Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Ole!... Ole, ole,ole...

Geez, I'm wasted. Back home at 3:45 A.M. from Memphis where our boys played in the state soccer championships on their respective age bracket teams. They play together on the high school team but this is the big one where the college coaches sit and watch, as parents scream at referees, and hearts get broken, and dreams come true...or don't. Sure, they are small dreams in the grand perspective, but for this moment in time, these dreams are the giant sun that all the universe orbits about.

We have a hurricane coming, threatening everyone, but as a gift, we send it to Bonnaroo, a few hundred miles to the east of us, and in return we get cooler weather for the first two days. Nothing saves us from the miserable heat and humidity of the Memphis June for ever, though, and you would think that the denizens of the lower Mississippi river valley would understand the value of toilet paper that doesn't disintegrate on the roll from the incredible awful wetness of the air itself.

Rain would be a step in the right direction.

There are rivalries everywhere. Teams will say they hate each other, but while the parents and coaches speak ill, the kids get along just fine if they chance to encounter each other at the motels or one of the few eateries the coaches approve of. There is a respect for the good players that goes beyond simple reasoning. Even the "dirty" players are grudgingly admired by those they have vanquished, even though they will be destroyed if they ever show a moment's weakness...Yes, it happens.

Justice does prevail..But!

...Only if you make yourself strong and work hard enough, and everyone else on your team does too... Otherwise you just lose. This is life.

Personalities seem to be at their best, and worst, in the intensity of the big game. Parents say exactly the wrong thing to a child they would give their life for; Children of those parents snap back as hurtfully as they can, when all these kids want, deep down, is to please their Moms and Dads; but they learn about life in the intensity of an artificial war and they get by.

My oldest son, Joe, plays on an Under 18 team. This is the end for them. Next year they will all be at a college somewhere. Only a few will play soccer in college, though all of them are good enough to play at one division level or another. Last year they lost in the championship game...Sure, it is quite the achievement to be the second best team in your state at the highest level of a sporting competition...but very few are seen smiling and chanting, "We're number TWO! We're number TWO!" It is the nature of competitive sports in our world that everyone ends their season with a loss except for number ONE.

The State championship tournament is a test of endurance as much as ability. Soccer is a contact sport, and while serious injury is very rare, there is an attrition rate from bumps and bruises that the strongest teams must survive. This is Joe's year. Going into the championship game, his team is the strongest, deepest, and most skilled, but they face the Brentwood team who beat them last year, a team loaded with talent.

In the deepest agony that event organizers can bestow upon a soccer parent, both of my kid's teams play at exactly the same time for the state championship and there is no way we can watch both games. A choice must be made. The Mom stays at one game and I run between fields...We call each other at every turn of events on our cell phones. Both teams are in the championship game for their age group and this is agony...but sweet, nonetheless.

I watched the first half of Thomas's game and saw him go down a goal. We had been up with him for hours during the night trying to get his deep thigh bruise to loosen up enough for him to sleep. He was hurting so badly that he couldn't walk. Playing in a championship game seemed out of the question but there he was...but he had to take himself out when he realized he couldn't run. I ran over and worked on him, stretching and massaging and stretching. it's tough to watch your child hurt...even tougher when you are the one bending his leg a little at the time, further than it wants to go, causing his pain. I left him trying to jog up and down the sideline and headed for Joe's game.

The first half ended with no score. Joe's team was by far the stronger one but they couldn't seem to work one into the net. The Brentwood team was bunkered up trying to hold them off. When they won possession they would kick the ball as far as they could down the field, hoping one of their very talented forwards could get lucky with a rocket shot... Never happened...and son Joe was an animal in midfield. As the game got more physical, his teammates were the ones still standing and in control of the ball, as players hit the turf over and over. The referee called foul after foul trying to keep the kids out of the hospital, and I could only wish we had these officials during highschool season. Well done, sir! Even the kids said so after it was over.

