MY STAR PLAYER

     She looked as though she could barely walk – the only girl who could possibly pierce the defense of the Pequannock Panthers soccer juggernaut.
     “Emily,” I said. “What happened to you?”
     “Sorry, Coach,” she said, her voice husky. “I haven’t slept for the last two nights.”
     “Didn’t we agree that no one on the team would have a sleepover the night before a game?”
     “Yeah, Coach, but Tina’s my best friend, and it was her birthday on Thursday, so I HAD to go. And last night, I was at my cousin’s, so it wasn’t really, technically a sleepover. We just never went to sleep.”
     I must have appeared dumbstruck, because I was. In fact, I was so stunned that I barely reacted when Emily pitched forward onto the ball bag, put her arm under her head to cushion herself, and immediately fell asleep, thus rendering our dozen warm-up balls inaccessible.
     Coaching youth soccer was not a particular goal of mine. I managed to avoid it with my oldest child. She was independent and would have rebelled at the prospect of having her dad at every practice and game. However, my second daughter signed up CONDITIONED on me as an essential component part, as the coach.
     “Is this healthy?” I asked my wife.
     “Maybe not,” she said, “but if you are not the coach, she won’t play.”
     We paused to reminisce about the time when Sarah was five and did a sit-down strike in the middle of the field at her first Kiddie-Kicker practice. I still remember the embarrassment of walking to collect her amidst a roiling sea of happily engaged children, under the silently gloating gaze of twenty parents whose children were, somehow, better adjusted.
Now she was ten and willing to try soccer again. She’d quit the Brownies, she’d quit ballet, she’d refused to consider cheer leading (I was proud of her for that), she’d quit the flute/violin/piano trifecta. Sarah NEEDED an extracurricular activity.
     So here I was, not a leader of men, but a beggar of girls.
     “Please, girls, listen. Come on in to a circle.”
     There was no response as my minions continued to giggle and point at Emily. Sarah, at least, was sympathetic to Emily, or loyal to me, and stood quietly by my side. I whistled loudly and, finally, the chatter faded like an old record.
     “Girls,” I said. “We play Pequannock today. They are really good.” I paused for effect, the silence broken only by Marley’s bubble gum exploding on her face. It took several moments to quiet the giggling again.
     Once I was able to send eleven players out to the field and the game began, I coaxed Emily awake and she stumbled over to the bench to resume her nap. I took a moment to contemplate the positive aspects of this experience. My shy and retiring daughter was participating, sort of. I noted that her efforts to reach the ball resembled a person sticking a toe into the water to check the temperature. Nonetheless, there she was, adorable in her uniform, a member of the team.
     Not only that, but she wanted ME to be there. How many more years would that last?  The teenage years loomed ahead. The intense years of parenting young children were rushing to an end. For a few moments, I was hardly aware of what was happening on the field. My reverie was broken by the referee’s whistle. Pequannock had scored again. I felt a tug at my shirt.
     “Coach?” It was Emily, roused from her nap.
     “Yes?”
     “I think I could go in now.”
     “Really, you want to play?”
     “Well, my parents said if I don’t play today I’ll be grounded for a month, so, yeah, I guess I want to play.”
     I inserted the exhausted Emily who, even beset with the ten-year-old equivalent of a terrible hangover, had more talent than anyone else on my team.
     “Go, Emily!” shouted some parents, when she ran down the field.
     “Pass it to Emily,” shouted others.
     My team developed some vicarious verve from Emily’s presence. Now, we had one player who could compete with the Panthers. Eventually, of all people, Sarah passed a ball up to Emily who blasted a shot past the goaltender and the deficit was only 5-1. Everyone cheered. The girls exchanged high-fives.
     As usual, within five minutes of the completion of the game, no one on my team seemed to care who had won. The girls attacked the post-game cookies like locusts. If only they expended that much energy during the games! I was happy to see Sarah eating, chatting and laughing with the rest. This was a rare instance in my sporting career when I concluded that the girls had the right philosophy; it really didn’t matter if we had won or lost the game.

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