I began coaching soccer this past week, for the 5th Grade Girls Soccer team at school. This is the first year that Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect has been old enough to play on the school team, and she has decided to take a few months off from swimming to play soccer with her classmates. This is not her first time playing, nor my first time coaching. Both her and 20 Prospect Jr. have played in the summer soccer leagues in year’s past, and I have had the honor of coaching them both. I have to say, coaching girls is infinitely easier than coaching boys, or coed teams. They actually seem to listen, and pay attention, and are not constantly touching each other the way that boys do.
My own experiences in soccer began back in 6th grade, during the inaugural season of the Genesee Amateur Soccer Association. As I’ve said before, my Little League baseball career was short lived. After 2 seasons with the Masonic Lodge Stars, I quit baseball in the interests of cranial health. I signed up for soccer on a whim, knowing all most nothing about the sport. In those first few years of youth soccer in Batavia, the parent coaches and kids all learned the sport together. In those days we didn’t yet have a travel team, and all of the teams were coed, which added a different dimension to things. In fact, my first real High School romance was with a girl who was on my soccer team the summer of my sophomore year in High School.
While my interest in soccer paled in comparison to my love of football, I did excel at it. I made the all star teams, and was always one of the better players on my team. Which probably had as much to do with the fact that most of my teammates were girls, or boys too uncoordinated to play baseball, but who am I to judge? The fact is, I liked it and did well at it. Playing it at the high school level was not an option though. Not that I would have ever turned down a chance to play football for Our Lady, for a chance to kick a round ball.
When I got to Clarkson I picked the sport up again for a few years, playing intramural soccer with the guys from my dorm. But the sport eventually faded from my consciousness, other than a quadrennial interest in watching the World Cup on TV. So when the kids started to play around age 5 & 6, I was surprised to find myself bitten with a desire to take up the sport again. I was in my late 30’s and already feeling the cool shadow of the Big-Four-Oh, looming in front of me. What better way to relive my youth, and deny my aging than taking up a sport I hadn’t played in 20 years?
I think that all men go through this phase. Some run marathons, some race bicycles, some play beer league hockey, or softball, and some have the good sense to limit their sporting endeavors to bowling and darts. Alas, I decided that playing soccer with 20 year old’s would be a good idea, so I signed up for a fall soccer league at the National Sports Center. When I had marked my registration form I had requested to be placed on a recreational team. So I was greatly surprised when I showed up for our first game, and all of my teammates were under 25 years of age. Not quite what I was expecting. It didn’t take long to figure out that they had placed me in the competitive league. By the second game of the season, I had managed to pull one of my quad muscles and could barely work the clutch in my Mazda.
A smarter man would have given up at that point, but I am not that kind of man. No, I was determined to stick it out so each weekend I would slather myself in Icy Hot, wrap my leg in an Ace bandage and hobble out onto the field hoping to get in the way of the other team long enough that a ball might bounce off of me. By week 4 of the season things were looking pretty bleak. We had yet to win a game, and our goalie had quit the team. So when the team was unable to find another goalie to join the team I gladly volunteered for the position. Having played some goalie as a kid, I at least felt a little more comfortable standing in front of the net than trying to keep up with guys almost half my age.
If we had lost that game 10-0 the great middle age soccer experiment would have ended there. But we didn’t. In fact we won the game 3-2 after I stopped a penalty kick in the final minute of the game. I’m not sure if my teammates or I were more surprised by that turn of events. I felt vindicated. I felt virile. I felt like crap the next day when the bruises on my arms, legs, and gluteus maximus turned purple. But half a bottle of Ibuprofen, and a few days later I was ready to do it again. When the season ended I was 1-1-1 and felt like I had proven to myself that I was capable to continue playing the sport. So I signed up for an indoor soccer league for men 38 & Over. This, I thought, would be a breeze.
The next lesson that I learned is that men who play sports into their 40’s usually do so because they are very athletic. My indoor soccer team was full of guys in their 40’s and 50’s that could run circles around me. Most had played the sport continuously for over 20 years. Over half of the teams were made up of immigrants from soccer playing countries. So I spent my winter running wind sprints to keep up with English, Aussie, Mexican, Guatemalan, Chinese, Korean, Nigerian and Liberian guys that had been born kicking a soccer ball. Who-wee was that an education! These guys could do things with a soccer ball that I didn’t know were even possible. I learned a lot about the sport during that winter. I learned, for instance, not to attempt a slide tackle on plastic carpet. I learned that all I needed to do was crash the net, and most of my teammates were capable of banking the ball into the goal off of one of my appendages. And I learned that I really did enjoy the sport after all. So when one of my teammates asked if I wanted to play again in the summer outdoor season I jumped at the chance.
My move to the Minnesota Recreational Soccer League made me feel 20 years younger. We had real uniforms, both home and away. We played our games at the local High School football stadium. Most of the guys on the team had either played in Division 3 colleges, or were currently doing so. It was a young team, with only 5 of us over the age of 30, but I managed to hang in there. We played a full season that summer, and the fact that I did not embarrass myself is probably one of my proudest accomplishments. Still, when fall rolled around, and 25% of the team had to leave to go back to college, I decided that my Cinderella season had come to an end. I had proven whatever the hell it was I was trying to prove, and now that I had proved it, it was time to move on. So I put away my shin guards, and my cleats and retired again in peace.
From here on out my soccer days will be limited to coaching, and running around on the field scrimmaging with 5th grade girls. Which to be quite honest is where my soccer career began in the first place. The irony is not lost on me, and I have to say, I kind of enjoy the symmetry of it. I’m not sure if living vicariously through the athletic feats of my children is any better, or worse, than trying to prove to myself that “I’ve still got it.” Even though I never had it to begin with. So I’ll just keep on kicking.