every turn, I swam for a coach who valued my opinion and gave me the platform to be a leader. Yet, despite what seems like differences incapable of common ground, Conroy and I shared the love for sports, the exhilaration of pushing yourself towards pure exhaustion and the passion for competing for our colleges.
I found myself connecting with the young southern protagonist in the story as I listened to his journey, and I became inspired by him; a kid whose passion for sports drove his identity and his toughness. I rooted for the boy who “longed to be the greatest point guard who ever played the game,” and I felt his pride and joy when he stepped on the court as the captain of his Citadel team for the first time, and shook hands with Auburn’s great Bobby Buisson.
Despite a basketball career that Conroy describes as “trainwrecked by mediocrity,” the Citadel athlete found his voice, and his use of the English language prompted me in my own literary journey. I wrote a review of My Losing Season for my high school newspaper about six years ago, again struggling to find the words to describe the book, but desperate to share the importance of this story. Since then, the book has not faded in importance one bit. In fact, My Losing Season became only more relevant to me, as I embarked on my own senior season of college athletics.
On February 18, 2017, just over a decade after I first heard Conroy’s words on audiobook, I took my last stroke as Division I college swimmer. Depleted of all energy, emotional and physically spent, I looked up at the scoreboard the Bucknell University and saw what would be my last collegiate mile time ever. It was over. My NCAA student-athlete career had come to an end.
The result wasn’t going to send me to the Olympics, in fact, I didn’t even score a point for my team with my swim. But that didn’t matter. I knew I was in love with my sport, with my teammates and with my school. And, as Conroy said: “Though it was a long process, I learned to value myself for what I accomplished in a sport where I was overmatched and out of my league.”
While my own senior year brought far more positive moments than the one Conroy detailed in My Losing Season, his message about the value of college athletics and the ability of sport to help athletes find their voice is a principle that sticks with me. Conroy’s book emphasizes the idea that the spirit of athletics is not captured by the wins or the losses; it’s not captured by the successes or the failures.
College athletics is about wearing the name of your school on your jersey, of walking across campus as a representative and ambassador of the institution that educates you and helps you grow. These sentiments may seem cliche, but when Conroy expresses them in My Losing Season, they don’t like overused expressions, they feel like fresh ideas, ready to inspire the next generation of committed collegiate athletes.
Conroy’s book My Losing Season contains the deep and meaningful story of a young boy finding himself through sport, and it’s a book written for more than just those who connect with the character. Conroy wrote My Losing Season for the passionate athlete, the fan and the observer. He wrote for the person who is striving towards something, who falls down before getting back up and who chases a goal they may never achieve.
He wrote for the person who “never once approached greatness … but was always in the game.” Conroy wrote a book layered with much more darkness than my own athletics career, but he wrote a book that inspired me as an athlete, as a writer and as a human being.
And he wrote a book that will remain one of the most important pieces of writing I have ever read.