Friday, June 25, 2010

For the love of Soccer; or my Children are my World Cup

I have neglected this space of late for a variety of reasons. On one hand, there has been so much happening since we moved that in all honesty, it would take a far greater writer than relate it all. So I’m not going to.

Perhaps I’ll deal with some of it all in my third novel, since the first one, and its incessant need for tweaking has demanded attention as well. All in all, we are here and doing well, doing our best to bring the Aloha spirit to Northern Virginia.

Right now, I want to talk about Soccer.

I played one season of organized soccer for the “Junior Capital Chargers” back in way too long ago, when I think I was 7. I was big for my age and appropriately uncoordinated as a result. I could do nothing of substance with the ball, so I played a lot of defense, with my instructions being, “get in front of the ball.” Now, gentle reader, I was not the goalie. Not coordinated enough for that either at the time, regrettably, so my role was to attack the ball when it got near the goal. I remember being pelted with shot after shot, and doing relatively well in terms of hurling myself at the ball (and other players) with reckless abandon. I recall once accidentally tacking a future NYC newscaster quite unceremoniously, as he happened to have the ball, and I didn’t know what else to do but dive at him. We laughed about it years later. But, it was clear at the end of the season that Soccer was not my calling as a youngster. There were other sports and activities I garnered more success in, but that is another story entirely.

Soccer was not a big part of my life much after that year with the Chargers, except the one night I got to go see the old New York Cosmos, and had the chance to see the great Giorgio Chinaglia play in Giants Stadium when Paul’s dad took us to the game. I was maybe 8 at the time and it was my first stadium experience, and it was tremendous. (I filed that one away for future reference, and felt I‘d come full circle somewhat when I took the Boyo to see Beckham play in Aloha Stadium in ‘08.)

The next time in my life that I remember soccer mattering at all was my 8th grade year at SPS. During the spring of that year, my classmates and I had turned to soccer during the after-lunch recess, and we used to play epic games with the wall to the school being one goal, and the fence to the Maintenance area (that ran parallel to the cemetery) as the other. The PE teachers gave us two cones for each goal, and a ball. If the ball hit the wall, it was a goal.

I don’t remember how we picked teams, but we did, and they were our squads for what seemed like months. We had epic battles, dynamic games with as much action as you can garner wearing a Catholic School uniform and playing on blacktop. I think there may have even been trades and so forth, but I don’t recall those details, as I simply played “Big guy” goalie against the brick wall, and got pretty good at it, I think. I remember one game I made a save, and just as a goof I threw the ball across the parking lot at the other goal, and the other goalie, Danny, who happened to be looking elsewhere, ducked at the last second as it thwacked the fence behind him. Score for me… It was carefree fun, though we all kept track of our stats. Oddly enough, I don’t remember ever having a bad time, and don’t know that anyone really worried about who won. It was among the best times I remember during that last year at SPS. Just playing a game for fun. It seems very much like a halcyon memory for me.

I had friends who played soccer in High School, and I followed and supported them, but it wasn’t a major part of my life then. I played some intramural soccer in college and was an avid fan of my college team, but it was not until I started my life as a professional educator that I really recaptured the pure fun that the game had offered me on the playground in junior high.

My first job after college was at a small private school outside of Philadelphia. I was excited and motivated to teach and to get involved in the life of my new school. Through an interesting series of events, I became an assistant coach with the soccer team there, which was co-ed, and played in a conference of private schools in that area. The team was full of characters, and had some talent. I listened a lot to the head coach early on, and learned a ton about how to be a coach, and to be a part of a school community, and even more about the game at its core. It was the highlight of a very challenging year that I spent at that school. Team-wise, it was highlighted by two incidents.

Early in the season, we were on our way back from an away game that we’d lost and played poorly in. There were two vans, one of which I was driving. As young people, boys in particular, are prone to do, they got goofy on the bus on the way home, and a trio of young men chose to moon a tool-booth attendant as we passed though on Route 76, I think. A state trooper happened to be nearby, and seeing the entire exchange, pulled us over, and dragged the offending parties off the van and into his cruiser, to be brought to the station. The trooper was around my age and seemed motivated to make an impression on these three boys, which I can assure you, he most certainly did.

I won’t go too deep into the details of the remainder of the evening except to say that I volunteered to stay with the three, and the rest of the team went home with the head coach. The boys were not charged, but scared to death at the state troopers barracks. When they finally let me take them home, it was the most silent drive I can recall in my life, as each of the boys, after spending a few minutes relating the details of their experiences, realized that I was driving them home to their parents, who would have a whole new series of opinions on what had occurred that evening.

