Like nearly every young American youth, I spent a few years vainly attempting to play soccer.
I think it’s a rite of passage at this point. Nearly everyone I have spoken to spent at least one summer between the ages of seven and twelve wearing shin guards and jerseys, jockeying around a muddy field with team names like ‘The Yellow Jackets’ or ‘The Big Green’ or ‘The Blue Birds’, all depending on what color jersey you were lucky enough to get.
Most kids were happy to be signed up by their parents, and didn’t mind spending their Tuesday and Thursday evenings zig zagging between orange cones and learning to headbutt the ball, as long as they had the promise of Capri Suns and Teddy Grahams after their games on Saturdays. As usual, though, I approached the situation a little differently.
I started soccer when I was roughly eight years old, with the understanding that I wasn’t fast, nor was I strong, agile, or sturdy. This did not stop me from thinking that I could be a truly excellent soccer player, the best ever probably, if only I practiced enough and had a healthy dose of heart and bravery. This was the conditioning that I had received from movies like The Mighty Ducks and The Little Giants. Even Rookie of the Year featured an athletically retarded protagonist who believed in himself and made the majors in no time. You know why? Because he had heart, and also an improbable arm injury that caused him to throw miraculous fastballs.
I didn’t need the injury to become a fantastic soccer player (although I spent a few weeks after Rookie of the Year jumping off of low ledges in the vague hope I break my legs and gain superpowers of my own). I had gumption. Guts. I had scraped knees, a heart of gold, and a whole mess of perseverance, and that was all I needed to make it to the top.
So I began my career on the soccer field with a glint in my eye. I performed the drills with a deadly seriousness, and practiced headbutting the ball again and again, in no particular direction, so that I could build up a head-callus that would make future headbutting all the easier. While the other girls lined up and kicked rows of balls flawlessly past the goalie, I took aim and sent my own ball spiraling towards the parking lot. Each little failure reinforced my belief that I was the scruffy underdog, which only assured my eventual success.
Finally, our games began. I was named as one of the defenders. Basically, I hung around the goal box and played with grass until the ball began to linger in my direction, at which point I would dart forward and huck it as far as I could downfield. It was a very important job, but I found myself disappointed that I saw so little action. The other girls on my team were too good. They kept the ball confined firmly to the space around the other team’s goal, driving it into the net again and again with ruthless precision. I had nothing to do but hone my mental preparedness, to make sure I was ready for my moment of glory.
It was one of the last games of the season, when that moment came. It was raining, as it often does in Oregon, and the mud on the field was thick. As the players zipped from one end of the field to the other, their cleats sent up spatters of muck and slime, and their knee-high socks were black with dirt. My own socks were relatively clean. Just wet. My hair was plastered to my face. My glasses were foggy. I stood on the far end of the field, as I so often did, waiting for the ball to stray my way so that I could prove myself. Every once in a while, my team mates would glance towards the cooler sitting next to the coach, eager for the game to end so that they could get at whatever was inside. Rumor was there were Fruit-By-The-Foot in there, and that was nothing to sneeze at.
Despite however many feet of fruit there might have been, I remained focused, dramatically wiping the rain from my face as my eyes followed the ball as it smeared its way across the field.
Suddenly, one of my team mates faltered. She was talking to a girl on the opposite team about her bracelet and the ball streaked past her. Both teams stampeded after it, yelling, shoving each other as the rain thickened. The ball bobbled over the uneven ground. It appeared to go left, then a divet would change its direction and it would veer right, then it skim smoothly across the puddle and head left again. Finally, it slowed, swooped to the side, and stopped, inches in front of my cleats.
My moment had come.
The horde of girls halted in front of me, waiting to see what I would do. The parents had fallen silent, except for a single mother talking loudly on her cell phone. The faces in front of me were red, tired, breathing huskily into the gloom of the soggy Oregon morning. I was about to blow them all away.
For weeks I had been practicing a high kick that would send the ball shooting upwards, over the heads of my opponents, to land neatly in the goal. I hadn’t gotten it right yet, but traditional movie lore taught me that there was no way I could fail at this moment, with all eyes on me, with the Capri-Sun growing warmer by the moment, as the game clock ticked down under the strained eyes of our haggard coaches. I was going to do this. It was my destiny. I was about to take my place on the pedestal next to other great athletes like Ralph Macchio and Emilio Estevez. It was time.
I pulled my knee back, my eye firmly on the mud-spattered ball. My legs tensed, my fists clenched. My foot swung forward, toe to the side, the rain beating against my shin guards. A foot away. Six inches. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
And then something confusing happened. My foot didn’t hit the ball at all. In fact, the ball didn’t even wobble as my foot vaulted past it. I saw my team mates’ expressions dim in slow motion. Palms rose in unison to foreheads as our enemies began to let out a low cheer. My foot, unstoppable now with the force of my entire body behind it, continued to soar up in the air. I began to tip backwards, my other foot slipping out from under me. For a moment I was airborne, looking up at the gray haze of clouds, my glasses flying off my face into the cold curtain of rain, and then I landed with a sickening squelch, sinking into the mud.
I lay there like a slug as the opposing team leapt forward, took control of the ball, and scored a goal.
Laying there in the mud, rain pooling up my nose with my glasses somewhere unseen, I realized suddenly that I would never be a great athlete. No amount of movie magic, no amount of dramatic slow-mo or swelling 80’s rock songs would cure my two left feet or apparent lack of any depth perception.
And that is why today I am a secretary and a blogger, instead of an Olympian. That is why I spent high school in the theater and the band practice rooms, and that is why my proudest physical accomplishment is eating an entire bag of marshmallows that one time.
Although I still haven’t ruled out a Dennis Quaid style comeback in my late forties.