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(Guy Clark reference)

You’ve been warned.

What does this have to do with cancer? I will tell you. But not yet.

The thing is, we moved. We moved from Texas, where all of my family was, to Virginia, where my wife’s mom and dad and brother were. The reason? Well, my wife was working at Baylor University’s hospital in Dallas, a highly respected institution, and could probably get a job anywhere in the country. More importantly, as she pointed out, we had gone my way for the entirety of our marriage, my parents had many grandchildren while hers had none but ours, and it was, simply, her turn.

I agreed.

It was probably either that or celibacy.

We moved, and I called around, and I got my daughter hooked up on a team with a lady coach who proved to be an excellent one for her at that time. The lady was fairly knowledgeable, had a daughter on the team but did not appear to show favoritism, and seemed to understand the relative significance of the game (which is to say that unlike me she did not think a loss would bring about the Apocalypse).

When I called seeking a team for my son, the guy that I talked to, the director of the league, asked if I had any coaching experience, and I answered, of course, “Well, um, not really. I was an assistant coach for my son’s team down in Texas last year, but…”, and he said, “Great! You are the coach!”

What?

Truly, I knew nothing about soccer. Nothing. Except what I have previously mentioned, that you kick the ball, that you try to put it into the goal.

But he was serious and he was insistent.

I was a coach :).

I was petrified :).

I am a perfectionist. When I was first told that in the fifth grade, I smiled, and my teacher, Mrs. Byers, just shook her head and said someday you won’t be so happy about that.

She was right. It can lead to anxiety and even panic attacks. It can lead to social anxiety, in particular, and depression, as I have since learned, much to my own dismay. But, on the other hand, it makes you one helluva coach :).

If I must say so myself, and I must, and I do.

I went immediately to the library and to soccer stores. I got books, got videos, saw some of the most boring junk you will ever witness on television: an hour on how to kick corners, all with an English accent and all to a guy that did not even know the importance of a corner kick at the time :).

But I hung in there.

I went to my first practice more nervous, I think, than I can ever remember being. Not because of the kids, of course, but the parents, my peers.

I know my voice was quavering when I addressed them. I told them I loved the kids but did not like them. I told them that they had the potential to rob their boys of a good time, among other things. I really did. Some mouths dropped, but not a word was spoken. I was what they had, and so they had to deal with it :).

Keep in mind, this is formerly bad parent numero uno! I was speaking from experience! 🙂

One parent, the one who became my assistant, told me that I had nothing to worry about: that teams in our area never won. Ha!

That was not hilarious at the time, but is now.

That first team, my first team, went 4-4 as I recall, in community soccer, where it is not supposed to matter. I will tell you that it always matters to me, and I do not apologize for that.

I have told my players, every single one I have ever coached, the first time we gather around before the first practice: Rule number one is to have fun. Rule number two is that winning is more fun than losing.

We take it from there :).

I moved on. I coached my son at a higher level. I coached my daughter on brief occasions. I coached outdoors, I coached indoors, I coached community, I coached select (advanced), I coached travel, I coached girls, I coached boys. I always succeeded. I did.

I should say that my players succeeded. Always. They did.

(I am allowing you to avoid me reciting the litany of every game, every win, every trophy, I was ever involved with, so be thankful :).

Both of my own kids moved past me. They moved to travel ball, to elite competition, and I felt no longer capable of coaching them. My coaching ‘career’ was done.

My daughter played travel ball and played for her high school team as a freshman. My son played travel ball at a younger age even than his sister, and played in England with his team. He started every game, played every minute of every game, as a freshman in high school. Unheard of.

Both were MVPs their senior years in high school. My daughter went on to play four years in college, and then coached in Europe! Both girls and boys, high school kids from around the globe. What an awesome experience that had to be! And she would write to me asking for advice on occasion, even though I am sure she did that to make me feel good.

My son played in adult league soccer when he was but 16 years old, and played, again, for the entirety of games. And he did not play on bad teams. Like his sister, he was offered a chance to play in college. In fact, he turned down a potential scholarship.

I am suggesting that this is why I am soccerfreaks. 🙂 The sport has been good to my family. It wrecked my son’s knee, to be sure, but by and large it has been very good to my family, and I encourage parents to get their children involved in this game. It will help them, frankly, if and when they decide to play other sports, simply because of the fitness required.

But, I am preaching. My apologies. (Why am I apologizing? It’s my book :))

So there I am, going to my kids’ games, as an innocent spectator (amazing how you can turn back into a monster when you are simply dad again :)), when one of our family friends calls me to say that her daughter’s community team needs a new coach. They are six and seven year olds. I have not been there in awhile. I say okay, probably because I am a glutton for punishment.

I write a manifesto for the parents, describing what I expect from the players (six and seven year olds!), what I expect from the parents, and what they can expect from me.

As is usual, the kids love their previous coach and suspect me. It doesn’t get better, as I run them into the ground, to be honest with you. We work and we work and we work on fundamentals and on fitness. I think they hate it, but I am working for free :).

I am probably being too harsh on myself, maybe by an inch or so. Let us say that the parents did not complain, and that was good enough for me. Let us say that the girls hung in there and did everything I asked them to do without complaint, and that was good enough for me. Reputation carries you a long way I guess.

My son’s teams had been winners when I coached them. When I took my daughter’s abysmal high school team indoors, we won as well, totally unexpected. Reputation matters.

Even to the parents of six and seven year olds 🙂

I will shorten this again: We completely dominated in community league. We did not lose a game, won them all by huge margins, and parents from other teams, frankly, hated my guts.

