It's never easy saying goodbye to playing the sport you love and grew up playing.
Sports teach us lessons, create work ethic and can even shape a person's character. Athletes become a part of the game they've played which is why walking away -- regardless of the circumstance -- is so difficult for many.
When a high school season winds down, schools typically offer seniors one final chance to don their jerseys in a pre-game ceremony. For Cherokee Trail senior Aynalem Woldemariam, senior night was a proper sendoff to a career that was taken unexpectedly.
"It all happened really fast," Woldemariam said. "My coach was even shocked."
In September of last year, Woldemariam suffered a concussion on the field. She was taken to the emergency room where doctors took a computerized tomography (CT) scan. The concussion turned out to be the least of her problems. Doctors found a brain tumor that would need to be removed immediately. Retiring from soccer was a imperative move for her survival.
"[The doctor] was like, 'You need to have this surgery or you can end up being blind, paralyzed, or you can die, so it was really scary" she said. "I would love to play more and longer, but I need to now focus on my future and I need to stay healthy."
Despite having to give up athletics, the lady Cougars made it clear Woldemariam would still be a part of their soccer family. Once the team learned of her situation, they expressed their want for Aynalem to be with them throughout the spring season.
"The culture in our soccer community at our school is we've become a family," Head Coach Jeremy Schaller said. "We take care of our own, we protect each other and just because something happens to a family member, doesn't mean they're no longer part of the family."
Although her role on the team changed, Aynalem remained with the Cougars on the sidelines. Knowing how difficult it was for her, the team wanted to show its appreciation by sending her off on her own terms.
"She had the surgery before she had an opportunity to say goodbye to soccer, so we felt the least we could do for her was give her an opportunity to have that closure and give her the opportunity to be on the field one last time with her team," Schaller said.
Woldemariam, who up until April 27 had been serving as a role that more closely resembled team manager, stepped on the field for the last time. Before the game, she was honored with the other graduating players with her parents on the field, then she trotted out to take the kickoff.
Cherokee Trail was playing cross-town rival Eaglecrest that night, but both teams agreed to have her touch the ball before sending it out of bounds so she could be subbed out.
"I'm excited. Even though it's for a minute or two, I'm excited to just put on my cleats for the last time, and be in the uniform, and be out there in my old position," Woldemariam said. "It's so nice and generous of all of them to do that. It's a game, everyone's competitive, but the fact they're willing to put it aside and allowing me to touch the ball at least, it's really sweet."
"We all understand the situation and what's best for people, and not just the game of soccer," Schaller added.
It's not the way she had envisioned herself leaving the game, but at least this way it was in her control.
The Cougars went on to win the game 5-0. They have two more regular season games.
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