Allyson Fournier, E15, is full of surprises. First she blew away everyone’s expectations with an unbelievable pitching career at Tufts. The Jumbos went 115-5 during her four years on the mound, and won the national Division III championship each of the past three seasons. Her individual accomplishments stretch for miles. She was a four-time All-American and a two-time Division III female athlete of the year, and last spring she compiled a 35-0 record and pitched 105.1 consecutive scoreless innings, a Division III record. When she pitched professionally for the Pennsylvania Rebellion last summer, appearing in about a third of the team’s games, she was the only player in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league who hadn’t played for a Division I college program.
But, surprise, that’s all over now. The career of the greatest softball player in Tufts history has come to an end. In many ways, Fournier is unlike any athlete who has ever attended the university, but in one respect she’s just like the rest of the 20 or so percent of Tufts undergraduates who are student-athletes: having graduated, she now faces the reality of a full-time job and student loan payments.
When I met with Fournier recently, she was a few months into a full-time contract position she’d taken as a chemical engineer at EMD Millipore in Bedford, but she still looked ready to lace up her spikes and head to practice. She wore a Tufts softball hooded sweatshirt, a Tufts lanyard, black yoga pants, and a loose ponytail. If she hadn’t quite adjusted yet to her new life away from the diamond (she was living up the street from campus with a few of her former teammates who had also graduated), it was probably because the memory had scarcely had time to fade of her hopping around to awards ceremonies, winning that third national title, and then packing up her room the following day to compete for a spot with the NPF’s Rebellion.
But when I asked about her future, and whether it included the Rebellion, she barely hesitated. “I’ve pretty much decided I’m not going back,” she said, leaning back in her wooden chair at a Starbucks located a few minutes from her apartment. “I just haven’t told my coach. I’ll have to tell him soon.” She laughed, but there was a hint of wistfulness in her voice.
At the same time, Fournier admitted that she’ll feel a void at some point. “It’s a big change,” she said. “Softball has become, over college, so much a part of my identity. Now it’s hard to transition into ‘Oh, I’m a chemical engineer, not a softball player.’ But I still talk about it a lot. All of my coworkers have seen my rings. Everyone wants me to play in their slowpitch leagues. I might play in a fastpitch coed league.”
According to the NCAA, nearly 185,000 students at Division III institutions, or 21 percent of the entire student body at those schools, participated in varsity athletics last year—figures that were higher than in both Division I and Division II. It’s true that the Chicago Bears’ current third-string quarterback, Matt Blanchard, played at Division III University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and that two former Division III student-athletes played professional women’s basketball in Europe in 2014, but those are the clear exceptions. For Division III student-athletes, graduation marks the end of more than just their undergraduate years. For nearly all of them, it also means the end of their competitive playing career. Suddenly, a sport that may have come to be a large part of their identity is relegated to weekend leagues.
Given that this is such a common transition, Fournier said that the topic of life after Division III team sports should be discussed during the college years. As a junior and senior, she served on Tufts’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which hosts student-athlete barbecues, runs the Fan the Fire charity program, and generally acts as a liaison between athletes and other groups on campus, including coaches, the athletic department, and non-athlete students. “Sports are so much a part of everyone’s identity when you are at that level, and it just stops,” Fournier said. “I think it’s something that people don’t necessarily talk about, and I think it should be more something that you’re taught is going to happen for athletes.”
Fournier acknowledged that giving up the game has been difficult. “I think that I just had such a good career, and now I’m transitioning into a time where I’m figuring out my other career in academics,” she said. “I think it’s really hard to go back and forth. I don’t have the time to stay in shape and try to go back to playing full-time.”
Given the level of her accomplishments, Fournier has had an even more abrupt transition than most Division III student-athletes—from pitching professionally last summer, when softball was life, to life without softball. Her pro team would often play four or five games a week. However, as with most other women’s team sports, playing professional softball isn’t exactly a viable career option. The average player salary in the NPF for the three-month season is $6,000. A handful of Americans play in the Japan Softball League, where the average salary is around $60,000, but no team can have more than two foreign players.
Fournier said that most of her teammates on the Rebellion were also softball coaches. She briefly considered that track, too, as a means to be able to commit to the game 24/7 for three months every year. “Before I got my job at EMD Millipore, I thought, Maybe I’ll go to grad school and coach,” she said. “But now, I don’t think so. I really enjoy my job and think I could continue with it.”
So these days, Fournier’s softball activities are limited to helping out at Tufts indoor youth clinics. To keep close to the game, she also plans to throw a bit of batting practice as a volunteer assistant on the Tufts team this spring. “It’ll be helpful because I’m so close to Tufts to just be around the team,” she said. “I’ll be able to go to all of the games. I don’t think about not playing any more as much because it’s not the season. But I’m sure when it’s the season, I’ll be missing it.”
Lisa Liberty Becker, J93, has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe Magazine, Sports Illustrated Women, and other publications.