Happy birthday! Can’t believe you would have been 62 today. My dad? Thinking about retirement? The guy who made oldies cool for me and never acted old?
I miss you every day, but especially on a day like today.
It’s opening day for my girls’ soccer seasons. It’s incredible to think that you’ve never seen them play. Well, maybe you have. I suspect you have, actually. But to be here, seeing them, I can’t imagine how proud you’d be.
The universe owes you, Dad, for all those games you watched me warm the bench or muddle through three errors in an inning, or play a football season without a win and without the faint hope of even a point scored (God bless the Jackson Park Jayhawks).
Today, it’s a new season, with new uniforms and a perfect record still intact, with all the possibilities that lie ahead – from wins and scores to the important stuff, such as post-game snacks and post-season trophies. I know you’d make it here today. And you wouldn’t be able to sit down.
The only one you met
I remember when you played with Elise when she was a baby. You’d sit on the floor and watch her, talk to her, use her made-up words, create a little celebrity out of a toddler who called you Pop-Pop. I felt a twinge of sadness when someone asked her, at age 13, if she remembered her grandfather and she sheepishly shook her head, “Not really.”
She’s the only one you met. Marie missed you by two months. Grace by 5 years.
They’ve had to repair all the damage I did to our name on courts, diamonds and fields in Greeley, CO, and here in Charlotte. As you know, it would take three to tackle the task.
Elise is one of only two girls on her co-ed soccer team at school. She’ll mix it up with the boys and never think anything of it. On your birthday, on my team, she played with such excitement that she kept booting the ball clean off the field.
When she finally got it under control, she ripped a shot that clanged hard off the crossbar.
Elise had a familiar teammate for the first time ever.
She came back to soccer today
Marie quit soccer more than a year ago, Dad. The day and the decision hit me hard, but I knew it was one of those times you’re tested as a dad. Do you truly want what’s best for your child? Can you support her, no matter what? It wasn’t difficult to see she was happier away from the sport, finding her stride, literally, with Girls on the Run, and I watched the foundation of her confidence and stamina build up, brick by brick – but I missed her in cleats, I missed her determination and focus, seeing her footwork and teamwork and effort on display.
She came back to soccer today, Dad, on your birthday. She strapped on the shin guards and joined Elise’s team, my team, one division higher than her age group. And she nearly scored the game’s first goal, firing a hard shot the keeper couldn’t handle, and scrambled to her feet to pop in the rebound just a half-second too late.
Now that I think of it, you’ve never gotten to see me coach either.
I remember the day I sped down I-85 from Greensboro to see you in the hospital. They said they didn’t know how much time you had. I was so different. I wasn’t ready to go on without you. I prayed just that… Not yet, Dad. I’m not ready. Never mind what you were ready for.
I’m not sure if being a good dad has made me a good coach, or if being a good coach makes me a good dad. I make mistakes in both. I let the kids run amok. I annoy them sometimes. I set the occasional bad example. Daily. I’ll substitute when I shouldn’t, leave a keeper in a few minutes too long, or lose control of a practice here or there.
My teams – and my girls – are goofy at times, occasionally brilliant, and always, always ready to live “la vida underdog.” Ready to shock the world. Or at least, anyone standing near Field A on a particular Saturday morning.
Incredibly, I’ve also won. You know I never did as a kid. In anything. I don’t remember a single field-day ribbon that wasn’t green (third place) or white (fourth place, and incidentally, the international symbol of surrender). With Elise, the day we won our first league title, it was as foreign a feeling as I’ve ever known.
Even after two more championships with Elise and one each with Marie and Grace, it’s not a feeling I’ve grown accustomed to.
Loveable Loser remains in my blood.
A friend said I was one part Phil Jackson, one part Jerry Glanville on the sideline. I know I was no parts soccer coach when I got started. I’ve still never worn a pair of shin guards, but I learned what I could about the game and about coaching … and about kids.
I read books by Mike Shanahan and Bill Walsh and John Wooden and Tony DiCicco, and tried to become a coach from the inside out.
I discovered that these men had gems that I mined, stowed away in my own box, and I dug deep to find a few of my own. I discovered that coaching and fatherhood aren’t too far removed from each other. There are winning streaks and losing streaks, freak accidents, Hallelujah moments and times when you just can’t hide, no matter how hard you try.
I’ve found patience and confidence and a belief in all things being possible, because I’ve lived them. I’ve caused broken hearts on the soccer pitch, had my heart broken more than once, and witnessed events that restore my faith in the human condition, nearly three times as often as incidents that make me want to disclaim the human race altogether.
Elise says she’s learned more about life from soccer than she has in all her years in school.
My teams have won games they never should have and lost matches they had no business losing. I’ve had to shave my head and go blond because I promised my players I would if they scored hat tricks or won conferences or tournaments. I’ve been given a few water-cooler showers and had my competence questioned more than once.
I’ve been the object of a handful of complaints and an armload of I love you’s and even a kiss on the hand from a particularly amorous 4-year-old, right on the field, in the heat of battle.
All those years of being the kid who barely could make it have made me into the coach who believes every kid can.
You should have seen Grace, Dad. She spun and shook, and blasted past boys and girls with the ball, ponytail flapping behind her. She wowed coaches with her moves, deferred on an easy goal to let her friend shoot, and racked up a hat trick in the drop of a hat.
Always in our hearts
The big girls won a hard-fought victory against a bigger and more experienced team, 1-0, and after Grace had finished her scoring display, I reminded the three how good it made me feel to have them today, on a day I missed my dad especially, to coach them and watch them and feel such pride in who they were, not because they were good players, but because they played, and they loved to play, and that they’ll play again and again and again.
Grace sang happy birthday to you, and said we should send a card up to you on a balloon. To the grandpa she never met, but asks about all the time. To the daddy she knows her daddy doesn’t have anymore, but who’s always in his heart.
Two inches lower on Elise’s shot, a split second sooner on Marie’s, they’d have gotten you the granddaughter hat trick that is tough to come by on a grandfather’s birthday on opening day. We’ll get them next time.
Happy birthday, Dad. I love you.