I remember pulling into the parking lot with the boys well after 10 PM on a school night, the van feeling very spacious with only the four of us, and the only cars in the lot being my own 91 Mercury Tracer, “Bullseye” and those of the boys parents. This was well before the cell phone days we have now where everything would have been figured out and discussed over and over before we all met, so the meeting in the parking lot was of real importance to these parents, who had been told only that their children were being spoken to by the Pennsylvania State Police, and that the Assistant Coach, me, a newbie to the school, was with them.

The parents all, almost in unison jumped out of their cars as we pulled the school van into the lot. Under the faint illumination of the single parking lot lamp, I told them the story, and they took their children home, all thanking me for my efforts. As it happened, the boys were never charged with anything, though it took several hours. I will say only this about my role in the boy’s fate. I told the police that I could pretty much guarantee that their parents and the school would punish them far more effectively than they could, and that if their intent was to scare the boys, that they had done it, and scared the rest of the team as well. The next day at school meeting, which was the start to every day at this school, all 12 grades assembled, the boys all stood up and apologized to the school for their behavior and the disrespect that their conduct had shown to the school. One player went so far as to say that he would dedicate the remainder of his senior year to “making up for this.” And he wept. It was an incredibly moving moment and one that has stayed with me over the years.

The team muddled through the remainder of the season until the league tournament. We had lost a few games we should not have and won a few we had no business winning. So, going into the tourney, we felt like it would all depend on the first game, which we won handily. As it was a small league, that put us in the semifinals. One more win, and we’d play for the league championship. And it was a epic doozy.

We were playing a better team. We had two goalies, one of whom was a good goalie who could also play great at midfield, and the other of whom, Eddie, didn’t have the same talent most of the time, but had more heart than anyone on the team. So, we started Eddie in goal, and let him fire the team up. And he did. We played two halves and a few overtimes of 0-0 ball in the pouring rain, and were about a minute away from a shootout when a goal trickled into our net, but I can tell you it was one of the damndest games I ever stood on the sidelines for, as it was really the culmination of a season of ups and downs. For me, it was my first time as a coach in any real capacity, and to end our season a breath away from the league title was nice, but it was far more gratifying to see every one of our players, all of whom saw time in the game, smiling on the bus on the way home. The team went out onto the field as a team and left the same way, despite some challenges. For me, as a young teacher and coach, living on my own for the first time, it was a lifesaver in a number of ways. That was a difficult year, but it got lived anyway.

At the end of the year sports banquet, the Soccer captains called me up and in front of their families and the entire athletic department, they thanked me for “helping us not get arrested.” It was a humorous moment in the evening, but was one that was sincere, and in the end, hooked me once again on the power of sports to bring people together to do awesome things.

When I left that school and moved on to SKS, I again caught on as an Assistant with the Soccer team. That experience, two years as assistant, and another two as head coach in truth generated enough material for a novel or two on its own. Actually, as I think of it, those years could be an entire mini-series on MTV or FX or something. Those were some times indeed. No one got arrested during those years, although there might have been a few arrests (or international issues) if we hadn’t gotten off the field before the police arrived that afternoon in Connecticut, but, I’ll leave it at that. The stories there are far too much to tell, but those that lived them will recall. Perhaps they will make it into one of the novels someday. And, don’t get me started on the time I spent as assistant Lacrosse coach. (If not for Scurvy, we might have…)

But my years with the SKS soccer program only fueled my love of the game. We qualified for the big tournament a few times, and won a league title once, and in general had a lot of fun. We wore ridiculous socks on purpose, told outrageous stories and sang offensive songs on the van rides to schools all over the Hudson Valley and beyond. But some of the best memories I have of the teams I worked with were the afternoons on that beautiful field on our Mountain campus, playing a game, having fun as a team. Those moments when it was all simple and just a scrimmage between teammates and genuinely fun-that is what I remember most fondly, and I think that is what has made soccer so much fun for me in my life: that even when we were playing tournament games in the New England Championship, or playing a big rival, or even when we played for the league title, it was all rooted, for me at least, in a sense of fun. Perhaps it is because I came to soccer later in life. Or perhaps it is because I was really never any good at it myself, that I was able to coach it differently. I don’t know, but I do know that it has meant a lot to me, and I have loved the game a great deal for years.

When I became an Athletic Director, I would like to think I did well by those programs. They mattered a lot to me, and one of the proudest days I had on the job at PG was when we had generated the numbers to do a Varsity and JV game at the same time. Despite all the accolades other programs earned while I was there, I was really proud of seeing those JV games materialize. It was a sign of healthy growth for the program, and it meant a lot to me.

