Archives for category: soccer

FIT-BIT TO BE TIED

My children were kind (?) enough to give me a Fit-Bit as an early Father’s Day gift. For those who don’t know, a Fit-Bit is an electronic bracelet that monitors how many steps one takes throughout a day. It can reflect the total on your computer screen along with numerous other tidbits of information if one chooses to enter them, such as: water consumption; caloric intake; and, how deeply one has slept.

For now, counting steps is sufficient to maintain my interest; I take off the Fit-Bit before I go to sleep. A typical target number for daily steps is 10,000. Boosted by a tennis match in the morning I managed 20,000 my first day. I’m also a Fit-Bit “friend” with my daughter and wife, so I can compare my performance with theirs throughout the day or week or month.   Time will tell if intra-family, friendly competition is desirable.

*****

Though not a social scientist, and without statistics to support my contentions, I believe the middle-aged recognize there is less physicality in life than there was a century ago. We believe our efforts to reintroduce movement and strength conditioning positively impact our health, appearance and quality of life. To that end, we PAY MONEY to join gyms, hire trainers, participate in yoga, and, yes, wear equipment that encourages these virtuous tasks.   I smile, after all, when my wristband buzzes to mark my ten thousandth step each day. It “syncs” with my computer to greet me with an image of a golden sneaker when I sit down at the end of a walk. How different from when I attended college!

*****

In the mid-1970’s, I played soccer goaltender for the glory of Dickinson College. During my first two seasons, team conditioning was sporadic. At practice, while I fielded light shots from an assistant coach and chatted with passersby, my teammates jogged a little, scrimmaged a little, and kicked the ball around in drills that lacked clear purpose or connection. It was as though our coach, Bill Nickels, a former football player, had simply copied a list of possible activities from a book. (In fact, he had).

The highlight of each day was shooting practice, where my teammates lined up to take a crack at the goal defended alternately by me and my back-up, a person without athletic skill, who had joined the team in order to recruit freshman for his fraternity. Never mind that shooting on goal is a skill rarely undertaken in a game by most defenders and mid-fielders. Twenty people stood in two anaerobic lines to await their turn to blast a ball in my general direction. Through no great skill on my part, their efforts were rarely rewarded; balls that did not go directly into my hands usually sailed over the goal or squibbed sadly to the side like popped balloons.

Our won-lost record during my first two seasons was nearly even. Apparently, in the 1970’s, other small college soccer teams also had coaches who had never played the sport, and consisted of players who were more hobbyists than dedicated athletes.

It was shocking, therefore, to arrive for my junior season and find Coach Nickles a changed man. He still looked the same, with his substantial mustache and dark glasses above a barrel chest in a too-tight tee shirt. But he had attended a seminar over the summer and resolved to mold our squad into a well-conditioned athletic machine.

“This season is going to be different,” he announced to the throng lounging on the grass in front of him. “First of all, there will be no more standing around between drills.”

Several of us looked up with mild interest.

“Second of all,” he continued, “only the forwards and halfbacks will take shooting practice. Fullbacks will work on their long kicking and heading.”

A few players raised eyebrows in surprise. A fullback groaned in disappointment.

“Finally,” he declared, “you’re going to get in shape. Two days a week, half of practice will be spent on ‘brutality drills,’ a combination of running and weight-lifting that will set us apart from the other teams.”

Now the coach had everyone’s attention.

“Weight-lifting?” said several players, surprised.

“That’s right,” said Coach Nickels, pointing to the entrance to the weight room adjacent to the locker room, an environment as unknown to Dickinson soccer players as the moon. “And the running begins right now.”

*****

True to his word, Coach Nickels cajoled the team to do wind sprints of varying lengths. Next up were calisthenics. Then an introduction to the various weights and machines from the trainer who we’d thought worked exclusively for the football team. Then more sprints, then a water break. Then, amidst looks of disbelief, he lined us up for more running.

“When are we going to use the balls?” asked one player, in a plaintive tone.

“When I’m satisfied there’s been a good enough effort in the running,” said Coach Nickels.

A group of 18-20-year-olds looked at each other like contestants at the end of a dance marathon. Lucky for me, as a goaltender, the coach sent me off with the assistant to field some shots; even under the new regime, field-long wind sprints were not deemed essential for me. From my vantage point in goal, I watched my teammates continue to run and strained to suppress my amusement.

