The story below took place three years ago. It’s true. All of it. Every magnificent and painful detail. Yes, it’s about youth soccer, so you’re not going to get a Matt Damon movie out of it anytime soon. But I was on my way to tell a story a Denver’s Mercury Theater when my wife texted:
I know …. i know. We should be celebrating children who can juggle. Or that help their teachers after school or collect pennies for peace or write a protest song in iambic pentameter. But sports is our reality now and I can’t help but get sweaty excited about little things like my son scoring a goal. Besides, our family’s been on a dry streak since this hot summer day in 2014.
Otto and Soccer | A tribute to Awesome
So if it’s possible — and I shouldn’t doubt myself as that (I think) will be part of the message here — I’d like to capture one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in my life. I know, you’re preparing yourself to hear another parent piling on superlatives about one of their children’s achievements, but I promise you that this is the stuff Rocky is made of. It’s the shared DNA that has every human stepping out of their own meager expectations and rocking the mantle to its core. I don’t have video of the event, and I have only a few eye witnesses who will vouch for the action I will describe. All of them, however, will most likely lack the conviction with which I’m about Hallelujah into your heavens.
I coached Otto’s kindergarten soccer team. I’ve never played soccer or even watched much on TV. I grew up with a distrust for soccer-centered suburban communities. Who did they think they were kidding? That’s not football. Also, I assumed they were rich, which in itself is not a bad thing, but you bundle it with my background of small town suspicions and you get ungrateful elitists playing a mystery sport and retreating to swank comfort of carpeted homes and automatic heat. I had to overcome a lot to accept my coaching position. Mostly, though, it was to watch a lot of YouTube videos to figure out the rules of the game. Sarah gave me a quick tutorial (herself being a Baltimore County All Star) and, with her help, took a battery of YMCA coaching tests to become official. I was nervous, but ready. And then on the first day I spent an hour watching a clump of children chase a ball. Other coaching detail included getting them to stop picking flowers and focus on the game, as well as making sure they got to the bathroom on time.
It was cute and fun until our first game. We played a team that started two six year olds with pituitary problems. They brutalized us. Some people complain that nowadays we don’t keep score anymore. I’m no longer one of them. Our rival was mostly boys, competitive little retches, as compared to mine, all girls and Otto, who are some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. But maybe they could have held off on hugging one another until they actually scored a goal. And maybe don’t braid each other’s hair in the middle of the game. One of them brought me a ladybug as a present while I watched our opponents high five another open net.
With the undying lovefest, I thought Otto would be a standout. I figured he was going to run out there and crush some spirits with his buzz-cut intensity and little brother angst. He didn’t. He ran and hustled, but fell down a lot. Often he fell down just to fall down. Sometimes he’d stare into space and, in what I have to admit were disappointing moments for his father, my middle-boy beast with the six-chambered heart would ask to sit on the sidelines. I let it go. I wasn’t about to be the Great Santini to a five year old in a game I barely understood.
The season wore on, painfully. The parents asked if we could switch kids from the other team. Every game we played the same opponent, and every game we were crushed. So I recruited. I got Otto’s big brother Quin to play a couple of quarters before he left for his 1st/2nd grade contest. Other kids had their six-year-old siblings show up. We got more competitive, but every game I wanted to make sure our original six got to play together. I was bent on seeing them improve. I had a gut-tangling pang to see them actually score.
It would happen, and it would come in the storm of confidence and childhood awakenings that would have the trash-talking spawn on the other team (the Cheetahs) complain that the game was unfair. For once we were competing. The score we didn’t keep was tied. My Silver Surfers were on the verge of victory.
Here’s the thing, I had seen Otto improve throughout the summer season. Games one and two he fell down a lot; by game four he was starting to show some interest in competing. This was game seven; our final game of weary parents and waning hope. One father wondered if the experience would discourage his daughter from the game for life (As he walked away I wished I would said ‘you’re welcome’ for saving him so much money on gas, drink boxes and spiky shoes.) With the help of Quin and two other six year olds, we were on the verge of dominating. But when one of the better Cheetahs went down with an injury, I pulled the big kids and let my original team have a shot. I wanted the unit — the flower pickers and the sky gazers, the potty breakers, the hair twisters, and the mid-action entomologists — to prove that they could play. I’m happy to report what I’m about to report.
