When I agreed to coach my son Sean’s soccer team, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew I was probably getting a little old to do this (I’ll be 50 next summer), and I hadn’t coached in about seven or eight years, but I’ve been involved in soccer in one form or another for 45 years. How hard could it be?
Well, shortly after I accepted the assignment, my best player was moved up an age group, and my second best player decided to concentrate on hockey instead. One had essentially been the team’s offense, and the other had essentially been the team’s defense. Not a good start.
We managed to recruit several new players, but the boy that was ranked our best new player by our professional trainers had to decline our offer because of financial reasons. Still, I was upbeat. We had a bunch of returning players and some good new ones. We could still make this work.
At our first practice I saw what I was up against. I kid you not—when I tell you that nearly half the practice was spent chasing balls that players intentionally kicked away from their teammates for no reason at all. While the trainer and I were trying to explain the drills, the kids were looking up at the sky, toward the parking lot, or making bunny ears over their teammates’ heads. When one kid raised his hand to ask a question, I thought “Whew, at least one of them is paying attention.”
He asked, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?”
When it came time for our first tournament I asked the boys what positions they preferred to play. Every one of them wanted to play offense. Eleven boys. No defense.
When I got the list of opponents we were scheduled to face in that tournament, my heart sank. Two of the three teams were ranked six divisions higher than us. We were destined to be crushed. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. We were getting beaten so badly in the last game of the tournament, the referee asked me: “Do you want me to call the game?” In 45 years of soccer, that’s a question I’ve never heard a referee ask. I declined the offer.
The whole season had a Bad News Bears-like quality to it.
We had perpetual equipment issues. Several players showed up wearing the wrong color uniform. One lost his shorts. Another lost his socks. Yet another lost his shinguards. I anticipated this and brought extras, but did not anticipate that a player would show up wearing sandals one game. Sandals.
We had a player dropped off at the wrong field.
We were responsible for turning off the field lights after practice. One night, at precisely the moment the lights were turned off, one of the parents dropped his car keys in the darkness. Since the lights take quite a while to warm up, car headlights were used to locate the keys.
Hundreds of geese decided that our practice field looked like a great place to set up shop. They left little presents for us all over the field. A skunk lived there too.
There is a stream that runs near the field, and even though it’s fenced off, the fence has a tiny hole almost exactly the size of a soccer ball. Defying one in a million odds, one of our boys managed to kick his ball through it.
One of our players (my son Sean) did manage to lead the league in one category. He led the league in flying shoes. He kicked them off his feet at least once a game.
We had to practice in torrential downpours four or five times. One time it was sunny and 80 degrees the day before practice, and 40 degrees and horrible the day we practiced. Another time it was beautiful outside ten minutes before practice, and as soon as practice began the temperature dropped twenty degrees and the rains came. It was uncanny.
And yet, through it all, I started to notice something in these kids. They never quit. Until the final whistle was blown, the boys were still going strong—trying their absolute best. My littlest player came up to me during one game and said, “Coach, I’d like you to put me in at defense. I’ll do a good job for you, I promise.” That’s an offer a coach can’t refuse. I put him in there and he played great. He was a little bulldog against players twice his size.
Before we knew it, we were in every game. The boys improved by leaps and bounds. Every coach in the league mentioned it to me—“Wow, are you the same team we played before?” We still didn’t win those games, but we could smell it. Victory was within our grasp.
We finally tied a game 1-1 and it was like we had won the Super Bowl. If 9 and 10-year-olds were allowed to drink champagne, it would have been flowing on the sidelines. We had another game scheduled for the next day, and we just knew our time had come.
But that next game was rained out, and we didn’t have a game scheduled for two more weeks. Then, I had a death in the family. Right when we were gaining momentum, circumstances conspired against us. Two key players and the coach missed a game we should have won.
And then this past weekend, we suffered what I consider our toughest loss of the year. We were tied 2-2 late in the game, with all the momentum on our side, when our goalie gave up a tough goal. He was crestfallen. Just crushed. I was worried about him, but not as much as his own teammates were. They comforted him. They said things like “It wasn’t your fault, it was mine,” and, “I shouldn’t have let that guy get past me.”
Even after a season of losing, during the season’s most disappointing moment, in a moment they had a chance to win their very first game, even in that moment, these boys showed something more important than winning and losing. They showed character.
I know that losing doesn’t build character. I’ve never believed that it did (and that’s coming from a Cubs fan). Character already existed in these boys.
I’ll tell you a little secret. I’ve coached many teams over the years, and some of them were quite good, but I’ve never been prouder of a team than I was at that moment. When I saw how they treated their teammate, after all we’ve gone through this season, I got a little verklempt.
Thanks for that moment boys. I’ll never forget it.