By JEFF PICKELL
In honor of the World Cup, which I’m sure few around here actually care about, I’ve decided to share three soccer-related vignettes this week. I’ve been a waxing and waning soccer fan all of my life; the amount of love I have for the sport is generally based on how much I enjoyed the last game I played in.
I imagine my love for soccer skyrocketed after we beat Mr. Neighbors’ team in the sixth grade. It was the final game of the season, and in our first match up, Mr. Neighbors’ squad had downed us 4-0 without winding themselves.
Mr. Neighbors was the coolest teacher at Highland Elementary. He played his guitar while he supervised lunch, organized nature hikes and kickball games, made up spooky stories during class camping trips, and did all sorts of other neat things.
The problem was that Mr. Neighbors was a traditional school year teacher. We were in the year-round program, so we hated his guts out. And we hated more his team—full of cheery, traditionally-schooled lads with fine hair cuts, fine smiles and sportsmanship their parents could be proud of.
I was carded for yelling at my teammates more games than not. Sean O’Rourke was famed for hawking loogies at the defense. Our coach was repeatedly reprimanded for swearing at us. He called it swearing “to” us, not “at” us, though.
Come to think of it, we were the bad guys. We deserved to lose. But I was fired up. We, the Falcons, were fired up. Probably by evil. Still, Mr. Neighbors’ boys came off the first half up 1-0, and things were looking pretty dire in the second. But this didn’t stop me from talking trash—and capitalizing on a good pass forward from midfield.
As I tore down the right sideline, I remember thinking to the defender, “You’re fast, but today, you’re not as fast as me.” When I got near the penalty box, I faked to the right, which staggered both the defender and the keeper, then sent a wobbler into the left side of the net, finishing with a favorite Calvin and Hobbes line: “Take that, you armored maggots from Mars!”
When the ref whistled goal, I screamed. At nobody in particular. I just thought it would be cool and extra cathartic to clench my fists and scream. We won the game 2-1 after O’Rourke lofted one in from beyond the box.
The next story is more bittersweet.
In seventh grade, I joined the Waterford Warriors as a right forward, but volunteered for back up goalie duties, even though I didn’t really want them. I thought I was going to get the starting forward position. I must have been smoking crack—the starter from day one was my close friend, Kevin Oakley.
However, I got the starting goalie job for the semi-final game of our first tournament—despite all his fancy gear, the original starting goalie was awful.
After the first half, I went to the sideline and took off my goalie shirt. I was angry the coach put me in the net for such an important game on such short notice. I was angry at myself for letting two goals in. I was angry because I wanted to play forward. I was stupid because I was in seventh grade.
“What are you doing?” asked the coach. “Put your shirt back on.”
“I’d rather sit on the bench than go back out there,” I replied.
“Fine,” he said.
Of all the stupid things to say to a coach.
I would call the final journal entry a return to form, but it occurs during my senior year of college and my physical form had deteriorated markedly since seventh grade.
I was again between the posts, this time for my intramural side, The Wolf. Somehow, we made it to the finals. Somehow, we made it to a shootout. I’d like to think it’s because of my net prowess, but it was mainly because my roommate and head defender, Pat Mobley, can dribble and kick, which are skills I lack.
But I can tackle, so that’s what I did.
Just before the shootout began, Ken, the resident muscle head, had misgivings about me and ordered me out of the net.
With a face of stone, I said, “No. I’ve taken us this far. I’ll bring her home.”
To my surprise, my teammates agreed with me. Talk about strengthened resolve.
We still lost, and the defeat was disappointing, but few things are more exhilarating than knowing you’ve won the faith of your teammates—finally.– June 14, 2006