Open your mouth, ask questions, don’t take the easy route….yes, there are lessons to be learned here.

My love for soccer was born on the streets of Sweetwater, Florida. My friend and neighbor Elliott taught me how to play. We would play in the street, just the two of us; we would play on the sidewalk, even: what a challenge, just the width of the sidewalk, the length of our shared duplex property, that was the field. We would juggle with our feet, trying to see how many kicks we could get in before we missed and the ball hit the ground. Elly was always a step or two ahead of me (I always salvaged pride with the knowledge that he was two years older…but the reality is that it was healthy competition, pushing each other to do more and be better). I’d get to where I could keep the ball up for five kicks, and Elly was at ten, I’d hit ten and he could do twenty, but we both progressed and did more and more.

It was a dream for me to have a built-in playmate, especially one who was good enough to challenge me, passionate enough to be willing to go just about anytime I was (it was reciprocated, believe me). I did not realize how fortunate I was with him being right next door, until just recently, as an adult looking back on it all.

Well, we played soccer in gym class also, of course, and that’s where it changed for me. It was one thing to play in the street, with a friend who I felt completely at ease with, and we improvised and goofed around and took each other’s good plays and bad in stride. But in gym class, in a team setting, I found myself a bit lost. Largely this was because I did not understand the offsides rule. Elly and I did not use that, there’s no need when there’s only one person per side. Besides, the team thing has always been a bit intimidating for me, as if any mistake is amplified the more people there are to suffer from it. Well, I could play well enough to fit in, I could hold my own with Elly in our street games, but in a legit game setting, with the offsides rule to confuse me, I felt a tad lost. Maybe more than a tad….

It’s not as if I did not understand sports. I knew the rules and penalties for American football better than anyone in the neighborhood, and I could apply them even in our street two-hand-touch games. Yet somehow I could not quite get my head around the offsides, as simple as it was (an offensive player must have a defender between him and the goal, besides the goalie, when receiving a forward pass from a teammate….something along those lines). I probably would have done fine with an explanation or even a demonstration, but here’s the crux of this tale: I was afraid to ask.

I have always been like this, afraid to ask questions for fear of looking dumb, out of my league, immature….I’m sure any number of adjectives would fit there. Why this lack of confidence? Why this embrace of the idea that I’m….well, anything less than who I am? I am smart. I think that even as a kid I knew I was a smart kid, which was always simply based on grades, as I got straight A’s throughout my public school career. Yet I was afraid to ask about a rule in a sport that I was fairly new to. I’m sure plenty of people would have asked, and plenty of people would have just played  and let the rules be damned or would figure it out when penalties were called.

But I chose not to ask. Instead I volunteered to play goalie. That was the easiest position and I got it without having to ask anything, just put me in there and let me try to stop the ball. So there I was, one of the smaller kids in class, maybe the smallest (I was always on the bottom end of the height chart in my classes) and I am standing in the goal ready to defend for my class. Again, at least I did not need to ask questions.

As it happened, our class had a good team. In the few games we played against the other classes (probably two or three, doubtfully four) we were undefeated, all shutouts. As a goalie, I had a stellar record, but our team was so good that I never had to defend a real shot. Either our team had the ball, or the other team, also being uncoordinated kids, never got a decent shot off at me. Untested, unproven, but perfect.

Due to this undefeated record, we ended up playing another team for the fifth grade title, some silly achievement or other. And the other team being pretty good as well, we found ourselves tied at the end of regular time. Which of course means penalty kicks. I say ‘of course’ now, but back then I did not really understand that aspect of the game either. If I had, if I’d known what penalty kicks meant, I would not have been playing goalie, believe me. Because p-k’s scared the holy heck out of me. (still do, as I recall from playing goalie a few years ago in an adult league game)

All of a sudden I’m standing in the goal, feeling smaller than ever, facing a kid about to kick a ball, as hard as he can, from about ten feet away. Holy crap! Yes I was terrified, and yes it just got going. Each of the other kid’s kicks went sailing in, as I was about too scared to move. I just froze. And then it comes down to one. If this kid makes his, our team cannot equal them, so he will win it for the other team. So up walks Julio to take the kick. Julio was a nice kid, he lived in my neighborhood. I did not hang out with him much or talk much because he had very little English and I had even less Spanish. But he was a nice guy, and he was good at soccer, the star, if you will, of the other class’s team.

Well he came up and let it fly, and it seemed even harder and faster than the other shots I’d let zip by me. This one was close enough to touch, but my hand barely reached out for it. Fear….dang. And just like that, it was over. They won, we lost. I think I was crying before the ball hit the back of the net (okay, we really did not even have nets; it was a pretty poor school, so it was just an empty goal behind me, but I say it like that for comparison). Yes the tears came easily, tears of fear, tears of sadness: fear at standing in the goal facing those kicks, sadness at losing, sadness at not being any good as a goalie, and maybe throw in a few tears of relief that it was all over.

But for all of my fear and tears, it ended on a truly nice note. The ball whizzed past, the tears immediately started, and Julio threw up his arms in a victory celebration, his momentum not stopping, as he ran right through the kick.  But before he ran over to his teammates to really celebrate, he ran right up to me. He put his hands on my shoulders and said something sweet in Spanish, some supportive comment to help me deal with the heartache. I know it was supportive because I could see it on his face. I can still see it, a look of beautiful, genuine sportsmanship.

Perhaps it was more powerful for the simple nature of our grade school level, our meaningless inter-class tournament. But I can still recall exactly how it looked, how it felt. His face was full of joy, his gesture was full of support and kindness, and even as the tears continued, I was touched. You can probably throw in a tear or two at that point for my admiration of his ability to reach out to me. That gesture was never lost on me. Thanks…

me drowning my sorrow in chips and coke….