Not all softball success defined by wins, losses
After battling concussion-related problems for three years, Jackie Teman finally returned to UMass' roster for her senior year.
The world don't owe me nothing
Even though I'm on my knees
Not the things I took for granted
Not the things I thought I got for free
But I will lay down my troubles on the ground in front of you
And play, let me play just one more song
That's my rescue
-- "World Don't Owe Me," Catie Curtis
AMHERST, Mass. -- Jackie Teman's college career came to a quiet close on Sunday when the University of Massachusetts lost to the University of Oklahoma in the Amherst Regional, eliminating the Minutewomen from the NCAA Tournament.
But even as a look at the pairing for the super regionals confirms the reality that victory is the inflexible absolute by which sports are measured, Teman's story ought to remind all involved that success is relative.
There will be plenty of opportunities in the next two weeks for players and coaches to explain that the key to winning is wanting "it" more. But after enduring three years of post-concussion neurological problems that took away the game she loves, she accepted a medical hardship scholarship in place of her athletic scholarship after hearing she'd never play again. Yet Teman eventually gave up that financial security -- paying her own way for her senior season -- to take one more shot at stepping on the field. It seems difficult to argue that anyone wanted anything more than Teman wanted a chance to play the game again.
"It was everything," Teman said of softball's role in her life. "Softball to me, it was a passion; it was a release from stress. In a way, it's what defines me. I feel like I'm a somewhat shy person, so when I got out on the field, I just let loose and that was me showing people my personality and who I really was. So it was pretty hard to deal with when it wasn't my way of showing people who I was, when it was lost."
Coming out of Downingtown, Pa. four years ago, Teman was a typical Division I recruit. Three times a first-team, all-conference shortstop in high school, she was a talented player who had her sights set on claiming a starting role for a top-tier program at Massachusetts. She might never have been a star on the national stage, but she had the potential to build the same kind of locally familiar career Kristi Stefanoni enjoyed as a three-year starter at second base for the Minutewomen.
A year ahead of Teman, Stefanoni has known the younger player since she was 16. It was Stefanoni who offered assurances that a program like Massachusetts would be a good fit and who roomed with Teman during the latter's second difficult year on campus. Now in her first year as Director of Softball Operations in Amherst, she is the one person who knows best what was taken away, who saw Teman when she was just another shortstop with good range and a solid bat. So it carries extra weight to hear her describe how little everything that happened changed Teman.
"Jackie is an amazing person off the field," Stefanoni said. "She's very generous, she's giving, she's warm-hearted. She's someone you'd want to go to if you felt like you needed to talk to somebody. She would drop everything and anything for you."
Teman's the kind of person who wouldn't want to be late for a friend's graduation party.
Running late for a celebratory party after returning from a softball tournament soon after high school graduation, Teman slipped on a wet spot at home and hit her head on the floor. She continued on to the party, having hit her head any number of times in any number of situations as an athlete growing up, but felt more irritable and out of sorts than normal throughout the night. Initially she chalked it up to the travel and stress of the softball tournament, but over the course of the next few days, she began to feel frequently nauseous and dizzy and suffered from headaches and lethargy.
Unsure exactly what was wrong, she quickly returned to the softball field, long her anchor. But after a deflection off the third baseman on a grounder during a subsequent game, her cleats gave way when she tried to quickly reverse direction at shortstop and make a play on the ricocheting ball. Her head hit the ground hard, and in the coming days, the symptoms that began after the initial fall only got worse.
Later in the summer, playing her third game of the day at another tournament, things finally reached a breaking point.
"I remember just all of a sudden snapping to, and just standing out at shortstop and looking in at our pitcher," Teman said. "She was getting ready to pitch and I was like, 'Wow, I'm in the middle of a game right now and I have no clue what's going on.'"
Admitting the incident scared her, she stopped playing for the remainder of the summer. But once fall practice began for the Minutewomen, she tried to regain her figurative equilibrium the only way she knew how.
"I practiced for three practices, but after those practices I would go back to the room and just sit there and my head would just kill me," Teman said. "It was pretty miserable."
After consulting with the team medical staff, Teman once again shut things down in hopes rest would help her recover. But weeks dragged into months and her freshman season came and went without progress. Doctor after doctor examined Teman with little to show for all the time she spent in waiting rooms.
