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.