The darker side of sports: Career-ending athletic injuries and adjusting to life afterward

Spencer Sheff CM ’20, Dawson Reckers CM ’21 and Margot Mafra Spencer SC ’21. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Margot Mafra Spencer SC ’21 was playing defense in the back row of a preseason Claremont-Mudd-Scripps volleyball practice last year when she was hit in the head by a ball.

Her mobility was limited due to a recent back injury, and she didn’t have time to adjust to the slightly high hit. 

The ball smacked her right temple instead of her forearms, whipping her head around and causing her to fall and black out for a few seconds.

“I knew that I had a concussion immediately, but I didn’t tell anyone. I sat out for one play, then told the team I was fine to play and continued in the drill,” Mafra Spencer said. “I immediately got hit in the head again. Then I knew I was definitely concussed.”

She continued to play for the next few days until the pain became unbearable. She tried sitting out for a month. 

But it wasn’t enough. The injury eventually ended her volleyball career.

The concussion affected everything about me: my personality and my mood, I had panic disorder, severe depression and anxiety,” Mafra Spencer said. “I was color blind, had a stutter, I had difficulty writing and reading and was cognitively functioning at the level of a 7-year-old.”

Though it doesn’t happen often, some student athletes at the 5Cs have sustained career-ending injuries. They recall the initial feeling after a serious injury as surreal and described the difficult process of leaving the sport they love.

In May 2016, while playing football at West Point, Spencer Sheff CM ’20 tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Sheff said. “I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because it had been something I had worked for my whole life, going and playing DI football, so to have that taken away from me hurt. … When it happened, it just didn’t seem real.”

After taking a year off from school to work and rehabilitate, he transferred to Claremont McKenna College. 

At the beginning of his junior year at CMC, Sheff, a running back, re-tore his ACL as well as other muscles in the knee, including his meniscus and lateral collateral ligament. A “dime-sized portion” of his cartilage was missing.

“The second time I tore it, it was almost like a joke,” Sheff said. “It’s like you put so much into coming back from something like that — it was a year-long process that I took to come back … and I tore it again and it was just like, the world is a cruel place.”

That second injury effectively ended his football career.

Dawson Reckers CM ’21, a transfer student who used to run cross-country for Pomona-Pitzer, also saw his NCAA career come to an early end.

Between his junior and senior years of high school, the former Sagehen broke his femur while playing trampoline basketball with friends.

“At first, I didn’t really think too much of it,” said Reckers, also a former track athlete. “I broke it, and it was very painful, but I had also had other injuries that were fairly painful.”

Reckers began running again before his femur completely healed. One day, while on a run during his first year of collegiate competition, his femur moved again slightly, effectively re-injuring it and putting a permanent end to his running career.

“When I felt my femur shift a second time, I knew that I couldn’t be running even at the limited capacity I was operating at then, which made it career-ending because I no longer would be able to participate in the sport to any meaningful degree,” he said.

For all these athletes, coming to terms with their injuries wasn’t easy.

Immediately following his first ACL tear, Sheff thought it was “the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.”

“[Football] was the most important thing in my life, if I’m being completely honest,” he said. “The only reason I got good grades was because my mom told me that if I wanted to play football, I had to have a 4.0, so I got a 4.0. I always wanted to play big-time football.”

Reckers said it’s taken him about two years to fully accept that he will never run competitively again.

“It’s always hard when you’re taken away from a sport or activity that you really love,” he said.

Mafra Spencer said volleyball had played a key role in her life for a decade.

“I love the intensity and speed of the game,” she said. “There has been a lot of change in my life, but volleyball has consistently been an escape from the challenges.”

But there’s life after sport — and all three athletes eventually found a silver lining.

When her symptoms were the worst, Mafra Spencer said she was bed-ridden up to 20 hours a day with nausea, migraines and fatigue. She took the spring 2019 semester off to recover, and said she’s now almost back to normal.

I miss volleyball a lot, of course, but this journey has taught me that there is much more to me and my life than volleyball,” she said.

Mafra Spencer said the recovery process changed her in many ways.

“The healing process has been unbelievably challenging yet so rewarding,” she said. “I see life in a completely different way now. I am grateful for being able to have conversations without a stutter and to see colors again. This injury forced incredible life lessons on me, and although it was extremely challenging, I could not be more grateful for everything that I have learned.”

Mafra Spencer now spends her time doing newspaper design for TSL’s opinions section, participating in her sculpture and playground games classes and focusing on her health.

Sheff said he’s grateful the trajectory of his first injury brought him to CMC and “allowed him to see a side of life he had never seen before.” He said he spent his year off loading UPS trucks during the graveyard shift, cleaning horse stalls and working at a batting cage. 

After Sheff’s second injury ended his football career, he got into weightlifting and had more time for reading, video games and schoolwork.

Not running cross-country and track has given Reckers more time to meet with professors, participate in the Pomona Consulting Group and study, he said.

Sheff and Reckers said having the right attitude was key to overcoming their injuries, both emotionally and mentally.

“If you know that you may be coming back in the future, you need to be motivated enough to be willing to work hard,” Reckers said. “It’s a big initial investment to get back where you were fitness-wise and skill-wise.”

But, he said, if you know you’re not going to be able to do the sport again, there needs to be some level of acceptance.

“Dwelling on it, for me, has never been a positive thing,” he said.

Sheff agreed that focusing on past mistakes is not productive.

“Don’t think so much about what you could’ve done,” he said. “Look back on the times when you played sports and just appreciate all the memories you have.”

Editor’s note: Margot Mafra Spencer SC ’21 is TSL’s opinions design editor.

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