I really wanted to play football when I got into high school.
As a kid, I played in neighborhood pick-up games almost every afternoon during the fall. I was fast, rugged for a small guy, and competitive. In high school I now had the opportunity to join an organized team, with equipment and uniforms and official fields, with lights at night, announcers, yard lines, real opponents from other schools, and best of all, motivation we rarely had in our backyard games–cute cheerleaders bouncing around on the sidelines.
“Naw. Too rough. You’ll get crushed,” warned my dad. “You’re no giant, ya know. How about soccer?”
Pop was always extremely skilled at offering me options in life. As I got into my teens, both he and mom started loosening up on some of the strict parameters cast around me. They developed this amazing ability to balance general advice with occasional specific orders. They operated then, and still do, with refined diplomatic grace. They are pure masters at it.
They were carefully, subtly, but deliberately introducing me to the concept of adult free will and the value of making my own thoughtful decisions. each of which results in either rewards or detrimental consequences, and more often than not, a mixture of both.
They were letting me learn from my successes and failures, as long as it was not too brutal. I usually caught on, realizing that sometimes short-term gratification and delight can mask over a hollow infrastructure, where more genuine, lasting benefits never materialize.
“But Dad, seriously? Soccer? Who plays soccer?” And who actually tells people they play soccer?”
Very few kids in America did play the sport when I was a young pup. It was popular in the Northeastern U.S., but was still in its infancy nationwide. Nevertheless, it was becoming more prevalent as a school sport, and dad saw it as a safer option for his son’s physical longevity.
“C’mon Dad, football players are tougher, have prettier cheerleaders, bigger crowds and attract more media attention. They also get more pages in the school yearbook.”
Deep down I recognized that there was another thing driving me. I know this may sound silly, but it’s a guy thing, I guess. Most of all, I wanted to wear a helmet. A helmet emblazoned with some cool team logo.
When you put on and take off a helmet, you know you’re playing a real sport. An intense sport. Helmets weren’t very prevalent in sports when I was young, so you were something special if you had one on your head. Nowadays, of course, a helmet, or some kind of protective head gear, is worn for nearly any activity: baseball, cycling, skiing, snowboarding, rafting, kayaking, mountain climbing, lacrosse, babysitting, day care, and divorce mediations. Who knew about all the potentials hazards back in the 1970s?
Even as a know-it-all teenager, I was smart enough to recognize that my folks were making a special effort to let me steer my own ship, but were being kind enough to offer wisdom based on experience. Nearly always, they knew better. They wanted to protect me. That was their main job. They wanted me alive and standing up straight for the next family photo. I gave them credit for all that … at least most of the time.
In the case of playing football with guys twice my size, I could see that dad had a point. Besides, he liked me. He wanted me to make it to college, maybe even live into my twenties. I think he also wanted a reliable golf buddy for later in life.
His description of the top ten worst football injuries was the clincher. I was being swayed.
“You think it over for a few days, son. We’ll talk about it some more then.”
After a few follow-up discussions about the size of linebackers, those famous ten injuries, and the subsequent healthcare costs, I acquiesced. Maybe I would like soccer. Besides, the school’s logo didn’t look all that impressive on the helmet.
“Ya know, Dad, I do like soccer. I like soccer players better, too. They don’t have that super tough-guy attitude football players have. And they aren’t hung up on rituals and symbolism like baseball players. Plus, it’s a hell of lot more fun and active than that stupid baseball I played when I was in elementary school. Little League and all that organized, pretentious stuff. No action and a lot of sitting on the bench was all that was. Besides, I hated missing those fly balls out in centerfield. How was I supposed to know it was because I needed glasses? Everyone, including myself, just figured I sucked as an outfielder.”
Since they invented contact lenses, I could enjoy soccer to its fullest. Besides, the ball was easier to see in the first place. Soccer is so much better for a kid’s self-esteem and confidence for one huge, simple reason. If you screw up in a game, maybe get the darned ball stolen right from under your feet by a guy you truly dislike, you have an immediate opportunity for recourse.
You can chase his butt down, steal the ball back, and do something awesome with it, like juggle it in front of the cheerleaders, bounce it off your head, heel-flick it to a teammate, or maybe even score a goal. And you could do it as soon as your young little feet got you back in the vicinity of the ball. And the crowd, of course, would go berserk, because you got revenge, and sports fans love that kind of thing.
So soccer allowed you to control your own performance. If you wanted to get results, you had more opportunity to go after it. What could be more American than that? (Even if it’s not an American game).
But in baseball, if you dropped a fly ball out in center field, you’d have to stand there, in full open view of everyone, looking stupid and embarrassed for one, two, maybe three full innings! Your ability to recover your dignity solely depended on the sheer chance that some chump on the other team might hit another fly ball in your direction.
Otherwise, you were stuck with the everlasting shame of missing an easy fly ball, maybe even losing the game for your team. What kind of a game is that for kids? Why should one’s ability to get results depend on so much structure, on someone else’s actions? It’s a very strange game. Not enough action, and too much nonsensical, unnecessary talking.
And what’s with all those ridiculous signs baseball coaches make to instruct their runners about what to do next? Then there’s the catcher doing practically the same thing to the pitcher, except he’s making frantic maneuvers between his legs, which in many ways looks like he’s doing something he shouldn’t be doing in public, all the while encouraging the pitcher to look in that specific location very carefully.
Baseball. Really? If it weren’t slow enough already, you can also just stop the action, at any time–with permission from the almighty, infallible umpire, of course. And he always grants it. So the fans reach for a beer or order more Cracker Jack, because there’s yet another break in the action. Why? Because, I truly believe, the catcher needs to chat with the pitcher about what he should get his girlfriend for her birthday, so he halts the game and saunters to the mound for advice. Then, to guarantee that nobody else gets in on the secret gift ideas, they mumble to each other behind the privacy of their dirty leather gloves.
