By Heather Rogers, Hanley Foundation Prevention Specialist

“She swings…there’s contact…. it’s outta here!”

There’s no better feeling as an athlete than seeing that perfect pitch, the feeling of making solid contact and hearing that boom off the bat. Whether it sails over the fence or it’s a line shot up the middle, you know the hours of practice and dedication to your craft are paying off.

Growing up in a small baseball town, playing baseball is basically non-negotiable.

Growing up in a household with a dad who played for a state title all four years of high school, plus a grandfather who played professionally and another grandfather who played ball his entire life made it even more of a non-negotiable. It may sound forced, but I loved playing ball. Any time I got to go to the field with my twin brother and my dad, I was in my favorite place.

I’ve always told people that baseball and softball saved my life.

It seems dramatic, but I know that this sport and the goals I had for myself guided the choices I made as a teen. When I was about 12 years old, I was told that if I was good at it and kept my grades up, I could get my college paid for. College seemed like such a distant dream for me. I knew my parents couldn’t afford for me to go, and until this option presented itself, I had no idea how I’d make it happen. So, I worked harder, studied more and dedicated every free second I had to perfecting my skills.

In high school, being a serious athlete wasn’t always easy.

I missed a ton of parties and even had to leave homecoming and prom early. I missed a lot of class time due to traveling out of the state to play. In a nutshell, it was lots of work and very little “fun.” During high school, I had to make several choices regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. As an athlete, I feel like I had an easier “out” to avoid the peer pressure. “I can’t, I have softball,” was a reason I gave for missing out on more “fun” than I can keep track of. But, it was also an easy way to steer the attention away from saying no and being ridiculed. Eventually, I didn’t even have to give my excuse. Everyone knew I’d say no because of softball, and thankfully, they eventually stopped asking.

But, once I made it to college, saying “no” was even harder.

I was surrounded by students that didn’t have as much to lose as I did. I knew there was no way I could get caught drinking or risk a random drug test from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). I’m not saying I was perfect growing up. I made some “typical teen” choices, but I knew there was absolutely no reward associated with drugs or alcohol that was worth the risk.

My decisions and stance on alcohol landed me into a new role: the designated driver.

This is where “softball saved my life” comes from. Sure, softball always gave me a reason in the back of my mind to make good choices, but one night in particular could’ve had such a different outcome. I was at a party, almost everyone was drinking, and I was, as always, the designated driver that my friends depended on. They practically begged me to drink “just a little” because there would be plenty of time for me to sober up.

I’ve never been so happy that I said no.

After dropping everyone safely at their dorms and apartments, I was in a terrible car accident on my way home. Thankfully, no other cars or people were involved, just a hydroplane, lots of spinning and a concrete wall that stopped my car. I had no idea where I was other than “on the turnpike.” My roommates were both out of town, and my parents were on vacation almost five hours away with no cell phone service. I’ve replayed that scenario over and over in my mind so many times since it happened. How quickly “just a few drinks” and “time to sober up” could have put a huge roadblock in front of my goals.

I know that softball saved me.

Maybe not always literally, but it was always there, keeping me on track, holding me accountable and always giving me something to lose. Now, as a softball coach, I hope I can inspire my athletes to forge their own paths and create a future they can be proud of, a future that always brings them back to the simple days of being a little girl on a ball field.