I’ve not before seen the heart that I saw in these kids. One was so small that she could barely get enough leg leverage to move a soccer ball. We’re talking hip height here. But they all lined up for the final quarter kickoff. My three six-year-old stars watched from the sideline. My Surfers were back in their accustomed position of having the much larger Cheetahs swarm towards their goal. I’d witness this not just as a coach, but as a referee. I did both, and I didn’t mind it, as my team could use all the help they could get…and you know how hometown refs work. So it was from the center field where I saw it go down. Where I saw the reason my youngest son would bust out dance moves I didn’t even know he knew. Dance moves that would paralyze an older soul.
The Cheetahs kicked off. Their big kid, the one with the mohawk (there’s always one,) blasted the ball right into Otto. He kept his feet, gathered the ball and wound up. In what was really more of a retribution kick instead of well-planned pass to a teammate, the ball launched right back at the mohawk. But this is where Otto woke up. This is that moment you remember as a kid; that time you realized that your aunt was your mom’s sister. It’s the first time you snap your fingers, or whistle or, as I remember so clearly, discover that yesterday wasn’t an actual day of the week, but a generic term for the day before today.
Luckily, Otto’s awakening was more exciting. His was a hammer. A reckoning. A guy realizing on the run that he had as much right to that ball as any other kid. Otto pursued the ball. He followed up. I shrieked something that you don’t hear referees shouting at players, “follow the ball…follow the ball!” But I was outside of my body. And he did. He followed pert near through the bigger kid, pushing him aside and kicking the ball out ahead. It was here where we all realized what could happen. I stopped to get clear visual. Sarah stood up. Chloe’s parents perked up as did Hallie’s and Kiana’s. Otto had a one-on-one break to the goal. We rarely had the ball on their side of the field. We rarely had the ball. With Mohawk stunned, his teammate was left to defend alone. Typically, even this was more formidable than my Surfers could contend. But not today. The defender stepped in and Otto kicked the ball round him. And then…sweet god I wish I had a camera. I wish I could loop this moment over and over — pull it down on the big screen whenever Otto is feeling down or reeling from a beating by his big brother. The whole field stopped in a modern movie special effect. It was the Matrix and my son had dodged bullets. It’s weird when you see your kid do something so cool. I’m a doubting jerk for feeling surprised, but this is a kid I thought had given up. I thought he’d rather be in the shade playing with his baby sister. That, however, was before he knew how good he could be.
With all of the parents, both those of the Surfers and the Cheetahs rapt and wrapped in the silence of a vacuum venue, we paused. I might presume that we weren’t so much watching a kid with a ball, but all of us as giant kids with our own proverbial scoring opportunity.
With an unlikely juke glancing the bigger boy to the side, Otto was free to the goal. In a flash I reminded myself not to get cocky. Kindergartners are liabilities with dull scissors. “Could this really happen?” I asked myself. And it did. With his left foot he kicked it in. Otto scored a goal. The underdogs pulled the tarp off their talents. The little guys, the nice kids, those who got to appreciate bugs and flowers for much of the season could still go out on top. The crowd went wild. I mean somewhere around twenty parents shrieked life into the suburbs. Otto went nuts. It was weird and awesome. He flexed and walked like a tiny Hulk. His dark eyes some other place. And then he danced something like an Irish folk dance and an end zone celebration before wriggling into the skip walk of a happy deer. He finished with some wild agreeing with no one in particular. “YES!” he shouted. If yesterday’s Otto had fallen down, today’s Otto was standing over him and giving a glimpse of his alpha future. The crowd continued to cheer and his teammates relished a valid reason to hug.
Sarah and I can’t stop talking about it. Otto is proud but understated. Maybe it is because I was the ref and had to suppress my excitement that I find you here in this space trying to bring to life my son’s achievement. On this website of tiny plankton pixels swallowed by the whale of the web. Maybe it’s because kids hear enough about how great they are, but it’s us who need a reminder. The writer in me wants to capture it in words because the parent in me didn’t get it on camera. Or maybe it’s that it was awesome. It was so damn awesome.