And have you ever seen the umpire inquire about the content of the pitcher’s-mound chatty-chat? No siree. Because that brief pause gave him the chance to adjust his chest protector and mask, clean the dirt off his cleats, blow his nose, check his text messages and adjust his protective cup.
Kids who played baseball came back from games with all the energy in the world because all they did was stand around (in a “park,” no doubt) for nearly half the game. They hardly ever broke a sweat. If they did, it was because it was August, and hot and humid. Good thing baseball is played in the summer, or players would freeze their knee socks off for lack of movement.
It became apparent to me at an early age that I had way too much energy and need for movement to be standing in a “park” waiting for some half-blind, slow-reflex redhead with freckles to connect his bat to a 50-MPH fastball and possibly send it skyward to me, bored and left ruminating about today’s geography test disaster way out in left field.
And if dad and mom didn’t want me to collide with, or evade others with my speed and maneuverability on a “gridiron,” I guess I could settle for running frantically after a bouncing ball on a “pitch.”
So now I understand why soccer has become such a craze for youth. It lets them control their own fate in the game. They can effect change at almost any given moment. It’s a training field for assertiveness, initiative and entrepreneurism. It also allows them to expend all that exuberance and sugar-induced energy, rendering them harmless to their siblings and parents when they come home for the night.
Soccer was just starting to catch on when I as a kid. Back then, in the 1970s, everyone played baseball or football. You didn’t play soccer unless you had a foreign accent.
While I still idolized the intense action, thrills and aggressiveness of football, I found that it worked best from the comfort of the easy chair, in front of the TV every Sunday afternoon. When my body was ready for rest, I’d set my butt down, watch game after game, and let those guys put theirs to the test.
Later in life, I developed a greater affection for soccer because I was precluded from playing it competitively due to a heel injury. Titanium screws and plates don’t lend themselves to soccer shoe comfort. And the idea of one good kick on the heel was all I needed to relegate me to the spectator’s seat for all future soccer games.
Nowadays when I watch a soccer match on TV, I long for being on the field again. I can’t help but move in my chair, or if I’m standing, my leg and feet will emulate the movements of the player with the ball. It’s just ingrained in my soul. That’s soccer for you. It becomes part of you. It gets under your skin. I’m the same way with skiing. I love to watch World Cup racing, and I marvel at the technical skills of the world’s beat skiers, but it just makes me want to be out there skiing myself.
Football is different. I DO NOT want to be out there doing it myself! I want those monstrous, muscle-bound hulks of sweating testosterone doing all the fun work for me, while I adjust the HD setting on my 50-inch plasma TV, eat chicken wings, drink beer, put another log on the fire and stuff a comfy pillow behind my back. Dad was right. Playing football is not for everyone.
But I am not ignorant to the fact that soccer does involve a hell of a lot of running around, back and forth, hither and thither, to and fro, and some might say, around in circles, just for the grand satisfaction of one, maybe two goals during a 90-minute game. Or maybe even a 0-0 tie, followed by the dreaded shoot-out.
And then there’s the interesting concept of the headball, a move which more often than not involves the clunking of two heads together, followed by dramatic falls to the grass by both aerialists, and B-rated, Off-Broadway acting that wouldn’t and shouldn’t garner the slightest sympathy from the most protective mom. Let alone a referee. I really wonder if every team has a drama coach on the payroll.
While there are some wussy elements to soccer, it is generally a very rough, grueling and demanding sport. There are plenty of nasty collisions. And unlike those wussy football players, all secure and bold in their arsenals of protective equipment, soccer players wear a jockstrap, shorts and a shirt. Okay, maybe shin guards. But that’s it.
And if that’s not convincing enough, we’ve all heard the stories about dictators and communist governments or fellow citizens threatening to or actually terminating the lives of unsuccessful soccer players. You don’t want to miss that last shoot-out attempt if you play for North Korea, believe you me.
Excitement erupts, along with an occasional riot or grandstand collapse, whenever a goal is actually scored in an important game. And what opera fan doesn’t long for and soak up the announcer’s elongated, roaring “G-O-A-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L” soliloquy? I honestly think that he thinks if he groans out this single word long enough, fans will think maybe more than one goal was scored, thereby inciting a more widespread riot in the stadium.
Fortunately, no soccer player is ever going to grab the referee, ask to stop the game, and saunter across the field to ask his goalie what to get his girlfriend for her birthday. That’s a definite yellow card. Maybe even a red card. Imagine the riots this might provoke?
As an adult, on several occasions I’ve thanked my dad for averting my attention away from high school football, and suggesting soccer. I know I saved him a bunch of money that doctors would have only used to play golf at exclusive country clubs, all the while chuckling with their other doctor friends over vodka-infused Arnold Palmers at the 19th hole about how they love football players and their frequent horrendous injuries.
As I became more worldly, and learned that outside the U.S. soccer is actually called football, or, as our Hungarian friends say, “futball,” I developed a much-deserved sense of satisfaction that I had it both ways in high school. I actually did get to play organized football, and soccer too — all at the same time. So no worries, Dad. Don’t feel bad. I hold no grudge.
One more thing about soccer. Back in the 1970s, the high school girls found it to be a curious new sport, and showed an attraction to us soccer players. I think it had something to do with the lack of heavy, protective equipment and the fact that we played in shorts. Or maybe they just liked a guy who could run for hours on end, perhaps score once, or maybe not at all, and still be happy.