By Jake Freeman
September 1, 2013
I’ll never forget that day.
Five days away from the opener of my sophomore season as a Harvard soccer player: my second season. We had about 20 minutes left in our afternoon preseason training session: our second session of the day.
I remember the play perfectly.
I looked over at my roommate/teammate Andrew Chang and said, “Changer, look for me through on the next one.” He nods his head and 30 seconds later Chang’s on the ball. I make a darting run in between two defenders and my roomie lays out a perfect ball over the top, set up for me to run onto at just about the top of the 18 yard box. I prep to shoot on my first touch and just as my right foot connects with the ball… BLACK.
30 seconds later, I wake up tossing and turning on the turf, staring straight up at the sky, tears running down my face and in the most pain I’ve felt in my life. I know something is wrong but my mind couldn’t process what my body was telling it because of the panic I was in.
Turns out, our goalkeeper came out to make a play on the ball and right as it left my foot his whole body went crashing through my leg. (I ended up scoring, but as you can imagine, that was the least of my concern at the time.)
Back in the training room that evening, the doctor didn’t need an MRI to determine what had happened. You could see it.
My leg was broken.
The thoughts rolling through my mind at that moment are hard for me to put into words. Honestly, it was extremely tough to keep it together. But I mainly remember thinking to myself, “how could this have actually happened, how the heck did I possibly get here?”
Today, right now, I look back on it asking myself the same question in a much different way. How did I get to Harvard? How did I have the privilege to be in that situation, that day on that field? To be playing the sport I love at one of, if not the most prestigious universities in the world.
Junior year of high school. Just after my first academy soccer showcase. I hadn’t even begun reaching out to college coaches at the time.
My club coach comes up to me that next week after the showcase and says, “ Hey Jake those Harvard coaches really liked you as a player last week.” I just glance at him and give a sarcastic smirk as to say “yeah, sure, Harvard.” He stands there not budging and tells me he’s not joking at all.
The next day I’m on my computer and get an email from the head coach of Harvard soccer saying how much he enjoyed watching me play and wanted to set up a phone call to plan a visit to the school.
A visit. A visit TO HARVARD.
I was having trouble processing that this was a reality.
I mean I’ve always considered myself a fairly bright individual and a solid student. But never in a thousand years did I expect to be in any type of position to go to Harvard. Was playing soccer in college part of the plan? Absolutely. In my mind I always saw myself making it there, but definitely not at a school like Harvard. The Ivy League never crossed my mind.
However, there was one thing people (mainly my family) kept telling me. When it’s Harvard, you don’t say NO. You listen to what they have to say.
Like I said, I was a decent student, not what they call “Harvard-smart” here on campus, so it was safe to say I wasn’t one of the top students in the country, academically, like most students that get in to Harvard are.
But when it came to the soccer field. That was home. That was where I belonged.
Speaking of top in the country, I was lucky enough to play for two teams growing up that were always considered the best of the best.
In Dix Hills, where it all began, our club team was the number one team in the country year after year after year. (Shout out DHT) At Albertson, around the nation we were consistently viewed as a top-15 team. I was as fortunate as possible to be a part of these teams and the truth was that, before college, winning was all I knew on the soccer field.
I would quickly learn how it feels to be on the other end of things.
I hate losing. Anyone that knows me, anyone I’ve spent time with will tell you I hate losing. I hate losing far more than I like winning. I want to be the best in whatever it is I’m doing. It’s just part of my personality.
My friend/teammate Pieter Zenner said it best, “It doesn’t matter what it is, the contest, the sport, the game that you’re playing against him. Jake is going to try to beat you as bad as humanly possible at it. And most of the time he’s going to end up doing just that.”
That’s just who I am. So being a part of winning soccer teams growing up allowed me to keep the same mindset when competing.
Again, I’d learn that’s not always how it is.
The beginning of my Harvard soccer career would be anything but sunshine and rainbows.