While most of us complained bitterly and loafed whenever possible, particularly in the weight room, after several weeks, practices seemed more purposeful. And when we played our first game, the difference was clear. We knew from past seasons that Lebanon Valley College had a terrible soccer team; we looked forward to an easy game to start the season. But the anticipated 3-0 win became a 9-0 blowout. My teammates ran circles around the opponents while I stood, bored and inactive, in front of the goal.

Nonetheless, at practice, the complaints continued. Several players, who usually sat on the bench, quit the team. Soccer for them was meant to be a social experience, not a struggle. A few others begged off some of the running due to minor injuries or allergies.

We won two more relatively easy games and then lost to our only D-1 opponent, Bucknell, by a respectable score of 1-0. (The goal went in off the post; I still remember it like it was yesterday). We were a winning team. We felt strong. Yet, on ‘brutality’ practice days, we dragged ourselves to the field like prisoners approaching the gallows. To my knowledge, no one ever congratulated Coach Nickels for his initiative. No one acknowledged aloud that they could run farther without heavy breathing or that they could lift increasing amounts of weight. All we did was complain, even while compiling a record of 9 wins and 4 losses instead of the usual six wins, six losses and a tie.

*****

The following season, to my surprise, Coach Nickels returned to the drowsy routines of my first two years. Had someone complained to the administration? Were ‘brutality’ drills undignified? Un-Dickinsonian? The concept of coach/player communication had not been invented in the 1970’s. Whatever the reason, most of my teammates breathed a sigh of relief. I admit I was among them. We vaguely realized our regression to a record of 7-6 stemmed from the demise of serious conditioning. However, in our lazy, young minds, we were happy not to have to run those extra sprints, not to enter the weight room on a regular basis.

*****

Fast forward thirty or forty years. We pay to belong to a gym. We pay to belong to a tennis club. We purchase a collection of weights, bands and balls for home use on days we can’t get to the gym. We schedule walks or runs.   We own Fit-Bits to monitor our every step. All of this was free, available (not the Fit-Bit) and AVOIDED LIKE THE PLAGUE when we were young. It is said: “youth is wasted on the young.” I’m not always an adherent of that conclusion. In this instance, however, it may be true. I’m going to take a long walk and think about it.

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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.


DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?

Sportscaster Al Michaels posed that question when the US ice hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On their way to the gold medal, a mixture of US college and minor league players came together to shock the sports world and provide an explosion of patriotic fervor during a low period of Cold War relations. The now ubiquitous chant “USA! USA!” was hatched during the course of that contest.
The game, which inspired a movie and propelled the head coach and several players to successful professional careers, brought ice hockey to the forefront of American sports consciousness for weeks; perhaps, as many as ten percent of the nation was excited.
By fortunate coincidence, I’m in Costa Rica this week and have watched the national soccer team advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup by remaining undefeated against the traditional juggernauts from Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece. Whether or not this performance qualifies as miraculous (some proud Costa Ricans claim it is not even surprising), the reaction of the country’s population is beyond comprehension for an American.
Yes, if UNC wins a national championship in basketball, several thousand people congregate, celebrate, and even make a bonfire. If a professional sports team wins a championship, their home city reliably hosts a “parade,” attended by thousands. Tee shirts and caps are sold to commemorate the event, but there isn’t a national swelling of pride. For instance, when the Yankees win a championship, their accomplishment is greeted by indifference by a vast majority of the nation and is more resented than cheered by the fans of the other twenty-nine teams.
Boy, is it different here! Following the win over Greece, spontaneous celebrations exploded across Costa Rica; people cruised hanging out of windows and perched on top of cars on city streets and highways with flags flying and horns blaring. People cried from joy, and President Solis spontaneously strolled from his home in the capital to personally lead the celebration. A poll before the tournament revealed fifty percent of the inhabitants of Costa Rica believed the performance of their national soccer team to be important or very important. This week, the number is over eighty percent. Since the win over Greece, people are uniformly dressed in team colors smile, and nod to strangers, and everyone understands.
In a world where news is filled with terrorism, drought, war and poverty, where politics has become toxic and culture increasingly profane, it is delightful to bask in a contagious haze of happiness. I recall having previously basked in several weeks of personal “do you believe in miracles” wonderment that also concerned soccer. But the story began several years earlier.