But, the other day, when Landon Donovan calmly plunked the game winning goal into the net in the 91st minute of the USA-Algeria match, I enjoyed one of the finest moments of my life as a sports fan, a soccer fan, and perhaps, as a father.

The children and I had experienced a rather difficult morning where no one was listening or following directions to the point that a return trip to the National Zoo was canceled. It turned out to be brutally hot that day anyway, so all was well in that regard, but the morning was quite an ordeal. After putting out the laundry (for some reason, we seem to be the only people in Virginia with a clothesline…) I came in, and as I’d been watching the USA-Algeria on the computer by myself earlier, and everyone was grumpy, I decided to put it on the TV where everyone could see it. So, the game went on. It was the second half, and there was about 25 minutes to play. The twins are signed up for soccer in the fall, and we’ve worked with them on the basic skills and watched some training films, and a few earlier World Cup matches, so I hoped they’d be interested. And they were.

They sauntered over to the couch, and sat there with me as the US toiled to score. Chance after failed chance, they lamented the missed opportunities. At one point, the girl said, as I had explained to them that if the US were unable to win, they would be out of the tournament, “Ohhhhh….I don’t want them to be out…like the Eagles were….” I was very proud and yet…well, Philly fans will understand.

But, they chanted “USA” with me, and we were all sitting together on the couch, watching the match unfold. As the time ticked away, the twins were increasingly engaged. “I want them to win, Daddy!” “I think they should score now…then they’ll have one more than the other team.”

I tried to temper them a bit, as, being a lifelong Philadelphia Sports fan, I am used to negativity and expected the team to come up short, I mean, two goals disallowed earlier in the tournament, etc… But, the twins did not want to hear all that, and each time the USA pressed the ball, they got excited. And each time they saw the Algerians move the ball, they got frustrated. They were right there with me for end, and then Algeria had their chance on goal, and Howard tossed the ball near midfield in transition, I sat up, and the kids all sat up too, even the little bear, who up until then had been building a house for Baby Ruff-Ruff on the other side of the room, and I said, “they’ve got numbers on them…”

To which one child said, “huh?” and the other said “Shhh….” and when Donovan sent the ball into the box, and well, the rest is history. I’d post a clip, but FIFA pulled them all down from Youtube. When Donovan scored, there was much rejoicing in my home. I’ll admit, I was more surprised than anything-but it was a tremendous moment. The kids were all excited, though once the game was over, they did ask when it might be time for a “Dinosaur Train” episode.

For me, it was a great moment. One of the greatest moments in American sport, in my opinion, and if it is the goal that spurs them on to a greater achievement for American soccer, than I’ll remember it even more fondly. I’m not certain if this will be my children’s generation’s version of “Do you believe in Miracles? YES!” But, I suppose time will tell. I know I still have a poster of the Lake Placid Olympics, 1980, on my wall, from the year an American team shocked the world. It hangs on the wall about three feet from where I write this.

For me, after a lifetime of having soccer permeating my existence at some of the most interesting, unexpected, and at times, challenging moments in my life, it was really something to share that flash of pure and unadulterated joy with them. My kids know how to cheer for the Eagles, and Phillies, and Flyers, and Buckeyes (and may learn perhaps how to do so for the Sixers if they can finally remove their heads from their tuckuses.) They got an early training on how to cheer for the USA during the Winter Olympics. (They loved Shaun White and US Hockey-I was so proud.) They are getting a whole new lesson on how to cheer now, and I hope they get the chance to cheer for a few more weeks.

I don’t know that they will remember any of this as the grow older, but for now, for me, it was a fun moment, all three of my kids and me, watching the USA win a big game in the World Cup, snuggled under my big quilt, which was there not for warmth but just for comfort. We all cheered, and we all leaned on one another at the same time, without forethought or pretense-just the fun of being together.

I hope for a few more moments like that from this World Cup as a fan of soccer and what it has meant for my life. And I’ll continue to work for such moments with my children far beyond such things as a game in soccer or in any sport.

They already are my World.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Quick update

Just a quick update-we are moved into our new house. Getting there was quite an ordeal, as everyone got sick. That said, we are there, and are seetling in.

I hope to have a new column in the next week or so. At this point, there's a lot to cover, and I'm debating whether or not to try and recap the whole trip or start fresh.

Also, I have finished the novel, printed and bound my first copy, and am doing a last proof while I consider an agent/publisher. Suggestions welcome.

Thanks for all your support-check back here soon for more Aloha goodness.