What Is an Athlete?

Mr. Stewart gave this speech at the 2013 Middle School Athletics Banquet.  Mr. Stewart retired after the 2012-13 academic year, having served the Academy community for 44 years.


Forty-five years of teaching, 30 of them coaching Academy teams, has given me time to reflect on the impact that participation in athletics can have on one’s life. Looking back over the years, I have found the advantages of playing sports and taking in life’s experiences to be immeasurable.

But first let me pose to you the question, just what is an athlete?  To answer my own question I have recorded a few thoughts about what it was like for me growing up in the burbs of Philadelphia.

See if any of the following statements relate to you:

First, our parents recognized the traits when we were very young.  We were the youngsters who could not sit still.  If there was a ball near by it was soon in our hands.  At home, our indoor games ruined furniture, marked up walls, and broke family heirlooms.

Growing up, we organized neighborhood pick-up games, made up our own rules of play, and worked to get everyone involved.

As kids we collected sports cards, autographs, and pictures of our favorite players.  Our rooms did not deny our passion for sports.  Our equipment was everywhere.

We thrived on competition and could not wait to get started.  Going to sleep before a big game was difficult.

Our uniform was our most prized piece of clothing and our first varsity letter became our most valued possession.

We catalogued our personal and team records, and still keep news clippings where we can readily review them today.

We turned to the sports page of the paper first and discussed its news before tackling any other topic.

In Middle School we lived for Friday games and bus trips to play new schools.

In college we loved playing Saturday afternoon games before a home crowd.

To us every game and every opponent was a new adventure.  The tougher the opponent, the harder we played.  And never tell us we are the underdogs.

We were natural leaders – always willing to teach the game to others.

Our messages and methods of instruction were passed down to us by our parents.  We can still hear in our heads their ancient words of advice.  These same catch phrases we pass along today to others.

We have played in 90 degree heat and humidity, as well as sub-freezing temperatures, and have been soaked to the bone by both rain and sweat.

As athletes, we know all about X-Rays and MRI’s. Our injuries have cost us game time and have ended our seasons.  We have learned the techniques and jargon of the healing process so well that we feel empowered to offer medical advice to others.  And we can tape ankles with the best of athletic trainers.

We make friends for life and we remember each other’s game day highlights.  We can’t pass a local field without shaking loose a memory of what we did there.

We are athletes and we will be athletes all our lives.

The point of all of this is to show that all of our experiences teach us important life lessons and they never leave us.  Little did I know my life’s work as an athletic director was being forged on the vacant lots and ball fields of my home town.

I was the 10-year-old kid who called all of the neighborhood boys up on Friday night and told them to be at the lot by 8 a.m. on Saturday morning to play football. Then went to my room where I laid out all of my football gear carefully on a dresser. I was up at 7 and at the field by 8 a.m.  I remember that after counting heads at the field, two of the boys were missing – the Farrell twins at the end of the block.  I went to their house, knocked on their front door until someone answered.  I found one of the twins in his pajamas and I told him he had promised to be at the field by 8 a.m. — a binding contract to my way of thinking.  Thirteen years later I found myself organizing teams, scheduling games, and looking out for uniforms as the Academy’s athletic director.

I found out that all of these experiences, plus many another, helped shape me for my career. My suggestion to you is this, experience life. Take something away from your travel and camp experiences.  Learn something meaningful from every book you read.  Don’t throw these treasures away.  Return to them often to keep those memories alive. And as you get older and begin to reflect on them, you will realize just how important they were to you.  Remember, with every experience you become a resource for someone who may never have the chance to do what you did.

As the flamboyant English writer & poet Oscar Wilde quipped, “Nothing is waste that makes a memory.”

Steve Stewart in 1973, coaching the Varsity Boys’ Soccer team.