OUT OF CHARACTER, OUT OF LUCK

Anyone who has watched a soccer game knows the goaltender’s job involves intermittent spasms of exertion followed by long stretches of inactivity. Only the goalie of a completely overmatched team is active enough to be physically worn out. Mentally, however, the position is exhausting. It’s essential to remain focused no matter how far away the ball, so decision-making and reactions are sharp, when necessary. Unfortunately, early in one particular game in my first season as goaltender for Dickinson College, my thoughts flitted like flies due to repeated fouls I endured from the opposing Number Nine. As a result, the only punch I’ve ever thrown began to percolate.
Until that fateful day, violence played no part in my life. Some credit is due my temperament, I suppose, but my parents deserve primary credit. They created a safe environment. My father, in particular, disdained physical confrontation. He most often expressed his distaste in connection with sports, a field that held great interest to me, but none to him.
“Animals,” he grumbled each time the television news showed a highlight. Though otherwise respectful and engaged in my activities, my father ignored my near-obsessive participation in baseball and soccer, and left my mother the task of taking me to and from practices and games. Football and ice hockey didn’t appeal to me, fortunately, or we might have argued. Although my father didn’t exercise a veto of my choices, if he had, I wouldn’t have played anything more physical than table tennis.
To put this in perspective, my father never saw me play soccer in middle school or high school. He saw only parts of several baseball games over the years. The only athlete’s name he seemed to know, from local news reports, was the Phillies’ 1970’s-era catcher, Bob Boone. My father liked to repeat his name as fast as possible, as though the resulting sound proved his point.

*****

The first time he fouled me, Number Nine kicked my ankle. It struck me as accidental and not extraordinary, given the context. I’d gone to my knees to gather a low shot and he arrived hoping for a rebound. He even mumbled: “Oops, sorry.”
The second time, only moments later, Number Nine nicked my nose with his forearm after I had caught a routine shot. The referee called a foul and, again, Number Nine said: “Sorry.” I glared at him as formidably as possible to try to convey: “Don’t do that again.”
Only a few minutes later, I dove to block a bouncing shot with my chest, and pounced on the rebound. Enough of an interval passed for me to stand up with the ball in my arms when my tormentor plowed into me from behind and caused me to fall to the ground. The referee ran over and showed Number Nine a yellow warning card, and said to him, “One more and you’re out of the game.” Again, my apologetic opponent said “Sorry” as he jogged away.
“Quit saying sorry and quit doing it!” I blurted to his departing back, as I wiped grass and dirt off my forehead. He turned and glared at me as though there were something wrong with me, as though I should be more understanding, as though the opportunity to be a human piñata was an honor he had bestowed upon me. I thought I detected a smirk. I recall having felt disbelief mixed with anger, my heart pounding.

*****

My consolation was that Number Nine had been warned and certainly wouldn’t hit me again, lest he be thrown out. For fifteen or twenty uneventful minutes, I focused exclusively on the flow of play. After I caught a slow, non-threatening shot, to my amazement, Number Nine ran alongside me and swung his elbow into my shoulder. Instinctively, I shifted the soccer ball to my left hand and flung my entire body, led by my right hand, at his receding head. I felt only air and a few strands of his hair on my knuckles. I nearly fell over from the effort. Simultaneous with the referee’s shrill whistle I looked up to see my father, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, standing just ten feet behind the goal, having chosen to surprise me by driving over two hours to the game.
Here I was, his son, away from his home for just one month, trying to deliver a knockout punch like Muhammed Ali, though not nearly as gracefully or successfully. The referee arrived to wave a yellow card in my face and then turned to Number Nine with a red card, ejecting him. Thus, justice was done, but my father received my explanation over dinner with evident skepticism.
“This is what they teach you at college?” he finally asked.
For certain, nothing he saw that day changed his opinion about sports.

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