Road Trip Dad - Droppin' Off Johnny

Dan Witmer | August 24, 2015
Tomorrow is my Dad’s 88th birthday, so I’d like to wish him a very happy day. He once wrote me a note when I was in college that had about 20 various clichés (keep your nose to the grindstone, turn the corner, etc), and we’ve joked about it ever since. I’m pretty sure I saved it, but of course I couldn’t begin to guess where it might be today. This Road Trip Dad piece is dedicated to him, as I ramble on about droppin’ little Johnny off at college for the first time...

‘Tis the season, when parents all over the country drop their teenaged sons and daughters off at colleges and universities for the beginning of the next stage of their children’s lives. It’s a time of nervousness, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and doubt – and I’m just talking about the parents.

For Johnny and Janie, it’s also a time of anxiety and everything else, but there’s also excitement and wonder. New settings present new opportunities, new degrees of independence, and new friends.

Based on the traffic in Oswego this past weekend, the start of a new school year also brings a surge in local business, and if WalMart didn’t already have the market in back-to-school sales, they certainly have the lion’s share of all the last-minute college shopping, too. Why buy a fan, fridge, or flat screen over the summer, when you can just pick them all up when you’re dropping your kid off at his dorm?

The restaurants and hotels in town were full, too, but, as I remember it, I don’t think my arrival in this college town some 37 years ago added to the local economy the same way... For some reason, I was dropped off by my Mother and older brother Jim, who had graduated from Lehigh in 1975. There was very little fanfare; we unloaded the car, and then all I really remember is one of them – I think it was Jim – telling me quite simply, “Just remember what you’re here for.” I think the next time my Mom came to Oswego was for my graduation.

Due to a large freshman class, almost all the first-year students at Oswego were in triples that fall. I was lucky; I was in a triple, but it wasn’t a standard-sized dorm room. I was in a room that had been designed as a study lounge. One roommate was from New Hartford, and the other was from New York City, and we had nothing in common except our academic standing. Still, we got along, respected one another’s tastes in music, posters, and late night snacks, and we all survived the academic rigors well enough to return for a sophomore year.

A popular strategy of many coaches – lacrosse and otherwise – is to room their new recruits together – pair ‘em up, put six of them in a suite, do whatever is available to “force” team bonding right from the first day – but I never chose to do that (it was an option at Oswego State, and other coaches continue to do that today). Instead, I wanted my players to know, and interact with, “normal” students (the scholarship student-athletes at the University of Vermont call the groundlings “Muggles”). It was my rationale that I wanted my student-athletes to have both lacrosse friends as well as non-lacrosse friends, and the best way to ensure that was to treat them like regular freshman or transfers when they arrived ad throw them into the first week/first semester chaos along with everyone else.

I figured the team friendships would happen anyway. The freshman on the third floor of Cayuga Hall would manage to find the transfer on the fourth floor anyway, as nothing resonates through the floors and walls of a cinderblock building like the sound of a lacrosse ball. But if I didn’t let the “natural randomness” of roommate assignments bring everyone in on a level playing field, maybe some of those “mixed” relationships would never happen.

I had two sets of best friends in college – the guys who were teammates of mine, and the guys who just happened to be assigned to rooms next to or across the hall from mine. My sophomore year I roomed with a senior education major. My junior year I roomed with a hockey player. My senior year I moved off campus and lived with two lacrosse teammates. I never felt like I missed out on anything. If anything, I wonder if coach-assigned roommates were the ones missing out.

Besides, I was also afraid to play matchmaker, and I still don’t know how coaches do it today. How do I know which freshman will buy in, make the cut, and play all four years and which freshman will have his interest fade, or get cut, or find some other interest he never anticipated? My crystal ball never worked that well, so that was another reason I never tried to pair up prospects.

So, Johnny, good luck with your roommates, random or assigned. You can always begin selecting your own roomies next year, or maybe even at the end of the fall semester if you really cannot live with what you’re been assigned.

Next, you’ll be playing fall ball and – perhaps – trying out for the team in a matter of days or weeks. Some coaches have short, two-day or maybe one week tryout periods. Others might give you two weeks. Maybe you were promised a roster slot. Every coach does things differently. I always waited to make cuts until I saw what we had the second semester, so everyone played a full season of fall ball.

