Soccer Dad

For four years I tried to convince her that she was capable of scoring a goal. And when this ten-year-old finally did kick that soccer ball past a goalie, she shook momentarily, almost in disbelief.

"I told you that you'd score sooner or later," I said, giving her a hug as her proud coach.

"But I just scored a goal for the other team," she lamented.

Just then, another player arrived, wanting to know if the game was about to begin. I told her that it was midway through the third quarter. At least she came to the right field--unlike a teammate who waited with her parents at a field two miles away, wondering where her teammates could be.

"Why do you bother coaching?" asked my father, who calls from Connecticut after each of my daughter's or son's soccer games, probably to see if I've survived.

I've coached my son Sam's baseball teams and my daughter Sarah's soccer teams for four years, but this year has been different. After playing on a team that won thirteen of fourteen baseball games last year, the team my son played on this past summer lost all but three games. I didn't mind the losing. My Little League philosophy has always been: play hard, have fun, please don't get hurt. But I wasn't prepared for the summer Sam's team endured. One player called me at home at least a half-dozen times during the season, not to talk baseball, but just to talk to a grown-up willing to listen. A troubled parent called me one night after midnight--a call I really didn't need at any time of the day. Kids were late to games and practices. One nine-year-old went the entire season borrowing baseball gloves from other boys because his parents did not think buying a glove for him was necessary.

"Why do you bother coaching?" my dad would ask.

But it's been different this fall. I don't mean the games. Last year, my daughter's all-girls soccer team completed a winless regular season with a perfect 0-8 record, having been outscored 38 goals to 1. For those keeping score, we played twenty-three quarters before scoring a goal, and nearly four games before attempting a shot on goal. The Bad News Bears had nothing on us.

This year's team--much more talented, but equally charming--has faced a challenge much greater than winning games. Unlike some of our opponents, whose rosters are filled with players who have been teammates for years, our team has spent the season getting to know one another. We represent six municipalities and five elementary schools. Two of our players are the lone representatives from their respective schools. Another player recently returned to her birth state of Minnesota after spending most of her life in California.

I encouraged the players to learn a little more about one another, to celebrate the differences that make each an individual and to find common bonds.

Susana is from Colombia. Barbara is from Honduras. Laura was born in South Korea. Cyndi's family is from Guyana. Sarah's mother is from Sweden. She, too, recently returned to Minnesota after spending most of her life in California. At least three of our players were adopted. Another player lost her mom to a sudden illness a few years ago. Two players admit they've struggled in school. Two others are in high-potential programs. And one player is a member of a two-time Odyssey of the Mind regional championship team that was the state runner-up last year.

There is a joyful innocence in watching players like Shannon and Hattie and Taylor line up side-by-side on defense, rooting one another on and knowing that they, from different schools, have absolutely nothing in common--except maybe everything.

"I never expected it to be this much fun this year," Katie said after one practice, at which the girls spent as much time pelting each other with M&Ms as they did kicking soccer balls.

"We've really come a long way, haven't we?" added Bridget.

At least the kids have. During a game against a team with a perfect record, we scored the game's first goal. It was the first time our opponent had trailed in a game all season. The coach lambasted his players, threatening to hold a one-hour practice immediately after the game, which finished in a tie.

But the season's real low-point occurred on a frigid Saturday in early October--one of those chilly mornings when we cover the remains of our flower gardens with bed sheets to keep them from freezing, but send our children onto frost-covered fields wearing short-sleeved uniforms and shorts.

"Do you think they'll make us play?" asked Adrienne, a wonderfully gifted and competitive player.

Three minutes before game time, we had only five players. Our goalie had been sick all week and couldn't play. Our leading scorer was in Iowa at a family reunion. Our best defensive player went on a weekend trip with her family. Two other players said they would be late. Another never showed. Although we had beaten this team easily earlier in the season, I suggested to the referees that we forfeit this time around. But the referees were one step ahead of me, saying that they wanted to call off the game due to the cold. The other coach stared at my depleted team and nearly salivated. He insisted that the game be played. One of our players, who was not wearing a long-sleeved shirt under her jersey, broke down and cried. We never really got started, lost 2-0, and then had to listen to the opposing coach gloat during the traditional postgame handshake.

"Why do you bother coaching?" my dad asked that night.

My dad has never watched a soccer game in his life and probably never will. But my dad assisted with my Babe Ruth team when I was a kid. And he was the Scout Master for our entire Cub Scout troop. And he picked me up at the high school after track practice.

The day I received a roster for the soccer team I'd be coaching this season, I learned that my dad had terminal cancer. I told the players and parents about it at our first practice. Some of the players ask about him occasionally and I tell them how lucky I've been to have had such a neat guy for a dad for so long.

My dad has seen his grandson Sam play baseball. He adores his granddaughter Sarah. He even knows Cyndi, my player whose family is from Guyana.

My dad knows why I coach.

Paul Levy wrote about his family's beloved dog, Kaya, in our September issue.

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