When I came on campus as a freshman in the fall of 2012, I was joining a program that had been struggling for quite some time. Coming off of a two-win season, winless in the Ivy League, the team was just in a really bad place. More of the same was to come in that upcoming season. We would go on to win three total games and none in our conference for consecutive years. The most frustrating part about it was that our squad wasn’t lacking talented players. We had a ton of talent. On the other hand, our team culture was nonexistent, there was a complete disconnect between the coaches and the players, and the program had simply become accustomed to losing.
I have always felt that winning was contagious, well; losing might be even harder to shake.
As you would expect, the transition from high school to Harvard wasn’t an easy one, and the state of disarray that the team was in made it that much more difficult. Something needed to change.
And it did.
Over the next four months we’d get a completely new coaching staff and suddenly there was newfound hope for Harvard soccer. A fresh start.
These coaches would implement a culture within the team full of endless commitment and attention to every last detail. To be honest, it was a bit of a wake up call for all of us. It was something that would make every player uncomfortable at first and would undoubtedly take time to adjust to. But it was worth it. Because we knew with the talented group of guys we had, these new coaches at the helm and this type of team culture becoming the status quo, we would compete. We would win. And after going through defeat time and time again the year before, all us players wanted to do was compete.
Come preseason the following August, there was a buzz around the team. Each and every member of our squad knew we had what it would take to fight for an Ivy League Championship. I could not have been more excited to put my freshman season behind me and start the next chapter of Harvard soccer.
And then that date rolled around: September 1, 2013
Hearing the words “your leg is broken.” To not be on the field with my brothers after going through the start of such a tedious reconstruction of our program. Was I really going to be able to withstand this? Not once in my 16 years of playing soccer up until that point did I have an injury. Not once. Never had to miss a game. And now I’d broken my leg. It was, without question, one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through.
But, what I say next will probably surprise you.
It was the single greatest thing to ever happen to me.
It sounds like an odd thing to say.
Spending a season injured and on crutches for months didn’t make me a more talented player. It didn’t allow me to help our team win games on the field. Grinding through rehab and watching from the sideline every practice/game was incredibly tough. So why in the world would I see breaking my leg as a positive?
It just was. It allowed me to take a step back and see things from a different perspective, on and off the field. It made me stronger mentally. I gained a whole new appreciation for being out there on that field and for soccer as a whole.
I had yet to mature in a way that I would end up maturing during those six months. It was an outright blessing in disguise. But of course, at the time I didn’t realize that.
And now, a full three years later, it has been an absolute pleasure to be a part of Harvard Soccer. We’ve been in contention to win the Ivy League three seasons running (unfortunately we haven’t) and know we are one step away from that title and making a serious run in the NCAA tournament. The program could not be in a better place.
And that’s why I’m writing this. I couldn’t have had more ups and downs throughout my college soccer career in Cambridge thus far. But the truth is, those challenges and that adversity have made me a better player and a better overall person.
The success will come; the rewards will be there eventually.
And that’s my message to you:
Go through difficult times that you need to overcome. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Embrace it. It’ll only make you better and by all means you’ll be glad that you did.
I was hesitant to accept those challenges at first, and now I understand facing them was necessary for me to get where I wanted to be and where I am today. Now I’m coming off of a season as the second leader in goals and points in the Ivy League.
Embrace the bad, appreciate the good; embrace the difficult, appreciate the success.
As I write this I think to myself: a single day might scar you, but it certainly can’t define you.
September 1, 2013.
My second season. Our second session of the day. Second coaching staff. Second in the Ivy League three years in a row. Second in goals and points last year.
I can’t be upset with second because at one point I was rounding out the bottom of the standings with this team. But this fall, for my last Harvard soccer go-around, enough is enough.
I want…excuse me…I need first. I need that Ivy League Championship.
-Jake Freeman ’16
Harvard Men’s Soccer
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