Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kicking balls and other life lessons

It took me a second to realize what was happening given where I was. The cold wet air burning my lungs, the grogginess of being awake and already sweating early Sunday morning, and coarse dirt beneath my feet was all familiar.  The kid getting his face smashed twenty feet away by two strange men was definitely not.

He wasn't much of a kid. At least he didn't look like one, more like an teenage-Yeti based on the amount of body hair he sported. I had seen him in the shower, this was no child. And as most of your Eastern-Euro-Mediterranean-types go, he was surely shaving before he could crawl. Let's call him Turkish Twin 1A or just TT1A for short.

TT1A was having a bad morning. I turned to look at a spot I had just left to find him having his face used for punching practice by two other unknown dudes that hadn't been there seconds ago and weren't supposed to be there at all. I remember most the shock at the amount of damage these two made in such a short period of time. Not unlike now when I leave my daughter alone for thirty seconds to use the bathroom. I have no idea what caused this little meeting but it was over as fast as it began. The speed-boxing duo took off in a blur with Turkish Twin 1B, the identical, yet somehow even hairier version of his brother in full pursuit. Shockingly, TT1A was able to pick himself up, gather his wits and his teeth and followed his brother. Then others followed, chasing the two, bellowing like Comanches after John Wayne. The strangers made it to the parking lot just ahead of the mob, speeding off with a trail of Mercedes and Audis missing their side-view mirrors in their wake.

Oh, where was this you ask? A Chuck E. Cheese parking lot? Falafel King? A Turkish prison?

If you guessed a youth club league soccer game in Heidelberg, Germany, you can claim your prize.

I was athletic growing up, but no athlete. Forged by the stern will of a woodsy, Army officer father, from the very beginning I was encouraged told to play something. Doesn't matter what, just go outside and do it, but be sure do it well. A childhood spent across the globe with two stints in Europe, and two left-hands, meant that something was soccer.

I played the game frequently, mostly because it was the only thing to do wherever I was and video games weren't a thing yet. Honestly, I found it boring. The monotony of cheap, meaningless uniforms, unskilled coaches reliving their youth and abusing the power of a plastic whistle around their neck, warm orange-slices at halftime, even warmer Capri Suns for the ride home, a nameless flimsy plastic trophy that meant nothing, just wasn't that exciting.

But somewhere along the way, things started to change. The game began to get a little easier. Then you start to hear your  name yelled from the other parents, not just your own. Your eyes widen and your heart pounds when that one punk kid's mom on the other team's sideline screams Oh, no! Stop him! as you blow by. You can run faster and do things the other kids can't. People start asking, wanting you to play with them. Then that trophy starts to actually mean something, and not everyone gets one either.

You never really forget that first time you find out about confidence and what a huge and powerful thing it is.

I played the game consistently for more than twenty years. But I was never that good. No colleges chased me with offers of free rides and fame. There were many others far better than me. The few memorable moments of glory or agony remain mostly in my mind or long gone. There was no internet then, just a few old photographs and grainy VHS tapes to prove any of it ever happened. Sure, my chest still tightens and the heart rate pounds sometimes, thinking back to a certain big game that I want to relive or undo or that time I almost scored in Turkey playing against the Italians.

Here I am, number 38, hopped-up on oranges and Capri Suns.
But it's really not the wins or the losses, coaches, or ghastly uniforms I ever dwell on for long, it's all the stuff I learned along the proves useful now. Unlike trigonometry, still not using this.

I had nice legs they said, but nothing nice enough for those shorts. Also, TTIA in better days, with all his teeth. 
I learned about humility. And when to be assertive. Despite an all-conference, most valuable defense player, state champion runner-up, starting-sophomore, the average blond-haired, slightly pudgy, blue-eyed Aryan monsters like the dude above and other assorted Euro's can, and will embarrass you on at the game of soccer. This guy physically and verbally abused for what felt like hours. He was stronger than I was and wouldn't stop with what I can only guess was Germanic-trash talk about my abilities and our ridiculous national drinking age. He scored and the abuse only got worse.

What you think you can do in life is nothing compared to what you actually do. You end up being judged as much for your reaction to a misstep, as for the mistake itself.

So I fought back. I got called for a foul, then a few more. But screw it, it shut him up. My teammates noticed. He backed down. Okay, so he limped too, but you get the point. Standing up for yourself has it's merits. You have to do it every once in awhile or you'll get run over and never get back up.

I also found my level of pain tolerance is quite high, and that ties in with my ability to be patient. Imagine sitting in the back seat of a tour bus, you're in Brussels, Belgium and home is five hours away, and your tibia is snapped in half, what do you do? You sit there and you take it, that's what. Then you butt-crawl up the stairs to your second story apartment since cell phones don't exist and the Germans haven't perfected the doorbell. Now, imagine coming home from a full day of breaking rocks to find the dog crapped again and while you're cleaning it up mid-dry heave, your wife calls to tell you she locked the keys, and the kid in the car so please come now, m'kay thanks, what do you do? You just exhale and go. Complaining won't always get you there faster or produce a different outcome, even when you find a piece of dog shit in your hair on the way.

Incidentally, the hospital room I had my shatterd leg x-rayed in was also the room General George Patton died in 1945, according to the sign on the door, which was comforting. So the game taught me a little history too.

My speciality was chasing people down, this comes in handy now when the dog runs away.
My daughter started her first soccer practice this week.  Some lessons she has to learn on her own.