Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Boy Done Grow'd Up

It hasn't seemed so long ago that I found myself standing on a frozen pitch in late October, coughing sprigs of white clouds and feeling the sting of the soccer ball against my thighs.

It was a tough game, that Saturday. The ever-hated, and much-talented squad from Mt. Blue High School was up on us 2-0 and the game was crucial for us to get into the post season.

We played most of our games on the football field that year, our third as an organized team. This was the morning after the footballers (as in, gridiron, not futbol) had gotten squashed once again and the field was a mine of divots and ankle traps. In fact I had witnessed my left fullback - I don't remember the kid's name now - plant a foot to kick the ball but the earth wouldn't let him free. His knee bent queerly one way and I watched his kneecap slide clear 'round beneath the skin. He dropped immediately and passed out on the near-frozen grass.

As left halfback (they call them midfielders now) I was lined up opposite Mt. Blue's right forward, a lanky foreign exchange student from some Brazilian town where kids play the game from the womb. I swear he could rest the ball on the bridge of his nose and carry it the entire length of the field. He was obscenely unfair in his abilities, and I think he may have been 26.

I was 18. I was a senior and it was fucking cold out and my nose was running. My knuckles were cracked and one bled a little. I could feel the snap of the cold air on the skin beneath my jersey while the skin on my thighs - in the best shape they would ever be in - was colorless and burned with the cold.

Soccer is a game in motion, especially for the halfback, whose range of territory takes him from one 20-yard-line to the other, usually in full sprint. Forwards remain between the 50 and the goal. The hulking, thick-necked fullbacks, meanwhile, run the least but could kick the hell out of the ball and saved us most of the time. We had great fullbacks.

Mt. Blue was a must-win if we wanted to move on into the postseason. They had beat us at their place earlier in the year on a warm September night under the lights of their football field. They were boisterous and boastful then, I recall. The final had been more like a football score than soccer and anyone who's played high school sports will tell you there's always one game - one team - that leaves you feeling bitter. It's that piece of shit team that pulls on your jersey and sinks its cleats into your toes and never gets the call.

We rode home after that game - only our second of the young season - and one of our forwards punched the back of the bus seat in front of him out of frustration. He ended up in a soft cast for a week and had to miss a game because of it.

We played decently enough after the Mt. Blue loss, though; good enough to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot anyway toward the end of the season. In fact, our last game of the season was the Ice Bowl against Mt. Blue. Due to the impossibly archaic and infuriatingly confusing Heal Point Ratings system, a win against Mt. Blue guaranteed us a playoff game. If we lost, we had to rely on some other team to lose as well for us to still have a chance.

We got to the playoffs that year, but not by beating Mt. Blue. This isn't one of those stories. Evil prevailed again that day, 2-1 (a victory of sorts, given the lopsided finish from our first meet). We played Cony, before dropping a game to Bonney Eagle, I think. I don't remember those later games to be honest, even though they were playoff tilts.

I told you that to tell you this: Harrison, now a freshman, plays soccer and he's better at 14 than I was at 18. He's not faster. He just has a much better grasp of the game, as he should. He's been playing now for four years or more. I didn't get started until I was 15.

But none of that matters. What does is that I'm 40 and can't jog 100 yards let alone sprint for 80 minutes straight. What does matter is that watching him play makes him closer to me, makes it seem like we're communicating at a deeper level than if he were sitting right in front of me. Because when we are sitting across from each other or near each other we hardly talk at all. Not because of some rift or estrangement, but because he's 14 and I'm 40 and, well, we have little in common except for our blood and gender.

Soccer puts us in the same conversation. I can relate when I see the ball carom off his knee and sends him to the ground. I can connect when I see him get substituted when that's the last thing he wants.

I try to refrain from coaching him from the sideline. (I've coached at the varsity and jv levels before - so trust me, it's wicked hard not to) I scream like a schoolgirl when his team scores, and I shout as much encouragement as I can at him (for him).

I like that he's the one who now must suffer the pain and dispiriting cold that is soccer in autumn. I don't miss it but I do. But, I'll let him play for me.

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