Beyond School Spirit: When Love is the Only Reason to Play

My son’s last soccer game was this weekend. It’s a league of 12-15 year olds who did not start playing soccer at the age of two, or perhaps they did and had little talent for it, or perhaps they’re quite good, but get little play on the school team because soccer has become one of the most competitive and populous sports of middle class suburbia.

The team plays “academy style,” splitting into two groups at the start of each game to compete against each other, half of them donning a yellow pinny. They keep score, I suppose, but it doesn’t really matter whether they do or not. The goal of this tiny league of players is to have fun.

Sometimes there are not enough players, and the coaches draft kids who may be wandering aimlessly around the grounds while a sibling plays on another field. Sometimes players from other leagues show up of their own volition in order to get more practice, or to show off, or because they have nothing better to do.

Sometimes players are scarce, and the coaches have to fill in, and in rare cases, they’ve drafted parents into the game. The whole effect is a Badnews Bears collage of clumsy adolescence and stiff middle aged gusto punctuated by a rare streak of athleticism.

There’s a sexually ambiguous referee assigned to our team, a narrow hipped boy not much older than our players, and certainly no taller, who has wavy, shoulder length Karen Carpenter hair with a skunk streak down the center that is sometimes platinum blond, and sometimes royal blue. In the beginning of the season, he was a stickler about letting additional players into the game, in that they had to put on a matching jersey, and wear the shin guards with matching socks. If they refused, they couldn’t play.

By then end of the season, however, he was wearing his hot pink Wendy Davis trainers, and when the ball came directly to me on the sidelines where I was spectating with a baby in my arms, I kicked the ball back onto the field, and he let the ball remain in play.

The coaches themselves come from every corner of small town life. Coach Ken is an insurance salesman, committed to coaching the team for as long as his own five children remain lovers of the game. He’s a perpetually smiling well-fed man with pink knees who spends more time chatting and teasing players on the sidelines than coaching.

Coach Wes is the proprietor of The Pit and Pendulum Tattoo parlor, a wiry smoker with a brusque attitude, whose tall, long haired son, Caleb, is the kind of winsome, motherless boy in which I was very interested when I was about fifteen.

And Coach Brandy is a tiny woman with a dry, salty mouth who winces in the shadow of the taller boys and scolds them for every inch they grow as the weeks pass.

The game was full of small, glad moments, a man-child yelling, “Sorry Mom!” when a ball he kicked veered too close to her lawn chair, girls doing handstands in the grass when the ball was in play on the opposite side of the field, my own son checking to makes sure I was watching when he scored a goal, then bumped fists with his other team mates.

Everyone on the field was having fun. Everyone on the sidelines was either having fun or solving Sodoku puzzles. No one yelled competitive slurs. There was no angry dad berating their child for missing the goal.

I’m not against competition. I grew up in the age of school spirit, though I never really could grasp what exactly it was or why it was important, and that’s because it wasn’t important. Almost every thing I thought was important when I was thirteen turned out not to be very important, actually.

But I can recognize that this little team of amateurs who all love playing the same game accomplishes something very important. The root of the word amateur is the latin “amare,” to love. And the result of corralling a diverse group of people to play a game they all love, is amity, or fellow-feeling.

It’s a rare event that makes partners of an insurance salesman and a tattoo artist; a rare event that makes friends of local soccer stars and their misfit adolescent counterparts; a rare event that puts parents in the game with their children.

In a culture that becomes increasingly polarized, where a young person’s feelings of isolation can have disastrous consequences, where communities devolve almost as quickly as they are built, I want to hold on to any little thing that creates a communion among such disparate parts.

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