(“There! That kid! I want him on my team.”)
I hate playing sports. I like playing the game, I like the team comradery, I like the practices, but as soon as there is a crowd of people staring and I’m supposed to remember “zone defense” and the coach is screaming something idiotic like “WHISK THE SOUP, RUNYEON” things get ugly.
At 10, I wasn’t very good at sports. Not that I was unathletic, but as soon as I had the ball (whatever sport it was), I’d bobble it or kick it the wrong way or panic and do the wrong thing. I’ve thrown dodgeballs at teammates. So I’ve always been put on defense, where I could just run up to people, steal the ball and run away with it. In most cases, I’d just run up to them and wiggle my arms and legs a bit, bouncing back and forth, and if they passed the ball it was no longer my problem and the spotlight was off me. This strategy served me well until the day the Westport Travel Soccer game played Bridgeport.
Bridgeport was a cheating team. Not just that they played dirty, or they were mean, but they were either too old for our division, or half-gorilla. No 10-year-old soccer player should have a unibrow. They played dirty, looked dirty, and were the only other team in the Westport/Wilton Travel Soccer League that had a record as good as ours. Where they conquered with brute force, our team was made up mostly of smart, talented young players with a bright future in sports.
I, of course, was just filling in for a kid with chicken pox.
It started as a good game. Cloudy day, not a lot of action downfield, so I could just think about the post-game McDonalds or kick at the grass with my cleats. Then it started to pour, and the game got ugly. A lot of fouls and penalty kicks and whistles blowing. We got into the game. I found myself cheering on teammates and running in circles more fervently. The pitch got muddier, and the Bridgeport thugs started using slidetackles and passing them off as “slipping.” I did my most emphatic impression of a person playing soccer.
Now, right defense is the most boring spot on the field. Correction: safest. Right-footed players would always run down the left side of the field to keep the ball between their foot and the sideline, making for a safer attack.
I had been on right defense the whole second half of the game and I was wet, tired, and cold, but there were two minutes left and the game was tied and regardless of outcome, I was getting that Happy Meal.
Whistles blow and I start to jog off the field. The familiar “RUNYEON! NO!” sounds out, and I find that it’s just a substitution. A gorilla trudges off the Bridgeport bench: Oscar. Oscar was a striker, and Oscar was left footed. I crossed my fingers and pretended I didn’t know what was definitely coming my way in a minute. I got that buzzing in my ears one gets before going out on stage. I knew I was on.
Right from the whistle, I knew I was screwed. Oscar plowed into our midfielder and took the ball. He headed right down the right side of the field. I ran over to “cover” him, praying he’d pass before he got anywhere near the goal. As I got closer, I was relieved to see his wind up to pass. Then I realized he wasn’t passing…he was shooting. From way out. I saw veins bulge and the prep for a game-winning shot. I ran as fast as I could and prepared for a desperate header. I’ve never been good at headers.
The next thing I remember, I was lying on the bench and we were in the throes of overtime. There on the bench next to me sat the soccer ball. Popped. By my face.
I think that was my last soccer season.