As the recent debate over reports positing a possible link between neurological damage and the suicide of former NFL player Andre Waters suggests, head injuries remain an explored but untamed wilderness of medical knowledge. Months dragged into years and Teman's sophomore season came and went with no resolution. Finally, before her junior season, she was told she would never play again and granted a medical scholarship that freed up her athletic scholarship.
"I think she had to convince herself, in a way, just to deal with it," Stefanoni recalled. "It wasn't over over in her head, but she had to physically stop doing it if she wanted to get better. If she wanted to do normal things, if she wanted to continue going to school -- she could only take a certain number of classes -- to sleep at night, to live, she had to stop doing it. So she had to kind of make the decision what was more important."
But while Teman accepted the reality of the situation -- she said she even convinced herself for a few weeks that she really was done -- she found the spark to play still inside her. And even as she remained a part of the team from the sideline, cheering on teammates and remaining always a positive voice, she quietly began to plot one final attempt at a comeback.
Buoyed at long last by positive medical reports, the player approached Sortino last summer with the idea of trying to play her senior season. Although Teman said her coach offered plenty of cautions, she didn't shut the door on the idea. The biggest problem, beyond the medical clearance that finally came and the rustiness that she worked hard to eradicate, was that Teman's medical scholarship meant she would have to pay her own way if she wanted to play again.
"That was probably the hardest part of making this decision, was giving up the scholarship," Teman said. "Financially, asking my parents, that's a big investment for them. But my mom and my dad were both like, 'You know what, this is what you've gone there to do, this is what you want to do and we can make it work. If you're able to do it, do it.'"
And so four years after struggling through the blur of her first aborted attempt at playing college softball, paying her own way as a walk-on reserve, Teman took the field for a scrimmage on the first day of practice last fall.
"I can't explain how great that felt, just to be on the field again," Teman said. "Before the scrimmage, [assistant coach Jessica Merchant] came in and she hit us a few grounders and everything, and that in itself felt amazing. Just getting dirty, getting scraped up, it felt awesome. It's stuff that you miss that you don't think about."
Looking at her line in the stat book, it's hard not to think of the character Archibald Graham in the movie "Field of Dreams." Based loosely on a real-life player of the same name, the movie version gets the at-bat that never came in the majors during a scrimmage on the field cut out of the Iowa corn. In the movie, he hits a sac fly, but Teman didn't stop there. In her first at-bat during the fall intrasquad scrimmage, she hit a home run.
"Stepping up to the plate, all I was thinking was just hit the ball, you're not trying to do big things here just coming back," Teman said. "I hit the ball, and I knew I got a good piece of it, but I didn't think it went over, so I was running the bases and all of sudden I hear everybody start cheering and they're going nuts, and I look up and it's over the fence."
The headaches still come occasionally. She learned to pull herself out of practice on the few occasions they acted up during the season, but they were nothing like the nightmares that all but erased her memories of that first year on campus. And while a lot of players secretly might wish for a free pass out of an occasional practice, Teman didn't want to miss a second longer than necessary. Even once it became clear her role would be that of a pinch runner -- albeit one talented enough to have an impact on more than a few games -- she never stopped loving the drills, workouts and chores that were mundane to most.
"They always say go out and play every day like it's your last, and especially now, I'm looking at it like these are your last couple of chances to get dirty," Teman said the day before Massachusetts opened the postseason. "Every day I love going out. Even when I'm tired, it's just like you're going out there, you're fielding balls, you're hitting balls, and it's something you haven't been able to do for the last three years."
There will be a lot of tears shed by seniors between now and the final out of the last game of the Women's College World Series, but most eventually will realize that while endings are always bittersweet, their four years were worth a painful farewell. Perhaps surprisingly, that's exactly Teman's take on her four years as a college softball player.
"As tough as the past three years have been, I really don't think I would have changed any of it," Teman said. "Would I have loved to play the last three years? Absolutely. But the things I've learned from my teammates, from my coaches and just from myself over the last three years, I wouldn't change it one bit. And if I wouldn't have been able to get out there this year, then so be it. I still would have had the same support group, I still would have been a part of this team, going through experiences that I can't explain."
Softball doesn't define Jackie Teman; passion defines her. Softball just happened to be the vehicle through which she discovered that truth.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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