I do not, never did, scream at my players in negative fashion. But I always have and always will scream encouragement to them. And I did so then. At that time, I had a great voice, in all modesty, and a loud one. One dad from another team made a point to walk in front of me with a bullhorn to speak to his team…I suppose he was the coach. I laughed at that and advised him about the rule that he stay on his half of the midfield line. If I sound like an ogre, I do not believe I was. I loved my girls, I wanted the best for them, I worked their butts off, and they deserved their rewards. I was happy to encourage them for their success.

I will never apologize for that.

Let me tell you this: when we decided it was time to move up a level, and learned that our youngest player (the one who actually sold me on the game of soccer…playing in goal and getting a drink of water while someone from the other team kicked a slow roller past her, and who, when I asked her at the half if the water was more important than preventing a goal simply smiled, all freckle-faced, to say, yes, it was) her parents petitioned HARD within the league and even in the newspaper for her to be able to continue playing for me. That was a very proud experience for me. They lost that battle, and she played in her age group, and went on to excel at a private high school academy, incidentally. I keep track of all of my kids.

I’m trying to bring this to a boil here.

Let’s cut to the chase: I took my little girls to the next higher level. We won. We were not supposed to, to quote that long ago boys’ assistant coach of mine. We were from the wrong end of town. While other teams’ tryouts had kids numbering in the 30s, 40s, 50s, mine had maybe one or two new kids :). It was a challenge, it was a blast.

And we won.

My arch-nemesis, to be fair, the lady coach of one of the teams in probably the wealthiest areas in the city, called me one night and asked if I was interested in a player she had no use for. I said, “Sure, give me a number.” The mom and I talked, and they came to our next practice. She was supposed to be a goalkeeper, and she was not all that good on the field otherwise, and on top of that, my girls were schooled well, if I can humbly submit, and they, in turn, schooled her that first night. They blistered her. Still, I could not turn down just one player trying out, so we took her.

And began her education :).

I cannot claim credit for this young lady’s success as a keeper. I cannot. Others have had a much bigger stake in that. But I took her onto my team, tried to teach her a few things, and she learned them, and she became a great keeper.

In our season-ending tournament one of those years, the Hampton Roads Girls Soccer Association tournament, the biggest tourney of our season, frankly, with teams coming from out of the area to play, in fact, something we were just getting used to, as we were not yet a travel team, it was starting to snow as we made our way to the final. Yes, we expected to be in the final, and there we were. I, of course, approached each game as if we were doomed, and somehow the ladies pulled me out :).

Officials decided we would not play. In order to let out-of-towners hit the road and avoid the snow (around here an inch is considered a major snowstorm), we would go immediately to penalty kicks. For those of you not in the know, this is a point where you choose five players from among those playing, to take a kick from a spot very close to the goal. The opponent does the same. It is difficult, even at that level, even among kids of that age, for a keeper to prevent opponents from scoring.

Ah, well. You play with the hand you are dealt.

Kristin, the keeper I referred to above as the player I kept, even when I had doubts about her abilities, stopped every single shot by the opposition. In the meantime, none of our key offensive players, the ones I chose to take those critical shots, could not get it past the other keeper either. My ace in the hole was Kristin. I had selected her to take our fifth and final kick, thinking that no one knows better than a keeper how to beat a keeper. She nailed it. We won. I got a heavy trophy to carry home, one I owe to her, and one I promised to give to her when I was told I was dying of cancer.

(You thought we would never get here, eh?)

Here’s the kicker (pardon the pun): when I was in bed, waiting to go into the hospital for my initial surgery for tongue and neck cancer, there was a wreath of angels surrounding my bed. My wife was there, as were a few of the soccer moms from that very team, and also a few of the players from that team, from what was, at this point, quite a few years ago. They were there for me, they had remembered me, and I was truly touched by this.

At the time, I was sedated to some extent, but I remember this moment, and remember telling them that I must have already died and gone to Heaven (do not go Christian on me, my friends :)) because I was surrounded by lovely angels.

The other night, Virginia Tech played Florida State in a quarterfinal of the ACC soccer tournament in, I think, Cary, NC. I have been there. My daughter played there more than once. Now, Kristin was there, a freshman, in goal, for the unranked and lowly seeded Hokies. She stopped one kick, another hit the crossbar, and Tech beat the Seminoles on PKs following a scoreless regular session and two sudden-death overtimes.

I wrote her and her parents to congratulate Kristin on her success and to let them know it reminded me of that HRGSA final so very long ago. Both Kristin and her mom wrote me back to say that they had thought of the same game, that game from so long ago, and that Kristin’s grandma had even been in tears as she recalled that game.

Next up was 12th-ranked Virginia, as I have indicated. This one was tied up, 1-1, after regular time, and after the two OTs. I watched both games on the internet, by the way and heard over and over again how this freshman keeper was making save after brilliant save.

She acted like it was HRGSA all over again, blocking shot after shot, unheard of at this level. I have never seen anything like it, personally, not at this level of play, not against this level of competition, not in this kind of pressure environment. Never.

Tears were rolling from my eyes. I have lived to see one of my players make it, and to make it to my alma mater, and to carry them where they have never been before. I always wore maroon and orange to practices back then:). I always told them they would play for Tech one day, even though Tech didn’t even have a women’s soccer program back then.

One of them has done it.

It brought me to tears. I lived to see it. It brought me to tears.

I cannot forget lying in that bed, with her and others surrounding me, in semi-darkness, wondering if I was already gone, wondering if I would ever see them again, and certainly never expecting to see what I saw tonight.

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