I grew up playing soccer in the late 80’s and 90’s when it was only semi-cool. That was back when it was OK for the high school football coach to call you a communist and not-so-subtly question your sexual orientation for playing soccer. True story.
I was that kid who did nothing but soccer and took it way too seriously. I was a mean, viscous, hyper-competitive little prick who picked up yellow-cards at an embarrassing rate. I threw up before high school matches and would have referees warn me in warm-ups to keep my mouth shut. As a super-quiet, model student, teachers would occasionally come to our games and were shocked at what they saw. Inevitably, the next day at class they would be staring at me trying to figure out how that happened and I knew I was doomed to the “I didn’t know you had that side” conversation.
I am not proud of it. I have run into people who have tape of my games and have offered to give me copies to show my family. My children will never see those. I want them to see me play and to see how good I was, but I do not want them to see how competitive I was. When I had two boys I always told my wife that I hoped they would do anything but soccer because I did not want to risk turning them into me.
Of course they both played. I knew my oldest wouldn’t last. He’s not an athlete. My youngest, Ben, started playing U5 but refused to stay on the field when he had to wear the yellow jersey. No amount of arguing, threats or bribes could keep him out there. I would physically drag him back onto the field and he would simply back walk off. I did not think it would last. I gave him one more season and then I discovered something I did not like. Ben is pretty good at soccer.
Let’s be clear. Ben is not a special talent but he is a good player. I swore I would never coach him, but I could not handle seeing well-intentioned volunteers teaching him wrong skills and ended up coaching him most of the way through AYSO. When it became apparent that he needed another level, we got him on a travel team and I hoped that I could sit on the sidelines and cheer without becoming “that” dad. It is very hard for me not to be “that” dad.
Ben has a fantastic coach who has improved him far more than I could and despite my vow, I assistant coach the team. Ben has turned into a solid player, but this is what I am most proud of…
Ben has way more fun than I ever did. Ben never stops smiling and jabbering with his teammates. He works hard and is reasonably focused but the kid enjoys soccer. It is all he ever does but it does not consume him. In a close game, last week he tried to clear a ball that skipped off his head into his own net. If that had been me, even at ten-years-old, someone would have paid and I would have been toeing the line for the rest of the match. Ben was laughing about it before the ball was fished out of the net and was goofing on himself with a teammate before the next kick-off.
Ben is not as talented as I was at age ten. He has a different body type than I did. He plays a different position than I did. However, the biggest difference between us is that Ben knows how to have a lot of fun with soccer and understands that it is just a game. I doubt Ben will ever vomit before a match or embarrass me. My parents must have cringed when I played. When he started kicking a soccer ball around, I was hoping that he would choose something different because I did not want to risk my baggage bubbling up and molding him. I think I have done pretty decent with that.
The thing that I am most proud about Ben as a soccer player is that he is absolutely nothing like me. And that is a good thing.