COLLEGE SPORTS,

A MEMOIR Picture the excitement of a famous sports rivalry:  Ohio State versus Michigan in football in front of 105,000 screaming fans and millions more on television; North Carolina versus Duke in basketball in front of 20,000 “crazies” and millions more on television; and, Dickinson versus F & M in soccer in front of 75 friends and relatives.  In which do you think I might have played a major role?

Yes, back in the mid-late 1970’s I was a stalwart member of the Dickinson College squad.  As the goaltender, it required some degree of failure by all ten of my teammates for me to see action.  Unfortunately, I often received an extensive workout. It was a simpler time.  While present-day sports coverage is concerned more with drugs, arrests and contract negotiations than game action, one need only return to the 1970’s to find a time that now appears quaint.  Notre Dame had a national television deal and Big-Ten football attracted 100,000-plus fans to games, but at a small college, playing sports was still a hobbyist’s undertaking.

The goal was not to become famous or rich.  Rather, most of us simply enjoyed the game. There is little recorded proof I played soccer at Dickinson except for a few photographs of me taken by the Carlisle Evening Sentinel that my wife was kind enough to frame, and several blurbs cut from the school paper, the Dickinsonian.  If our team had an annual picture taken, I don’t have it.

Soccer was anything but a year-round activity in the 1970’s unless, I imagine, one lived in Brazil.  I never owned a soccer ball but, fortunately, a nearby teammate had one, and we would commence preparing for the fall season around August 20 each year, ten days before official practices began.  Since I was a goalie and he was a forward, our outings were efficient.  He shot and I saved.  I didn’t deign to run, though there may have been an occasional jog, and I am certain I never lifted a weight. In contrast, the daughter of a friend plays at Dickinson now.  Typical of the modern player she “works out” all year, plays for a club team in New Jersey during the “off-season,” and travels with her Dickinson teammates to Brazil or Scotland for extensive pre-season training.  When I played, we were lucky if an informal scrimmage was scheduled with Shippensburg State, thirty minutes away, before the regular schedule began.

The foregoing does not mean I didn’t “care.”   In fact, I spent sleepless hours pondering my performances and had butterflies in my stomach before every game.  Yet, we played in an informational vacuum.  Twenty years before the internet, we knew nothing about our opponents or where we stood in the standings.  An out-of-date and/or incomplete mimeograph was posted in the locker room that showed, for example, Haverford to have three wins and two ties or Western Maryland to have two wins and three losses, but that might be after ten games had been played.

The only definitive feelings my teammates and I had about other teams was that it was important to beat Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall. Did I know anyone at either of those schools?  No.  Had either of those schools harmed me personally?  No.  I was simply told they were our “rivals” and, accordingly, I developed seasonal animus against both institutions.  My level of disdain did not enter my bloodstream with the hate of an Auburn fan for Alabama, but mentally, I focused on those two games. During my four seasons at Dickinson, we always won the “Battle of Gettysburg.”  A history major on our squad likened our dominance to the Union’s defense against Pickett’s charge, though the analogy may be strained in terms of comparative bloodshed.

Still, a perfect record against the Gettysburg satisfied.  F & M, however, presented the flip side of the coin. My debut as a freshman occurred on their field when they knocked our senior goaltender out of the game, literally and figuratively, en route to a 4-0 rout.  He staggered off after the fourth goal holding his arm at an odd angle which made me unenthused about taking his place.  Mercifully, the game was nearly over, and I survived.  The next two seasons, though I was the starting goaltender, I don’t recall specifics, except that we lost.

Senior year loomed as my last chance to give those pre-meds (F & M’s reputed specialty) their own medicine. The first thing I recall is that “The Big F & M Game” occurred on a Saturday afternoon immediately after the LSAT’s.  Thus, as an English major with no other post-graduation employment ideas, my day consisted of two major events, one of which could determine my life’s direction.  I took the exam dressed in my soccer uniform, and then ran half a mile from the test-site to arrive at the field before the opening whistle.

When I arrived, with my head still processing the switch from testing to goaltending, our coach, Bill Nickey,  approached me individually on the sideline, just as I prepared to run onto the field.  He looked ashen:  “They’ve got an All-American,” he said.

Coach Nickey was typical of soccer coaches of that era, in that he had never played soccer.  He taught physical education at Carlisle High School and made extra money by coaching our team, which he was “qualified” to do by virtue of having attended a seminar or two.  He was honest about his inexperience and intimidated to a ludicrous extent by college students, so he rarely offered individual advice.  Typically, he would just urge us, as a group, to “play hard,” “don’t give up,” and “keep going.”

“Which one is he?” I asked, looking at the opposition as they jogged onto the field.

“I don’t know,” said Coach Nickey.  “But their coach told me they got a letter yesterday.”

I couldn’t imagine what sort of skill level would earn someone “All-American” status.   Along with several teammates, I had earned honorable mention or second-team honors in our humble league.  But All-American?  That sounded big.

“Are we going to put someone on him?” I asked, hoping Coach Nickey had a plan.

“Should we?” he asked. His response didn’t surprise me.

“That’s what we did in high school when the other team had a dominant player,” I said.