Johnny, you’ll make the transition from high school to college a lot more easily if you listen a whole lot more than you speak. Take it all in, and keep your questions and bravado to a minimum. My Dad told me once, “God gave you two ears and one mouth – take the hint.” I think he was saying the same thing.

Now, I taught Hamlet for 33 years, and when it comes to fatherly advice given to a son headed off to college, Polonius’ Act 1, scene 3 speech to Laertes was pretty complete; he told Laertes to stay out of fights and arguments, to dress well but not gaudy, to think before he spoke or acted, to not borrow or lend, and, “this above all, to thine own self be true.”

No, son, if you’re playing fall ball and trying to make the cut, I suggest you find a sophomore who might appear to be on track to someday be a team captain and follow his lead. Be early for every practice, study hall session, and weight room workout. Find a place to play wall ball, and find a partner to shoot with. Put in extra time. After your first week on campus, avoid the high school t-shirts with the names of all your teammates and classmates; go with college bookstore merchandise or team-issue apparel instead. As cold as it may sound, your high school years are a thing of the past, now, and it’s time to become a valued member of a new team.

You can go to the first (and second) team party some Friday or Saturday night, but lay low and don’t make the mistake of trying to impress your new teammates with dangerous high-risk behaviors. The time and place to make your big first impression is not at a bar or off-campus house; it’s on the field, and the person you should be trying to impress is your coaching staff more than your teammates.

Bottom line – pace yourself. There’s a time and a place for everything, but right now you should be most concerned with making the team and earning grades that will 1) enable you to keep your scholarships and/or financial aid packages, and 2) return for a second semester in good academic standing.

Whenever I overheard my high school seniors talking about the party life they so looked forward to, I used to tell them that if they were going to go to college to experiment with drugs and alcohol, they should save themselves a lot of money and not actually go to college; just go to a college town and rent an apartment so they could party all they wanted to – but at least they wouldn’t be wasting any money on tuition, books, etc.

The reality is that college is not for everyone, and neither are college sports. The commitment level, the demands, and the competition are probably greater than they were in high school. Freshman classes often include some 15-20 candidates, and senior classes are often half of that. There’s a reason for that. Attrition happens. If you don’t want it to happen to you, you’ve got to battle it every day, every semester, every year. And if you find yourself with doubts, decreased interest, or wondering whether or not you want to play college ball, don’t be afraid to talk about it with teammates or family. I often told players who came to me about quitting that I’d give them the length of fall ball to change their minds. Few came back, but some did. I left the door open, but not for long.

Again, as cold as this may sound, if you don’t want to play, if your heart just isn’t in it, then don’t punish yourself. Walk away. Join some other organization; maybe your school has a club team. Hopefully you were in other clubs or organizations in high school; seek out similar groups on campus.

With great bias, I’ll also recommend that you stay clear of Greek organizations, especially if you are playing lacrosse. I used to say that playing college lacrosse and pledging a frat – especially in the first fall semester – was like academic suicide. Very few survived, and too often those student-athletes were nowhere to be found come the spring semester.

When we dropped our two sons off at college – in 2008 and again in 2010, both at SUNY Brockport – I wasn’t big on advice. Brian and Eric were both chomping at the bit to test their independence, make the team, earn their degrees, and enjoy the total package. I think they got their money’s worth; Brian played four years of lacrosse, coached at Spencerport as part of his coaching certification, and served as Brockport Student Government Vice President for his fifth year of school (with an office that I swear was bigger than his lacrosse coach’s). Since graduating, he has mastered the art of networking and becoming a valuable teammate, and he has played or coached lacrosse in some of the most beautiful places on this Earth. Eric got out in four years, playing lacrosse in each of them, and is now starting his second year of graduate work at Brockport, earning a Masters degree in Public Administration that the college is paying for, thanks to his grad assistantship position in the Finance Office. They both played big roles in starting and growing an annual St. Baldrick’s fundraising event on the Brockport campus, and if that is their legacy, I couldn’t be more proud.

Johnny, your parents tried to raise you so that you’d be prepared for the challenges and decisions you’ll face on a college campus and beyond. You’ll make mistakes, but hopefully they’ll be few and minor in nature (maybe someday I’ll detail some of my boys’ dubious accomplishments, but for now you can use your imagination). They give you their blessing and they’ll check in with you every week (not every day).

So, good luck, Johnny. Just remember what you’re there for.

- Dan Witmer