When our daughter, Kelly, started ninth grade at Ramsey High School, we encouraged her to try out for the girls’ soccer program. Her performance on the field prior to high school was best described as “energetic.” Soccer offered her an outlet for a variety of positive personality traits, including: fearlessness, persistence and positivity. But we’d rarely detected several other attributes of successful soccer players, namely: nuance, control and skill. If someone asked: “What position does she play?” there was no one-word answer. Kelly was “all over the place.”
Accordingly, we anticipated Kelly would be assigned to the freshman team. Perhaps, if the junior varsity was short players one day, she might assist. We were stunned when she burst through the door, and declared: “I made varsity!”
“You made what?” I asked.
“Varsity,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” I said. But I have to admit my thoughts were, in no particular order: “Is Ramsey really weak this year?” “Did a whole raft of freshmen make the team, since several of Kelly’s classmates had always outshone her in youth soccer?” and: “Will she be sitting on the end of the bench and, perhaps, be better off on the junior varsity?”
“I’m the only freshman,” she added.
“Julia and Joanie didn’t make it?” I said, incredulous, thinking of two highly skilled freshmen who thought highly of themselves, as did their parents.
“No,” said Kelly. “They were kind of upset. They were crying. They wouldn’t even talk to me after practice.”
“Oh, boy,” I thought, feeling a combination of dread about how several angry fifteen-year-old girls were going to treat Kelly moving forward, along with a guilty thrill of satisfaction and triumph.
“Are you worried about that?” I asked.
“No,” said Kelly, shrugging.
Fearlessness can be helpful in life as well as in soccer.

I knew George Wright, the only coach the Ramsey Girls’ varsity had ever had, since he was also a real estate lawyer. I called him the next day to find out what he was thinking. I hoped Kelly hadn’t misunderstood. Her triumph was so unexpected.
“George,” I said. “I’m thrilled, of course, and I promise I’m not one of those parents who’ll question your choices in the future, but do you see something I’ve missed?”
“Yes,” he said. “Kelly has an energy level we need that has nothing to do with ball skills or positioning. She’s going to be our designated ‘marker.’”
I’d played soccer, and was familiar with the term for playing tight defense, but I’d never seen Kelly focus on marking. I was concerned.
George continued: “In tryouts this week, in a good way, Kelly was disruptive and annoying to the other girls on the field.”
I was skeptical. “You think Kelly will be a critical part of your defense?”
George laughed. “Many of the teams we play have a dominant player in the middle of the field who makes the offense run. Kelly can mess that up. I think she’s inexperienced and oblivious enough to not be intimidated by All-County players.”
George explained: “My plan is this: Kelly’s going to go wherever they go. If they go up, she’ll go up. If they go back, she’ll go back. If they go to the bench for water, she’ll stand and wait for them to come back on the field. Her job is to be within one step of whichever girl I tell her to mark, to make her miserable.”
I was relieved to know George had a specific plan.
“But you have a job, too,” he added.
“Hunh?” I said.
“In the event Kelly needs to kick the ball, it would be nice if her skills were a little better. Can you work with her?”
“Sure,” I said readily; however, I was actually apprehensive. Though we kicked the ball around occasionally, Kelly was hard to pin down for consistent practice.

I’m certain we celebrated Kelly’s elevation to varsity suitably. But what I really remember was the rush of pride I felt. I’m Kelly’s stepfather, and we are temperamentally opposites. In brief, she is an extrovert and I am an introvert, with all the huge differences that implies. Accordingly, while we “got along” at home, we lacked a full range of common interests, and reacted to situations differently. Finally, here was a connection we could share.
During Kelly’s first two years of high school soccer, I never missed a minute of her games. At home, we practiced together once or twice a week, and I drove her to club soccer games. I enjoyed our one-on-one time together more than ever before. On the field, she fulfilled George’s expectations perfectly. She was so good, in fact, at frustrating the opposition’s best player, that one was expelled by the referee for swinging an elbow at Kelly’s head, and declaring: “I’m gonna pull your f…ing braces out!”
A defensive specialist, Kelly scored only one goal each year and the team was mediocre, but Kelly always played as hard as she could; I certainly wouldn’t have expected more. With her seventeenth birthday looming midway through the junior year, Kelly had other things on her mind besides soccer, including: social life, driving, social life, saving baby-sitting money for a used car, and social life.
In a fit of playful encouragement, I said to her one summer day: “If you score twenty goals this coming season, I’ll buy you a BRAND NEW car.”
Kelly’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Absolutely,” I said.
“Twenty goals,” she repeated. “We play twenty games, so one goal a game.”
“Or two goals every other game,” I said, laughing.
Kelly ran out of the room shouting: “Mom! Mom! Guess what?!”

