On the way back from the studio today by bike, I pedaled past a familiar home. It was the house of a former soccer player, a kid that I coached through middle school who went on to play a few years of high school soccer. He was a talented player. Grew up kicking the soccer ball with his Latino family. In fact, his mother made me promise that I’d never hold him back from playing with members of his family even if it conflicted with one of our scheduled games.
That only happened once, but it was a bargain that deserved respect. His mother is a person of strong family values. Not the faux Christian kind that are so popular in today’s political climate, trumped up with grandstanding and ulterior motives. This was a good Catholic woman who demanded respect for every member of her family.
Like any middle school kid, her son still struggled with self-image and played hot and cold in practice and on the field. As he matured, he grew handsome, and his confidence grew too. I still recall the afternoon a band of girls from the U-13 team we scrimmaged called out his name across the field after a game. “Enrique!” they called teasingly. “Becky loves you!”
He’s married now if I recall and works building high-quality cabinetry. So he wasn’t “home” the day I rode by on my bike. He has his own home now.
Yet the memories of coaching him and other boys on a traveling team built from a successful recreational league squad are still strong in my mind. There is no doubt I could have known the game better. Could have done a better job with coaching skills and teaching how the offense and defense should work. But my assistant coaches were a great help. I relied on them, and that’s as it should be. You can’t know everything or see everything in a game of soccer. Or any game for that matter.
Years after my son was done playing I began relating a play in which he crossed the ball during a match and a teammate performed a flying header of the ball into the goal. “That’s my favorite moment in coaching,” I told him.
“Dad, I don’t remember a single game we played,” my son said softly. “But the practices were fun. I loved hanging out with the guys and riding home in that Oldsmobile we owned with the seat that fell back and the bell kept going off for the door. I remember TJ laughing and telling jokes in the back seat.”
The practices were fun. We were assisted as well by a series of professional coaches from the organizations to which we belonged. Some were liked by the kids. Others were loathed for reasons I never fully understood. My team was not super-serious, for one thing. Despite a wealth of physical talent and some pretty good on-field thinking, for the most part, we played a Division or two down from the Classic or Platinum teams. Yet when we played them, it was usually only a 3-1 loss.
There was a tournament in which we advanced to the championship final. Unfortunately, we ran into a juggernaut squad from St. Louis that had us down 5-0 at halftime. With ten minutes to go in the game, it was 8-0. I was distraught and felt bad for the kids, for I felt I’d failed them in this opportunity for glory.
The kids saw it differently. They knew they’d been thrashed, and suddenly my tall defender got the ball and started doing some fancy footwork in the backfield. He stood 6’1″ as a 13-year-old kid and was still pretty fast and agile. But the sight of him doing moves worthy of today’s stars like Messi and Ronaldo was comical beyond belief. Our entire squad burst into laughter and even the other side got a yuck out of it. The match lightened up from there, and we all went home happy with second place.
Perhaps I could have skipped all that. Focused on my own career like some of the fathers I met along the way, who never coached or just dropped their kids off at this practice or that. Sometimes I felt inferior to those days, whose important titles and hard-ass jobs were definitely the mark of success. But I don’t regret a single day.
All this came back to mind when that mother of one of my players waved back as I pedaled by on my bike. “Hi Coach,” she called out. She still calls me coach.
There are far worse things in life, for sure.