In her first few months of life, during days of swaddling and baby caps and an utter disregard of a.m. and p.m., Elise and I would often tune in the best of 2 a.m. television together, with The Jeffersons or Bowdabra informercials in the soundtrack.
As 2:15, 2:30, 2:45 came, her eyes wide as teething toys, I’d wonder what she’d be like when she was too big to be wrapped like a burrito in a baby blanket.
Would she have that tough core, or a fragile psyche? Would she become sensitive and loving, or develop a resilient exterior that kept her feelings in check?
See, when Matt Prater’s kick sailed through the uprights to give my Denver Broncos a stomach churning 51-48 victory against the Dallas Cowboys, my pulse could finally start a slow decline. For a coach, it’s sometimes tougher on the ticker to watch a team you love, but don’t coach.
What a weekend.
It included a day hot as skillet and packed with three straight soccer games. (Guess who wore a black polo shirt on the sideline for the 85-degree day?). Those three soccer games included:
A gritty 2-0 victory for Marie’s unbeaten Muleicorns (really their name!)
A 2-2 tie for Elise’s Dragons (with no substitutes for either team!)
A 7-1 loss for Grace’s Dynamite (against a team we beat 2-0 on opening day)
Emotionally drained and slightly sunburned at midnight Saturday, I watched my alma mater, UNC Charlotte, fall behind by 21 points in the fourth quarter in a game I DVRed, only to rally for 29 points in a 53-51 victory against nationally-ranked Gardner-Webb.
So, that’s 109-108, good guys, if you’re keeping track at home. (With goals from each of my girls!)
That luckily doesn’t include the pretend butt-kickin’ my fantasy team, the Sun City Skunk Kings, are currently enduring at the hands of my brother-in-laws’ team, the Steepleton Silverbacks.
Here’s the thing, though: This lineup isn’t unusual for a typical weekend.
As head coach to one soccer team, assistant to two more, owner of a fantasy team, supporter of an NFL team and alumnus of a school playing its first season of football, I’m used to tons of games between Saturday morning and Sunday night. Wins, losses, ties, goals and heartbreaks.
What I’m not used to is losing my cool.
And my edge.
# # #
I’m the coach who says winning will take care of itself. Then, more times than not, wins anyway.
It’s years of experience. It’s always keeping the kids first, not just saying that’s what I believe. It’s an emphasis of effort over outcome, teamwork over titles. A love for your teammates. And the game. Don’t worry about what the opponent is doing, I say. Worry about what your team is.
But as goals piled up against Grace’s Dynamite … 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 … the coach who usually watches the game with arms folded, hand on a chin sometimes, processing, assessing, adjusting … well, he had nothing. Nothing but exasperation, frustration, and unflattering demonstration.
Not nearly enough imagination, explanation or affirmation.
As the Dynamite wilted in their pink jerseys under harsh sunrays and an opponent that sensed their weakness, my coaching philosophy shriveled, too. Lost were lessons to be found in adversity, that thought that a child’s mental musculature will flex when they’re tasked with finding a way to fight back.
Instead, I wrote them – and myself – off. At 2-0.
# # #
The discomfort of my degradation on field 1 that day lacked the clarity I needed to make sense of it, during, and immediately after.
When Grace, usually a wellspring of heart and scoring opportunities, asked to be taken out of the game, moved back to defense, I questioned her. “Why? What’s wrong with you?”
“Why won’t you help us?”
When Grace and her teammates retreated, flat-footed, as the spirited opponent beat them to every ball, I wondered out loud what was going on.
The blue team isn’t walking!
“Dad,” Grace answered. “We’re walking because we’re tired.”
# # #
At halftime, I like to stand alone for a minute or two. Let the kids guzzle Gatorade and put away the Powerade, talk it over on their own, then join the fray and give a couple of points before the second half. This day, I stood on the field with my assistants, indignant, speechless, disconnected.
I don’t remember what we told the team, but they went out in the second half to a worsening outcome. I gritted my teeth. I walked away from the bench.
What can I do?
I gazed at the sky, wondering what dad must think of his son right now.
The team sat silent afterward, cookies and juice packs distributed.
Still, I had nothing.
I kept my eyes on the ground at my feet, the tension of parents and players waiting for answers, for hope, for perspective, for something.
“Bring it in,” I told my Dynamite. “I’ll see you at practice on Tuesday.”
Where was the knowledge? Where was the hope? Where were the words that could have given some indication I had an answer, a direction to turn, a way to make a lesson of the mess we left behind?
I imagined the coaches I admired most – Mike Shanahan, Bill Walsh, John Wooden. What would they have done?
UNC Charlotte coaches, when fate looked grim late in the game, told their players, “be at your best when your best is needed.” I could have said that to my Dynamite, right?
I could have listened to that advice, too.
# # #
This is youth soccer, after all. Not life or death.
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.
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.