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Matt Fisher is a redshirt freshman on the men’s basketball team. (Photo: Hillsdale Athletics / Courtesy)

Imagine waking up every morning with a schedule involving up to an hour of weight lifting, conditioning, shooting a basketball from a dozen places on the court, and cutting back and forth across a wooden slatted floor for over two hours. Now, add an additional series of hour-long weekend workouts and additional lifts throughout the week, just to push your physical endurance to its ultimate limits. And to top it all off, you must wait an entire year to showcase your improvements and ability as an athlete. This is the life of a redshirted student-athlete in the NCAA, and it is a journey taken by thousands every year, including myself during this past basketball season.

Redshirting is a process in collegiate sports in which players can lengthen their eligibility for academic scholarships, athletic development, and academic achievement at their respective university. The term “redshirt” is a unique one for its defined role on the field of athletic competition. The phrase most likely originated from the University of Nebraska. In 1937, the Cornhuskers football staff requested linebacker and guard Warren Alfson practice but not play with the team. As a part of his nonparticipation in games, Alfson was not issued a number, leaving him with only a blank red uniform to wear. Thus, the term “redshirt” was born. 

I arrived on campus last August wearing a heavy, iron-laden boot on my right foot. A month earlier, I had an operation on my ankle to reconstruct damaged ligaments, which put me on the path of a six to nine-month rehab. Hobbling about campus in a boot for several months coupled with the need to develop more as a player on the court inspired the coaching staff at Hillsdale to redshirt me for my first season. When I first heard that I would be redshirted, I thought it would mean an easier work schedule as a student-athlete for my first two semesters. My preconceptions about redshirting were quickly blown away when, just three days out of my boot, I was assigned to run on the elliptical for an hour. 

As the season began, my fellow redshirts and I were required to attend two additional weight lifting sessions per week, as well as at least one additional on-court workout on top of our team activities. If you happened to walk through the courts of Hillsdale’s Roche Sports Complex over the course of the winter on a Saturday morning, you may have spotted a small group of three  redshirted basketball players and me. Perhaps you saw me working on my foot speed and quickness. Indeed, the sight undoubtedly bore a heavy dose of amusement for those beholding the spectacle of a lumbering seven-footer trying to keep up with a wily and relentless point guard. The countless hours I poured into my game and rehabilitation as a redshirt freshman have undoubtedly improved my skills and abilities for when I am a full-fledged member of the active roster.

As I can attest from personal experience, however, life as a redshirt freshman can be frustrating, as the compounding workouts and zero involvement in games can drag down morale. Some of the toughest moments of a season occur when sitting on a bench, dressed in slacks and a dress shirt, watching as your teammates struggle through a difficult game. The desire to rip off the necktie and lace up your sneakers is almost unbearable, especially during a blowout loss. As a competitor, it burns and rakes your nerves to watch a game while thinking to yourself, “If only I was in playing. Maybe the outcome could be different.” It’s a difficult process and a tough pill to swallow for many recruits, especially considering most student-athletes were the stars on their former high school teams and never had to ride the bench for too long. But as many athletes who have redshirted can attest, the process is well worth the wait. It’s a goal and expectation I have of myself to dramatically increase my performance and abilities by using my redshirt year as a springboard to new heights of athletic prowess and development.

Ultimately, I don’t know what path my career as a student-athlete here at Hillsdale will bring. I do know, however, how my time as a redshirt athlete has served me in regards to my recovery, development, and preparation. Like many who have gone before and will come after me, I’m confident and grateful for the opportunity to develop and hone my game for an entire season before my collegiate debut. Fairly soon, I, and many other redshirted student-athletes, will be able to rip off the redshirt label and finally don the blue of Hillsdale College.