“You promised her a new car?” asked my wife, Katie, incredulously, while we waited for Kelly to come to the dinner table.
“Only if she scores twenty goals,” I said. “She’s scored one a year, so far, so it’s not exactly realistic.”
“You’re bribing her, with the promise of spoiling her,” she said. “Do you think that’s good parenting?”
“I prefer to call it ‘incentivizing,’” I said. “Anyway, if she were somehow to score twenty goals, she’d get a soccer scholarship to college and I’d make money on the deal. It’d be a win-win. But, you know, twenty goals is impossible.”
Kelly arrived at the table. “We’re gonna practice in the basement every night.”
“We?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ll serve me the balls and supervise. What do you think of the Honda Civic?”

Initially, I was skeptical. For several weeks, however, Kelly practiced without fail and made me a believer. We devised a routine where she preceded me to the basement to work alone for fifteen minutes on dribbling skills, then I came down to toss balls to her: left foot, right foot, left thigh, right thigh, chest, head, EVERYWHERE. In the final five minutes each evening, I would revive goaltending skills not used for twenty years, and catch shot after shot. Kelly’s improvement was so remarkable that she quickly outstripped my knowledge of technique, and we arranged additional private lessons with Minor del Rio, a former professional player, coincidentally, from Costa Rica.
Once the season began, Kelly emerged as the junior star on a senior-dominated team. Her style wasn’t subtle; she careened around the field like a bowling ball going through pins. I modified her incentive so three assists would count as a goal, too, since it would be bad if she shot when a pass would be preferable. Thus, fifteen goals and fifteen assists would also earn the car.
When the season reached its climax at the 2000 New Jersey State Championship game against Delran, Kelly was already choosing upholstery. The Honda was hers, with eighteen goals and twelve assists. For the final game only, George put her back in her old role as the marker of Delran’s star, Carli Lloyd. Not only was Carli All-County and All-State, she was All-AMERICAN, on her way to becoming the center-midfielder for the US Womens’ World Cup team. Kelly delivered several strong shoulders (and, perhaps, a bit of an elbow) during the first five minutes of the game, and Carli was never a factor. Ramsey won, 2-1.
A reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the story. The girl got her car, the team won the championship, and the father was delighted. But more was to come. On the strength of her stellar junior season, Kelly was invited to play on an elite club team for the winter and spring instead of the local team on which she’d previously played. Compared to the smooth and silky players the coach was used to, with their multiple college scholarship offers, Kelly was still “a diamond in the rough.”
As usual, Kelly wasn’t intimidated. She pin-balled her way into a starting position and was unapologetic that no one mistook her style for ballet. She insisted we continue our practice routine, IN ADDITION to all her other practices, and assured me I was still helpful, even while I was certain she was beyond me.
Kelly’s senior season started sluggishly; she failed to score in the first eight games and the entire team seemed to be suffering post-Championship apathy. Still, she revived at mid-season and produced fifteen goals in the final seven regular season games, all wins. When the playoffs began, Kelly was in her element as the senior leader, the center-mid-fielder, and the captain. She scored one goal in the first round victory, all three goals in the second round, the game winner in overtime of the semi-finals, and we traveled down to Trenton again for the State Championship game against Freehold.
This time, it was Kelly whose reputation and press-clippings preceded her. The opponents kept her bottled up for most of the game, and what I recall, primarily, is that it was freezing cold. When the clock wound down with the score 0-0 and Freehold controlling play, no one on our side of the field would have been upset with a co-championship. Unable to stand the continuing cold and stress, Katie decamped for the restroom with about five minutes left in overtime.
When Katie emerged to meet us in the parking lot, she glanced up just in time to see Kelly burst through three Freehold defenders to deliver a thunderous finish that nearly broke the net. The sudden-death goal provided a second consecutive State Championship for Ramsey, made a local hero of Kelly, and allowed all of us to stumble through the next several weeks with a sense of “do you believe in miracles?” Accolades along the lines of “All-County” and “All-State” poured in and upgraded Kelly’s choice from a so-so college with a Division-3 soccer program to an excellent university with a Division-1 soccer team and scholarship money.
As the Bergen Record newspaper noted in a feature on Kelly the following week, I had once written a novel-length manuscript about a young soccer player that was a fictional composite of my three children. In the story, the protagonist takes a final shot at goal in the final minute of her final game and hits the goalpost. I explained to the reporter I didn’t think anyone would have found the story believable if the ball had gone in. Apparently, real life is stranger than fiction.
All in all, for a few weeks, our family lived in its own private Costa Rica, where we nodded and smiled to each other and didn’t need words to express our happiness. As for Kelly and me, it was bittersweet when she left for college. After several improbable years of soccer, I’d lost my practice partner. But at the same time, my stepdaughter had become my daughter.


