Trophies and medals fought so hard for denigrate quickly to the forgotten.
Even those that find a home in a hallowed hall in a glass case pass through days no one stops to remember. A Lombardi trophy must be dusted. Shiny prizes become relics in record time.
I have medals. All have finalist engraved, which translates to you didn’t win the championship game. But this last one one of my teams won? It felt like finalist+1 even though it hurt like you didn’t win the championship game+1.
It was the last time I got to coach one of my daughters, and we didn’t win the championship. We walked away with so much more.
I wish I still had the photo of Grace before the tournament.
She and I checked into the Lake Norman Fall Classic on a sunny Saturday. Fall tournaments in the Carolinas can give you warm sunshine or cold rain, and when all the medals were distributed and brackets done, we’d get both.
Grace sat on the sideline of the game in progress on the field where we’d make our debut.
I lost it when my iPhone died a few months ago. It showed her taking in a game and could she have known what this weekend would become? Were her thoughts on the last tournament she’d play with her daddy as coach? Of the turmoil that led to this, the two angry families who wanted me out?
Had she forgotten about the replacement coach who left before she started?
I’d imagine, knowing this girl for her entire life, that soccer and only soccer filled her mind.
# # #
I knew I’d write about this weekend and it’s now been almost a year.
Scores and opponents’ names fade. You’re left with gems after you’ve sifted that silt. You remember the opening win, 3-2, with a shot by your opponent that collided with the crossbar with a thud and bounced away harmlessly.
It could have rendered this post irrelevant. Instead, my group of U11 girls, my daughter among them and also a player who worked her way onto my all-time favorite team with her spirit and skill and sweetness.
(She’s the one who packed cupcakes for my birthday, and guarded them during practice like the Flying Tigers.)
Grace scored and her teammates played defense and her friend and teammate, she of the skill and cupcakes, recorded a hat trick on a chilly Saturday night that clinched a spot for us in the tournament final, with one match in group play left.
# # #
One coach once identified the tournament magic my teams seemed to find, many years ago.
It’s tough to deny. You won’t mistake us for world beaters, but when the prize sits within reach, my teams seem to reach deep. They did this weekend, advancing further than anyone else from our branch.
It didn’t matter no one expected us to get this far.
The Saturday sun? An afterthought. Sunday’s final in cold rain would be my last match as Coach Daddy, officially, mattered so little, but I remembered. I wondered to myself if it should be the end of the blog, too.
After this day, dad would be coach no longer. Or would it be coach would no longer be dad?
# # #
When your team reaches a final you want them to hear you.
You want them to relish the experience. To remember the teams who lost and went home, of times before and in the future your side won’t have the tournament magic and will leave not with medals, but with lessons.
I want to forget title-match losses, a litany of decisions and events that have kept a man’s teams from that final step of glory. I want to reflect to these kids the pageantry of even reaching this far.
You want to warn them of the “whatever it takes” mood that seeps into matches this big will affect them, but you also want them to embrace it. You want them to play smart but take chances. To play with dignity but stick up for a teammate if needed.
This final had all that and more.
It had an early deficit and a chance to reveal character.
It had hard fouls and injuries and teammates willing to jump bad on your behalf. It included a penalty kick Grace missed that evoked tears and the angriest of equalizers, a shot she ripped from midfield that hit the back of the net on a rope.
It involved spirited tackles and brilliant saves and overtime. Then decisions to make during a PK shootout, thoughts of putting Grace in goal to absorb the pressure and lining up the players to take the gut-wrenching pressure kicks.
I wished with all I had the final shot wasn’t the final, not just to preserve our chances but to relieve the sense that it ended on her miss. Because it didn’t, at all. That child helped carry us here.
And yet on a rain-slicked field with a rain-slicked ball, her shot rolled just wide right, touching off a celebration none of us turned to see. We collapsed closest together, the players who’d taken PKs and those behind them for support.
I put my arms around them and there were so many cries. I didn’t know from who and it didn’t matter, and it didn’t matter what the end count was, they just had enough to win.
I wanted to insulate them for enough time to let them have their tears as I had mine.
I heard a parent tell the girls not to cry. Even Elise, my weekend assistant who’d grown to love the girls as I did, cried.
It’s what you do when you come so close, when you’re close enough to feel it.
I choked back tears as players approached in the post-game ceremony, bundled in layers and covered in grass and wounded by the reality of what almost was.
I navigated it wonderfully until No. 6 came up.
I hugged Grace hard and felt her let go of her sadness in the front of my jacket. I squeezed her for pride not only for the day but for the memories. Do you know, little girl, what joy you’ve given your dad?
How you’ve changed his life like your sisters before you?
The rain wouldn’t cease so it’s tough to know where tears fell and rain fell.
I walked alone away from the field for the last time. I didn’t seek out my players or their parents or my own daughters.
I walked alone and allowed myself to be sad as dad, to have my own tears and to know that I’ll still be coach and I’ll still be daddy, but no longer both.
Under my jacket, though, I wore the medal with finalist etched into it.