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(John Prine reference)

(Warning: This is a soccer story. You may want to skip it. Once I get started with soccer, I tend to go on forever.)

You’ve been warned.

Tonight I found myself literally in tears at the end of nothing more complex or serious than a soccer game. They were tears of joy, and they were very real.

You may suspect that I take the game too seriously, or that I take sports too seriously, and that may be so. In this case, though, a young lady that I coached when she was nine, 10, 11 years old, was playing in goal for my alma mater, as a freshman! In the ACC tournament semi-final! Against arch-rival Virginia who were also ranked No. 12 in the country while we are unranked despite besting a number of nationally ranked teams this year, not the least of which was No. 5 Florida State in the game that allowed VaTech to face Va.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

My daughter was eight years old, as I recall, and playing softball for a team called the Heartbreakers when she broke her dad’s heart. I was so proud of her out there, but, regrettably, I was one of those nasty parents that likes to coach his child from the stands. It was tough on her when she was catching, since I was sitting pretty much right behind her while giving her constant advice. When she played in left field, I stood along the fence to continue my scholarly oral dissertations on her performance :).

I was, as I later learned as a coach, a bad parent. Perhaps the worst.

Bad enough that once, while my sweet young thing was working behind the plate, she finally turned around and shouted up into the stands, “Dad, be quiet!”.

Ha!

Tough kid, even then.

I was mortified, and swore I would never go to another of her games. She, in turn, decided to play a sport that I knew nothing about, a funny game called soccer.

The thing is, I grew up playing baseball, and was really hoping she would stay with softball. I knew the game. I was, in my mind, an expert, and I thought I could help her excel at this sport.

Soccer, as I suggested to her every time I took her to practice, was a ‘communist sport’ :). Not many kids were playing it then, in the 80s, and I still believe she did it to shut me up. That did not happen :). She would say, “Dad, it’s time for practice,” and I would respond, “Okay, time to go play your communist sport!”. I really was a bad sports dad.

But I DID work with her on her game, even though I knew nothing about it beyond the fact that you kicked a ball. So we worked on kicking the ball. And I kicked one that hit her directly in the face in a fairly accelerated fashion, such that the Spalding emblem on the ball was afffixed to her forehead, I think.

My children were, of course, not allowed to swear, and especially not to their parents, but, really, they were not allowed to swear. Still, when she said a cussword or two as she went crying into the house for her mom, I understood, and let it pass. To do this day it brings a huge smile to my face, although I probably should have wondered where she was learning such words. (Oh, yeah, I forgot…from me!)

To her credit (and she was the youngest adult I ever knew, to be honest with you), she came back out, all of eight or nine years old, wiped away the tears, and we went back to work. It is a cherished memory, although it did absolutely NOTHING to convince me this was a useful game for my beautiful daughter.

Later, when I went to my first official game that she played in, I took, literally, a six-inch think printout of code to study, which I figured would be much less boring than the ‘communist game’.

I sat away from the other parents, as I suspected they were under surveillance by the FBI for supporting such a sport, sat in a lawn chair, reading code for all of about five minutes. Hoping that the FBI was sleeping on the job, I slid the six-inch pile of code beneath my chair and started watching.

And very nearly got my first card :). If you do not know soccer, cards are penalties issued, typically to players, occasionally to coaches, for fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct, profanity, and the like. A yellow card means that you have committed one of the above sins. A red card means you have gone completely out of bounds and are ejected from the game.

What happened was that one of the players on my daughter’s team fell to the ground with a clear injury, and the referee allowed play to continue. Now, in the sports I played, if someone was injured you stopped the game. I was rather irate, and I expressed my irritation with all of the vocal power I could conjure. The referee took as much of this has he could and then stopped play and calmly walked over to my daughter’s coach and told him that if I continued, the coach would receive a card, and I would be ejected from the playing field completely.

The coach was kind enough to relate this to me with calmness, and I shut up.

After this game, the referee came to me directly, and I thought, “Here we go!”. I was rather rowdy back then.

But, he was calm and collected and explained the rules to me, something I had not bothered to read, of course, being averse to communist sports (:)), and I was impressed by the logic: if we stop the game every time somebody falls down, no one will ever score. Since they rarely score anyway, this made sense immediately. Of greater importance, I was impressed with his demeanor and with the seeming gentlemanly nature of the game.

As a dart thrower, I respect games where fairness and a sense of camaraderie, even among competitors, are respected and even demanded, and this started to seem like such a sport.

