Brian O'Keefe: The Comeback Kid Man

This lifelong volleyball player was downright giddy to get back on the court after too many years away.

Brian O'Keefe

I retired from my illustrious volleyball career shortly after our first child was born. OK, “illustrious” is quite a stretch; I was really just a very avid amateur. My first step toward retirement was a couple years before that, in 1996, when I stopped playing on a USA Volleyball (USAV) team. The USAV regionals were that spring, and my wife and I got married at the end of June. Apparently, she wasn’t going to be happy as a volleyball widow.

So I stepped back from playing USAV, the leagues I played in, and outdoor doubles. At that point, I shifted to running as my competitive outlet. It was something I could do regularly to keep in shape, perform by myself, and fit it into my daily schedule wherever it would allow.

But even then, running was only a means to an end. The “end” was that day in the future when my kids would be old enough to play volleyball with me. Doubles, triples, quads, sixes. That’s what I was looking forward to, and that’s what I was staying in shape for. Running was merely a way for me to stay ready. Ready to play when our family circumstances would allow time for it. Exactly when that would happen, I couldn’t say, but I would be ready when it did.

In the meantime, I continued to drag my kids to some local high school volleyball matches. And to the boys high school district championships. And to a three-night volleyball camp. And to an eight-week volleyball program. And to the 2011 NCAA Men’s Championships. I was hoping that volleyball would seep into their little minds by osmosis. Or something like that.

In Pennsylvania, boys’ high school volleyball is pretty big. Of course, “big” is all relative when you live in Western PA where football rules, basketball and wrestling contest for prominence, and volleyball is still a lesser sport. And even though we have great boys’ volleyball programs, not all of the schools have them. Our school district is one that doesn’t. The relatively small size of our student body caused our school board to turn down my offer to start a boys program, so my boys (now 14 and 12) are now running cross country and track. My daughter (10) is playing basketball, and I’m thrilled about coaching her team. I love basketball. But now I’m working on her to consider playing volleyball too.

This past summer, the girls’ volleyball coach at our local high school asked if I’d be interested in playing in a league with him and his wife. In the past, I’ve turned down offers like that due to our family schedule. But since this league was on a night that works for us, and because it’s a competitive league, I decided it was time to play again.

I’ll admit it—I’m a volleyball snob. I’ll only play if the level is relatively high. It’s just not worth the drive and the time if we’re not playing at a decent level, running plays, and playing against good competition. I bet most of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about! I’m either in or out. If I can’t play competitively, I’d rather not play at all. (Needless to say, I try to avoid playing volleyball at company and church picnics.)

I was getting excited about playing again. Actually, that’s an understatement. I was downright giddy! Looking back, I guess I was beginning to think I’d never play competitively again. As the reality sunk in that I would soon be playing in real matches against real players, I could hardly contain my excitement. Suddenly, I had no interest in running any more. Instead, my desire turned to weight training to get my legs in jumping shape and my shoulder in swinging shape.

But now I had a different issue to deal with: I was still battling Achilles tendinitis in both legs. I caused it in May while experimenting with a new running style and it had sidelined my racing and triathlon plans all summer. Now, with the prospect of playing volleyball again, I had a very real and timely interest in getting my Achilles tendons in proper working order. Because in volleyball, if your Achilles tendons aren’t working, you’re grounded.

So I laid off running, pick-up basketball, and everything else that would delay the healing of my tendons. Since this was the first time I had had Achilles tendinitis, I learned that they heal very slowly due to the lack of blood flow through those narrow areas. Now I’m the proud owner of ankle and calf compression wraps. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to get ready for the start of the league in late September. I couldn’t let this opportunity slip by!

Next month: “Dude, Where’s My Vertical?”

Brian O’Keefe will be writing a series of articles about a 45-year-old’s journey to return to the game after being off the court for 13 years.

Originally published in February 2012

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