A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER
Jeffrey Levin wanted pants. This unremarkable fact propelled a forgettable soccer weekend into the annals of awful parenting experiences.
It all began innocently. My son, Sam, was invited to join a North Jersey-based 12-year-old soccer team. Most of the players and their families were originally from Central America and lived in and around Newark. They approached soccer with intensity far beyond what Sam had seen in our suburban community. We were delighted he would have the opportunity to experience such a level and, incidentally, be exposed to different cultures.
Though the regular season would not begin until April, the coach entered the team in a tournament in Richmond, Virginia in early March. He acknowledged the distance might present a hardship for some families and said a new player could commence playing after the tournament. However, Sam wanted to get started, and I was anxious to spend time outdoors after the long winter, so I cheerfully offered to chaperone. I expected Richmond’s early-March weather to be mild.
A week before the trip, the father of the only other non-Hispanic player called and asked if we would join them for the ride. “After all,” Steve Levin explained, “my wife and I have a large van, and it’ll be great to enjoy adult conversation. Our son, Jeffrey, will share the ‘way-back’ with your son.”
“That’ll be great,” I said, thinking Sam would be pleased to have someone besides me to talk to, and I would be able to share the driving.
“Good,” said Steve. “Jeffrey loves to make new friends. If you come at mid-day on Friday, we can get an early start. Considering the traffic, we’ll let Jeffrey skip his afternoon classes.”
“Sam will love that idea,” I said.
When we arrived, as scheduled, at one o’clock, Linda, Jeffrey’s petite, Asian mom, met us at the door with three pieces of news, delivered matter-of-factly: 1. Steve was still at work; 2. Jeffrey did not want to miss his afternoon classes; and, 3. their van was in the shop, so we would be traveling by car.
“If you want to go on ahead,” she said, “we’ll understand.”
I was disappointed, but decided to stay the course. After all, we had driven to their house in a two-seater that was not comfortable on long trips and Sam would have been disappointed, I thought, to travel without his peer. Surely, the Levin family car was large, or Linda would have appeared upset. Linda ushered us into their den and showed us how to operate their small television. Ominously, she requested that we turn it off just before Jeffrey’s anticipated arrival. “Jeffrey is not allowed to watch television except for public television programs that we have pre-approved,” she explained.
At 3:30, Steve and Jeffrey arrived home together in what appeared to be a Toyota Corolla. It was hard to tell, because the front hood was held shut by a rope that blocked the manufacturer’s logo. The color was formerly either silver or blue but had been degraded by age into a blotchy, grey-like hue.
Steve, a tall, thin journalist with salt and pepper hair, tried to address what must have been a stricken expression on my face: “It’s surprisingly roomy, once you get in.”
Jeffrey was built like his dad, with his mom’s dark hair. He appeared mature for a twelve-year-old, gravely offering Sam a handshake while his parents looked on.
“Jeffrey,” said Steve, “Gather your math and science books for the trip. There will be a lot of learning time this weekend.”
Sam gave me a “what have you gotten me into?” look.
We squeezed our luggage into the Corolla’s trunk and I was offered the front passenger seat.
“You’re tall,” said Linda. “I’ll sit in back between the boys.”
“Between?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “so they can concentrate on their books.”
“I’m afraid Sam hasn’t brought any books,” I said, feeling like a cretin. “He takes it a little lighter on soccer weekends.”
“On any weekend,” said Sam.
I glanced at him, wide-eyed.
Steve and Linda paused for a moment, before Steve said: “That’s okay. Jeffrey will share.”
“Dad!” said Jeffrey, upset.
“Jeffrey,” Steve said, sternly, “Sam is a new friend. You need to share.”
Jeffrey rolled his eyes and plopped angrily into the back seat. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey was like when he was not trying to make a new friend.
Finally underway, we entered the Garden State Parkway in its typical Friday afternoon parking-lot mode. Steve described his parenting plan while I focused on the bouncing hood and wondered how much jostling the rope could withstand. Once, I looked back over my shoulder at Sam, who had an algebra textbook open in his lap, but his withering return stare discouraged me from doing so again.