“That’s a fantastic idea,” said my coach, as though I had said something profound.  “But who?”

“What about Bobby?” I said, referring to our captain, our best player.

“But then we won’t have Bobby on offense, and how are we going to score?” asked Coach Nickey.

He had a point.  If we neutralized their best player with ours, we probably forfeited our own chance to score.  “What about Pete or John?” I asked, referring to two of our defenders.

“Do you think they could stick with an All-American?” asked our coach, clearly skeptical.

I glanced at Pete, who was fiddling with the tie-string on his shorts.  John had just spilled his water cup and was drying off his shoes.  I’d never seen an All-American in person, but I was also doubtful. “We could play him straight-up,” I said.  “We could rise to his level.”

Coach Nickey brightened.  The prospect of our team inspired to new heights by the mere sight of an All-American appealed to both of us.  A movie soundtrack swelled in my mind.

“Sure we could,” he said.  “Why not?  Nothing gets past you today!”

We both sensed, I think, this was the moment where he should clop me on the back and send me out to do battle.   No clop occurred; although we’d known each other for four years, Coach Nickey was not physically demonstrative.   I jogged to my position un-clopped and wondered how long it would take to identify the superstar.

Not long at all, as it turned out.  A wiry fellow with long blond curls, wearing Number 10, was the exclusive focus of F & M’s attack.  “Pass it to Scott!” they yelled.  “Find Scott!”  The first time he received the ball, he cut through our players like a steak knife through butter.  Only moments after the opening whistle, he blasted a shot from twenty yards that eluded my outstretched arm and barely missed the corner of the goal.  I retrieved the ball from out-of-bounds as slowly as possible. “Could we stall for seventy-nine more minutes?” I wondered.

As the game unfolded, Scott seemed reluctant to dominate to the extent he was capable.  He dribbled the ball around the middle of the field, making my teammates flail, but whenever he approached our end, he either weakly shot from far away, or he passed to one of his significantly less-talented teammates.   Meanwhile, the minutes ticked away and I became comfortable, as though a major hurricane threatened, but I enjoyed the lull nonetheless. With the game scoreless at halftime, Coach Nickey, referring to no plan of which I was aware, declared:  “Our defensive scheme is working.”

I felt the only reason we were still tied was Scott’s inexplicable reluctance to finish. The second half proceeded similarly.  Scott played with our midfielders like a cat with mice, but seemed disinclined to attack our goal.  The game seemed headed to a scoreless tie.  The goaltender has more opportunity to daydream than any other player, and I contemplated my description of the game to an imaginary press conference:  “I shut-out F & M and their All-American forward.”  “The All-American was really great, but he couldn’t put one past me.”  “Yes, Scott at F & M was tough, but I could handle his shots.”

My reverie broke with just a minute remaining when Scott streaked down the left side with the ball.  He evaded three of our weaker players and made Bobby swing and miss.  The only player between him and me was John, one of our lumbering defenders.  “Pass, Scott, pass,” I tried to convince him telepathically.  But Scott had apparently decided to assert himself.  He faked one way and went the other, leaving John to grasp at air.  He bore down upon me as I angled to protect the twenty-four foot cage.

Everything seemed to slow almost to a stop, with eerie silence, as Scott readied to rip a shot from several yards away.  I remember the ball had red and white octagonal checks.  I remember seeing one of Scott’s teammates out of the corner of my eye running down the right side.  I wondered for a split second, that seemed like a minute, if I should worry about him.  I remember the sky was brilliantly blue and Scott had a smear of black reflection paint beneath each of his eyes. I remember his teeth protruded slightly. Finally, I registered the thud of his foot hitting the ball and its flight towards the left corner of the goal.  I did not think I could reach it.  It seemed futile as I thrust myself into the air and flung my left arm as far as I could.  The shot was powerful.

In the microsecond that I had to consider it, I knew even if I reached the ball, I might not be able to hit it hard enough to keep it out of the goal.  Yet, if I made a fist instead of just using my fingertips, the inch or two I would concede would be the difference between touching the ball and missing it completely. My desperate dive enabled me to contact the ball with several fingertips, firmly.

Yes!  The ball was redirected and falling to the ground, slowly, but still dribbling towards the goalpost.  Would it be in or out?  In or out?  How can a split second take so long?  I felt my eyes widen.  I landed on my ribs in the dirt, helpless.  The ball hit the inside edge of the post and nestled, ever so delicately, into the net.  I had not shut out the All-American.  I closed my eyes as the F & M players hugged Scott.

I’m not sure where this memory falls in the big picture.  It’s probably not important; it was just a small college soccer game, after all.  Nonetheless, thirty-five years later, so many feelings are encapsulated in that final shot:  hope; excitement; fear; effort; triumph; and, ultimately, failure.

Intellectually, I realize sports rivalries are mere diversions, without real-life meaning.  To think otherwise would be immature, even ridiculous.  Yes, I understand that completely.  In the interest of honesty, however, I acknowledge that when my children compiled lists of colleges to consider, I vetoed Franklin & Marshall.  And, if I have any say in the choices made by theoretical grandchildren someday, I expect to feel the same way.

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