This was probably a cause of great regret for my daughter. At least initially. Fortunately for her, I knew absolutely nothing about the game, other than the concepts that you cannot touch the ball with your hands (unless you are a goalkeeper) and that success is measured (at least then, in my small mind) by kicking the ball past the opposing goalkeeper and into the goal. Seemed simple enough. And it IS a simple game. But not THAT simple, as I was to learn.

Of course, I DID learn to control myself. I do not know why an umpire never suggested that I might be ejected, but I thank that soccer official to this day, for coming to me after the game, with no threat, to explain a pivotal rule to me. It changed my life, actually.

I came to love this strange ‘communist’ game.

At the same time, I was an assistant coach on my son’s Little League team. Six years old, as I recall, he was. I remember those days as glorious. I remember though, that he once ran from first base to the pitcher’s mound, rather than to second base. I remember that once, when he got to second base safely, he pushed the second baseman off of the base :). I cannot help it, it still makes me laugh.

And, I remember him taking my advice to go after the ball to heart, and, while playing in the proverbial suck position of right field, actually ran after the center fielder, who was chasing a well-hit ball, and tackled his own player before getting up and retrieving the ball himself.

I remember being the third base coach and contesting a call as my son (of course) was called out sliding into third, that I was not just ejected but asked to leave the area completely. Yes, I was that kind of dad. The problem was that my wife was either at work or in school on that Saturday morning, so it was my responsible to stay with my little boy. I was in a definite quandary.

I drove home, changed, came back, and hid behind trees and telephone poles, watching the game from these disadvantageous positions, of course, surreptitiously until the end of the game, when I, naturally, went out there and got him :). Funny, now. Not so funny, then, especially to the wife when she got my report of the day’s activities :).

We also had a few players on the team who were clearly afflicted with ADHD, the hyperactive attention deficit disorder. I recall being in the dugout on many occasions while these two or three kids were literally climbing the chain link that was our protection. It drove me absolutely bonkers.

I was happy to encourage my son to get into soccer. You probably are wondering what this has to do with cancer, but it does. Bear with me, if you will. I take awhile to get to some places, I know.

Ry gets into soccer, and his coach is this jolly teacher who clearly loves the kids and probably knows a little bit about the game (enough to coach kids of this age, who simply need to learn to love the game…the rest can come later, even though, of course, this radical dad does not understand that).

Yet.

I make the mistake at the end of his first season of telling Ry’s coach that if she ever needs any help, to just let me know. I thought everybody said that :). She said, “Oh, good, I need an assistant next season!”

I honestly did not intend for that to happen, and I tried to dodge and weave, but she nailed me. I was stuck. And that is exactly what it felt like. What do I do? I know nothing about this game, and very little about child psychology, beyond what I learned (minimally) in college.

But, I joined her the next season, and kept my mouth shut. I think this was her intent :).

Over time, for practices, she started coming later and later. I found myself having to fill in and take over and run the practices. At first, I just repeated her stuff, since I was only doing it for a short while, the usual preliminary stuff. But, and I know she did this on purpose, she eventually didn’t show up for nearly an hour. On this particular day, I had some discipline issues (soccer really does lure in the ADHD and the ADD kids, I’m serious, and I am happy about that). So, I sent a kid to sit. Then another. Then another. Then a little girl went over with the ones sitting :). And then MY son went over there!

Ultimately, every single player, every single child, was sitting against a tennis fence refusing to do my bidding.

I was in deep! What would I say when the coach, a teacher and very good with the kids, showed up (and where the heck was she, anyway?) and found all of the kids…all of these six-year old kids protesting? I felt like Arnold in Kindergarten Cop. I had absolutely no clue. The parent in me did not want to give in to this tantrum on their part, as I perceived it. The adult who didn’t want to be embarrassed to have completely ruined a practice and lost control of six-year olds was mortified.

I began to hope that she would not show up. To shorten this story somewhat, I cut a deal with the kids, they came back out, and we did a practice that I had designed with no intent to use it ever. By the time Coach got there, they were busy and happy. I told her about my experience, of course (lest one of those little rats snitch me out :)) and she laughed and said I did a great job and that I would make an excellent coach.

That was the beginning, folks.

Tonight, as I said in the beginning, I was in tears, and what you have just read is where it all began.

I do not intend to drag this on, but it does indeed deserve at least one more chapter. We do, after all, need to get to the cancer connection.

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