“Jeffrey is an only child, of course,” said Steve. “We feel proper parenting can only be done with the focus that one child allows. Sam is your only one, right?”
“Well, actually, he’s the third,” I said.
“Oh,” said Steve. “That’s too bad. Jeffrey plays on this team so that he can supplement his Spanish lessons. Also, being able to play soccer at a top level should be attractive to the Ivies.”
“You’re already looking at colleges?” I asked.
“It’s never too early,” said Linda. “Harvard and Yale have top-flight soccer programs. If they are not ascendant when Jeffrey is ready to attend, his bassoon should also be attractive.”
“Jeffrey plays the bassoon?” I asked.
“And the oboe,” said Steve, “just for fun.”
Sam’s foot collided with my resting elbow.
“Oops,” he said, unconvincingly.
Afternoon turned to evening and finally to night as we crawled south. The Baltimore-Washington corridor of congestion segued into the Washington-Richmond region of construction. Steve chose to do all the driving while Linda doled out occasional portions of “healthy snacks.” My lifetime intake of baby carrots was tripled.
Steve’s voice wafted over me with explanations of Jeffrey’s interests and needs. I nodded or occasionally said “un-hunh” when it seemed appropriate, but I’m sure such social niceties were unnecessary. Steve would have told me about “vocabulary enrichment” and “biology boot-camp” regardless.
I felt electrical charges emanating from my nearly paralyzed lower back as the hours passed. It was well after midnight when we arrived at the suburban Wayfarer Inn where the coach had reserved a block of rooms. By then, the boys had fallen asleep, having hardly exchanged a word. We ushered them zombie-like into our respective rooms.
The next morning, the team met, as suggested by the coach, Giovanni, at a local restaurant several steps from the motel. Its sign promised: “Hot Dogs and Other Fine Foods.” The boys and their families were happily attacking the breakfast buffet when we arrived, and Giovanni introduced Sam around the room. I hadn’t slept well, still feeling as though I was in motion after the endless car ride. But I was proud of Sam for mixing immediately with his teammates, even though they were strangers who spoke primarily in Spanish. Sam established an easy camaraderie with them. I noticed that Jeffrey and his parents were sitting at a table by themselves, and I felt their eyes on my back, so I joined them.
After a few moments, Giovanni rose to speak, first in rapid-fire Spanish, then in halting English, for the benefit of us and the Levin’s. “We have two games today and, if we win both, the semi-final and final games tomorrow. These teams are very good, from Pittsburgh and from Boston. Juan Carlos,” he said, addressing directly one of the boys who appeared to have adult-sized musculature, “you will have to play smart.”
I looked at Steve for an explanation.
“Juan Carlos is not disciplined,” he whispered. “It sometimes becomes a problem.”
“How old is Juan Carlos?” I asked.
Steve shrugged. “His birth certificate says he is twelve. His puberty may be a little advanced.”
After breakfast, Sam and I joined the Levin’s for the short ride to the field. I was bundled in layers to protect against a chilly drizzle, the hoped-for warmth still weeks away, apparently. Jeffrey did not speak during the ride and appeared catatonic; Linda noticed me look quizzically at him: “He’s visualizing,” she explained. “It’s a technique he utilizes for exams and recitals, also.”
At the field, events proceeded as usual. The teams warmed up on their respective sides and the parents clumped together in anxious knots. Several of our team’s parents graciously greeted me, but nearly everyone was pre-occupied with what I had come to believe were the main parental concerns of youth sports, namely: what position will my child play, will he start, and how many minutes will he play?
Sam started on the bench, which was normal, given his newness to the team. After several minutes, however, he was substituted in on defense, taking the place of Jeffrey, awkwardly enough. I could not avoid noticing that both Steve and Linda were keeping track of such developments with stop-watches.
“Six-twelve,” said Steve, shaking his head.
“I’ve got six-eighteen,” said Linda, looking grim.
I edged a few steps further from them and was vastly relieved when Sam performed satisfactorily. Our team prevailed, 3-1, against the team from Boston, as Juan Carlos led the way. The Levin’s marked each entrance and exit of Jeffrey in a notepad (hand-written in those days) and conferred throughout as though they were observing a delicate operation.
