"You wont be able to play basketball competitively anymore."
Aaron Toomey | Amherst College ‘14 | Amherst Assistant Basketball Coach
"You wont be able to play basketball competitively anymore."
If you’re an athlete, this is one of the worst things a doctor can tell you. Unfortunately for me, I was on the receiving end of those words, but I have chosen to let this be my new start. I feel like there are many takeaways that can be drawn from my story, but I want to tell it because transitioning away from playing was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I’m going to tell it from the beginning and provide some analysis when it feels right.
Like many kids, playing sports was the centerpiece of my life since the day I could walk. I played soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey and golf, and I loved all of them. I spent every free second I had outside with my brother and friends playing something. From a very young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a professional athlete. I wasn’t sure what sport, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
I went through my childhood days continuing to play many sports and not knowing which I would end up focusing on. As my high school days came around I chose to narrow it down to two: soccer and basketball. After my freshman year, it was time to decide. People face tough decisions everyday, but this one seemed HUGE to me. I felt as though this decision would shape my future, and it kind of did.
Basketball was a game that I had always loved and that’s what I chose to pursue even though I knew that was probably going to be a tougher path than soccer. I was pretty good at soccer and my physical attributes probably fit that sport better than basketball, but I was up for the challenge.
Throughout my high school career at Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in North Carolina I worked everyday to improve my game. It was during my junior season – when our team won the state championship – that I began hearing from colleges that were interested in me. I followed up that successful year by improving on all my statistics as a senior and helping lead the team to another deep run in the state tournament. At this point I was convinced that I was a Division 1 basketball player and I didn’t want to settle for anything less than a D1 scholarship. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always turn out the way you envision it in your head. I didn’t end up getting the D1 scholarship offer that I desired and instead went to Division 3 Amherst College to continue my playing career.
At the time this was a major disappointment to me because I had worked so hard to fulfill what was then my goal, which didn’t materialize the way I had anticipated. I entered college with a chip on my shoulder and set out to prove that I deserved the scholarship that I didn’t get. Looking back, I think I did just that. Many people who encountered me in college would even agree that that’s what I was there to do. I had tunnel vision. I had a successful college career, helping our team win a National Championship my junior season and winning National Player of the Year twice. It was at that point that I really saw my end goal of being a professional athlete as a possibility.
A 6’1, somewhat un-athletic Division 3 guard doesn’t exactly make the jump to the NBA, but I knew I had what it took to play professionally overseas. My senior season at Amherst came and went and it was time to move on. In August 2014, I moved to Spain after achieving the goal that I set when I was a young kid. I had signed a contract to become a professional basketball player for CB Fuenlabrada in Spain. I was nervous moving to a new country, but also incredibly excited. I had accomplished my goal, set new ones, and was ready for the challenge.
Things were going well early that season. I was playing a lot and playing fairly well. I was just getting used to the different style of play overseas and starting to feel comfortable over there. It was everything I had always dreamed of. But then it wasn’t. In a matter of minutes it was all over.
On November 18th, 2014 I took an elbow to the head in practice. It was no harder than other elbows I had taken in my career. It was first diagnosed as a concussion. I had never had a concussion before, so I just assumed that’s what it felt like. However, later that night, thanks to my teammate/roommate, I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove a blood clot on my brain and repair my shattered skull. I woke up the next morning in the hospital just outside of Madrid not knowing what had happened. The last thing I remembered from the previous night was walking back into my apartment thinking I just had a concussion. It took a little while to get someone that spoke English to the hospital to tell me what actually happened.
When I finally heard what had happened I knew it wasn’t good. A couple days after my surgery multiple doctors not only told me that I wouldn’t be able to play again, but also told me that if it wasn’t for my roommate helping get me to the hospital that night I probably wouldn’t even be here to tell this story.
Everything that I had dreamed of and worked so hard to get lasted a grand total of three months. This was not how I envisioned my dream ending. Not only did I need to understand that I had a serious injury, which could have taken my life. I also had to come to terms with the fact that the life that I always wanted to live in fact was taken from me.
The severity of the surgery forbade me from traveling for a month, so I stayed in Spain for another 30 days before I was able to return to the states. My mom was a saint and came to spend that time with me and help care for me. That month was hard. It was grueling. I couldn’t do anything for the first couple weeks. I had headaches all day every day. Noise and light both bothered me so I basically stayed in a dark hotel room for the majority of the first two weeks. This prevented me from having any escape from what happened. Initially I couldn’t watch TV to escape my feelings. I couldn’t listen to music to make me feel better. Forced to sit in a dark, quiet room, I reflected. Why did this happen to me? What was next for me? I wasn’t really angry, I was just confused, and I had to sit in that.
That month ended and my mom and I were able to travel back home. One of the first things I remember when I got back to the states was getting a phone call from my college coach. Coach Hixon talked to me for a few minutes and then at the end of the call offered me a job on the Amherst coaching staff. This was really nice of him and cool to hear, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to move over 700 miles away from home with everything I had gone through. I began to talk to my parents about it and although I am sure they didn’t want me to leave home at that time I specifically remember one conversation with my dad. I remember him reminding me that since I began to focus on basketball my sophomore year of high school I knew I wanted to coach after my playing career ended. I certainly never envisioned it would be this soon or it would happen in this fashion, but I now had my opportunity to start my coaching career at my alma mater. I had to leave. I had no choice. I had to move on with my life and stop dreading the fact that I was never going to play again.
I took the job at Amherst and have loved it ever since. Coaching is certainly not the same as playing but I have come to accept the fact that I won’t play again. Playing sports is an incredible thing, something that I think teaches a lot. But there is more to life than just that. Everything that has happened to me in the past 9 years has been a blessing in disguise. I was able to have an incredible college career on the court, achieve my lifelong goal of becoming a professional athlete, and also attend one of the top academic schools in the country. It took me too long to recognize it, but I still have a lot to live for.
It has not been easy for me. These three-plus years since the injury have felt incredibly long and it has felt as though I have been weighed down with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to play again. For so long I had been labeled as, and at times even considered myself as just a basketball player. So many people have helped me through this time and I owe everything to them. They have helped me learn so much about myself over the past three years and I hope my story can help others realize that no one thing defines you. It took me quite some time to truly accept and understand what happened. What I loved most got taken from me, but I am and always will be more than a basketball player. This process has ultimately been such a blessing in helping me realize that.
Aaron graduated from Amherst College in 2014. He is currently the Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at Amherst College, where he's helped his alma mater to a 76-28 record over the past 4 seasons.