Ten minutes into the second half, the defensive walls broke down after repeated pounding by the Knoxville team and ball after ball found the back of the net. Joe's team was going to be the state champion but the kids on both teams had to play it out...twenty five more minutes in the late afternoon of a sweltering Memphis June day, already knowing how it would end, but never giving up. This was the end of several soccer careers and there was joy and sadness at the realization.

The phone in my pocket went off...Thomas had come back into his game and they had scored, coming from behind to tie things up. I had not expected this...I had been thinking about how to handle the situation with one child winning and the other falling just short. The team he was up against was an allstar team the coach had assembled by recruiting, officially a big no-no in amatuer sports. On top of that, he was loud and abusive to his players during the game, "a man folks loved to hate" is the term I heard. His team had talent. At least one plays on the U.S. National team. But having talent doesn't mean you have "team" and as the game wore on in the murdurous heat and humidity, Thomas's team came to grips with the fact that they could win.

On the sideline nearest the crowd, the assistant referee went down in the heat. His near collapse delayed the game while his replacement was ferried over by golf cart from another game just ended. The grownups were falling out while the kids were still fighting on the pitch.

We see who the warriors are.

My phone goes off. I am hearing all this while I shoot photos of Joe's game. Thomas's game is now at the end of regulation with the game tied. They play two sudden death overtime periods. The next goal wins...It is called a "Golden goal" and is the most exciting and tragic moment in soccer, but only if it happens before time is up. Then they have penalty kicks to decide the winner. I would rather flip a coin.

The phone again...We have been fouled in the box and get a penalty kick. I hear the crowd yelling from the stadium 300 yards away where the game is being played, but no call tells me if we have made the kick or not...There is the long wait while the offending player from the other team is ejected. Still no word.

Joe's game is over and they are now officially state champions. Running across the field I tell him about his brother's game as I leave him to his award ceremony, the first of his life that I have missed. Running into the stadium I see that the teams have resumed field play...We had missed the shot. Some kid is feeling crushed, Kevin I think. Later I learn that Thomas was the one player that went over to him as he lay on the ground after missing the shot that would have won the state championship for his team.

As I hurried into the stadium, There were seconds left and We had an attack going. The other coach was screeching at his players to cover this guy or that and suddenly several beautiful passes linked up and Josh had the ball and was driving toward their keeper.

Josh's father runs a construction business and looks the type... Stoutly built with a rough voice, used to bossing a crew and shouting at his son on the soccer field. Josh had missed his opportunity to score earlier, sending the ball wide. Now Josh took what could be the most important shot of his life against a supposedly unbeatable team. The angle was tough and the keeper was set and ready as he shot.

Standing at the entrance to the stadium I saw it and I yelled so loudly that the kids around me turned and stared. I wasn't the only one. The ball was in the net. Both of my son's were now champions. The other team literally collapsed on the field, the beaten keeper falling face first onto the ground sobbing. Later he would throw his second place medal into a trash can. Josh ripped his shirt off and ran screaming toward his coach as his entire team collapsed into a pile of screaming sixteen year old boys happier than they ever thought it was possible to be until that moment in their young lives.

The referee went to the pile of screaming boys and waved a yellow card into the air, an official caution for pulling off their shirts.

Coach Mike told the ref very nicely that he was being a dick, though he did not quite use that term.

The other coach stood in front of his bench, hands on his hips, glowering at his team spread around the field, each one still at the spot he had seen his championship hopes dashed, standing sitting or lying on the immaculate turf, crying.

Of all the photos I took, there is one I left alone, though I wonder now if I shouldn't have done it. AS his celebrating and grateful teammates unpiled and let him up, Josh saw his dad who had jumped over the railing and onto the field. Josh ran full speed and lept into his arms, wrapping around him like a toddler...Not a young man who has become a champion...but a boy child who wanted nothing more than to please his father who now holds him like the child he will always in some way be, even as a man.



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