The afternoon game against the Pittsburgh team was different. Their players were not supervised during warm-ups and lobbed hostile looks and remarks towards our team. Several pointed at Juan Carlos, conspicuous by his size, and were obviously taunting him. Only moments after the game began, Pittsburgh players fouled Juan Carlos and they continued to do so with dubious degrees of legality at every opportunity.
“Ref! Make it a whistle!” shouted Giovanni, calling for a penalty. Whether he was understood or not was unclear, but the referee, thin-legged and red-faced, in a striped shirt stretched over an ample belly, was disinclined to take action.
I was happy that Sam was playing a peripheral position as the mid-field action became heated. Eventually, Juan Carlos kicked at one of his tormentors, who shoved back, and shouted: “Get off of me, you stupid Mexican!”
A melee ensued, with punches delivered frantically, with Juan Carlos in the middle. “I’m not Mexican!” he shouted above the fray. “I’m from El Salvador!”
The coaches and referee ran to separate the boys. Descended from generations of Russian Jews who had observed competing bands of Cossacks, Sam was gingerly edging farther and farther from the scrum. If the fight had continued much longer, he might have been found in the parking lot. Once a degree of calm was restored, and the teams returned to their respective sides of the field, the referee pulled a red card from his pocket, and waved it in front of Juan Carlos, throwing him out of the game.
“Dios mio!” shouted Giovanni. “Eso es ridiculo!”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the referee, “but you’re outta here, too. Game’s over. You forfeit.”
He flashed a red card at Giovanni, who threw his clipboard to the ground and had to be restrained from attacking. The referee strode off the field leaving angry and bewildered parents to gather their sons.
I looked at Steve and Linda who were standing protectively around Jeffrey.
“We’re going home immediately,” Steve said. “We will not stand for this sort of exhibition. With the coach red-carded, the team can’t win the tournament, in any event.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“What else could go wrong?” I asked myself, thinking of the ride down, the poor sleep, Jeffrey’s unfriendliness, Juan Carlos’s torment, the fight and the forfeit.
As we walked towards the Corolla to pile in for the long ride home, Sam asked quietly: “Do we have to go to more of these tournaments?”
“No way,” I told him. “We’ll have a one hour driving limit.”
“Good,” he said.
All three Levin’s were silently seething about Jeffrey’s playing time, or the fight, or the result, or all of the above. I didn’t want to ask.
Just one hour into the eight-hour ride (if we were lucky) I was enjoying the fact that no one felt like talking. Sam settled into his seat for a nap, Steve stared straight ahead at the road, and I tried to relax, when Jeffrey’s voice piped up from behind, like a small bird deep inside a well: “I want to get some pants.”
“What, honey?” asked Linda.
“I want some pants,” he repeated.
Steve looked at him through the rear view mirror. “What kind of pants?” he asked.
“School pants,” said Jeffrey.
I thought this discussion was amusing. What twelve-year-old boy wants to buy pants? Surely, Linda would assure him they could go to the store at home sometime during the week.
“Well,” said Steve. “We’ll have to find a mall.”
I was horrorstruck. We were going to actually exit the highway near the start of a four hundred mile drive so that Jeffrey could go shopping.
“Ummmm,” I protested, unable to form a coherent sentence.
“It’s important to honor this sort of personal need,” said Steve. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”
Two malls and two hours later, we were back on I-95 headed north. Jeffrey held a bag with two pairs of khakis and speculated with his mother which shirts would go well with them. I wondered how much stomach acid it took to create an ulcer. When we finally arrived at the Levin’s home that night, Sam and I mumbled insincere thanks and stumbled towards our car.
“What do you say, Jeffrey?” asked Steve.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeffrey. “I hope you’ll come to my bassoon concert next weekend.”
Sam looked at me aghast. “We’ll have to see if we’re available,” I said.
In the safety of our car, with the only alternative being to cry, Sam and I began to laugh.
“We’re not going to his concert, right?” said Sam.
“I promise,” I said.
Pondering whether this was one of my worst experiences as a parent or one of my strangest, I placed it in the top ten in both categories.


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.