A Sporting Chance

After reading of the hours upon hours my brother, friends and I have spent in front of televisions and monitors, one might have believed us to be the prototypical computer geeks-- pasty, white, overweight, never venturing outside to play in the sun for even a moment. That wasn't quite true.

In spring, summer and fall the three of us engaged in just as much, possibly more, play outside than in front of computers, only because the games we made ourselves were more flexible and enjoyable than the computer games. The lure of the video screen was mostly of the novelty-- a chance to see the product of someone else's imagination, much as you get from seeing a play or a movie, or reading a book.

But we hardly ever engaged in the more rigid pastimes of so-called "organized sports"-- at least not my brother and I. Our friend did quite often, and was well accomplished in many sports. For my brother and I, Andover Youth Soccer was our sole adventure into this realm-- and the experience explains a lot about why he hates to even watch sports to this day, and why I came to like them only much later.

Our games were more arbitrary and invented-- cartoonist Bill Watterson ended up describing some of the games we played when he first drew Calvinball, only a vague approximation of a competitive activity, with shifting sets of rules and only minimal equipment. We supplemented such simple games later on with more complex ones, sci-fi fantasy role playing games where flashlights were lightsabers, a bedroom was the bridge of a starship, and a basement the dark coiling corridors of an abandoned space station. Buried chess pieces on brown sandy roads were the calling cards of marauders and clues to hidden treasure, and bmx bikes were proud arabian steeds or sleek black and silver death flotilla ships. Compared to that, what could be made of 22 screaming children wearing red and blue t-shirts and chasing a little white ball?

I'm not even sure where the idea of playing soccer came from. This was just around the time youth soccer began to become popular in the United States, before anyone had ever uttered the cliche "soccer mom". Perhaps it was because all the other kids were playing. Perhaps Mom and Dad thought that some kind of organized activity with other kids would make us more social, more balanced. Perhaps they just wanted us out of the house more, I have no idea.

Myself I only remember playing for two years in the youth soccer league, and my experiences in those two years were polar opposites, but both negative.

The first year I played on a team called the Cherokees. Our uniforms were green. I still have a picture of myself playing in that uniform, wearing a green shirt and white shorts over brown corduroys because it was fall in New England and too cold to play in short pants.

I remember I played a position called halfback, but at the time I had almost no perception of what that meant at all, and my athletic skills-- if they could be called that-- were limited to being a decent sprinter. My understanding of it was that the forwards were responsible for being on the side of the field where the other goalie was-- presumably to score goals. On the Cherokees, this rarely happened. The fullbacks were responsible for staying on our side of the field, presumably to help our goalie stop the other team from scoring goals. This also rarely happened. The halfbacks, being in the middle of the field, were responsible for winding themselves by running back and forth between the two sides until they collapsed. This happened often.

Early on I developed my own playing style, which I remember describing to someone at the time. If an opposing player with the ball should wander near me at midfield, I would run directly at them as fast as I could and then kick them in the shins. The odd thing about soccer is that as long as you strike the ball first, this is not a penalty. If the player I charged was good at all, I found myself kicking at air as they sidestepped by me. If they were not that good, they usually panicked into making a bad pass, or losing the ball over the sideline for a throw-in. If they were bad indeed, they ended up in a heap on the field clutching their shins while I proceeded to pointlessly boot the ball downfield as hard as I could, which was about the only contribution I was capable of making to the offensive effort.

Sometimes our team played with halfbacks, and other times there were more exotic names used, like "stopper" and "sweeper". Stoppers, I assumed, were supposed to stop something. I imagined that might be a way to describe the way I played, but nobody ever applied that term to me. Sweeper, as a position, never made any sense to me at all, and nobody ever explained what either term meant.

In fact, the overwhelming impression I have about all the time spent at soccer practices and soccer games, is that nobody ever actually explained the game at all, which I find odd looking back, since compared to say, baseball or American football, soccer is exceedingly straightforward. I remember, at one game late in the season, I became disoriented on the field and found myself much closer to the opposing team's goal than I ever remembered being, and then hearing a whistle and being told that our team was called for an offside. I had no idea what that meant, and no one ever explained it.

I remember the coaches having clipboards with diagrams of the field, where they drew plays. They showed where the players were supposed to line up. The back two rows of players, I remember, were always the same-- only the number varied. All the real plays-- the ones that involved arrows implying motion and responsibility-- involved the forwards. Everybody else was just supposed to stay near their spot and react to whatever happened.

If my memory serves, we never won a game. Having never experienced winning, losing didn't bother me that much at the time. I never remember being frustrated or angry because of that team's losses. They hardly seemed connected to me. I don't remember the name of a single player on that team.

The next year I didn't play for the Cherokees. I have no idea how players are assigned to teams in youth soccer-- whether it is regional, or by random draw, or if there is a smoke-filled back room somewhere, where parents and coaches cut shady deals and trade players between them like bubble gum cards. Maybe when Coach Pothier put together the team that would be his opus, the 1974 Montreal Canadiens of Andover Youth Soccer, maybe somebody else's parents stood up in that smoke-filled room and demanded that if he was going to put that much talent together on one team, then he was going to have to take one of the Josselyn brothers to balance it out.

By "that much talent", of course, I mean the coach's own children. The star player on the Stingers was the coach's son-- and this is always true of nearly every youth soccer team that ever wins consistently. The trick to choosing a coach who will spend a lot of time on youth soccer, which is of course unpaid volunteer work, is figuring out who has the most kids with some manner of athletic talent, or at least aggressive tendencies (and one is often mistaken for the other).

Everything was different playing for the Stingers... and yet everything was the same. Our uniforms were bright orange. I remember them, although I don't have any pictures of me playing for them. I do remember getting a certificate at the end of the year, stating I played for them. If I didn't have it, I might not have remembered playing for them at all. Most teams had a few players extra, to swap out so kids wouldn't get too tired, and so more kids could play. Most coaches who viewed themselves less as coaching to win, and more supervising children at play, rotated these players around often during a game, so that most everybody had a chance to play. The Stingers were coached like a professional team-- the starters were played until they were ready to drop, and with a few minutes left in each half a few of the extras would trot out onto the field for a token appearance. I was one of those.

The Stingers, if my memory serves, never lost a game. They won the league championship that year. I remember a trophy. Just as I had never been sad or upset when the Cherokees lost, I was never particularly happy when the Stingers won. I felt as divorced from their success as I felt separated from the Cherokees' failure; without contributing significantly to either condition, as either team's fate would have been exactly the same with or without me, it seemed almost to have nothing to do with me at all. It seemed vaguely better to me to be on a winning team than a losing one, but that was the strongest emotion I remember feeling about it.

I never played youth soccer again. In fact, I began to develop a dislike for organized sports of all kinds. I didn't watch them, didn't play them, had no interest in them at all. This extended into my preferences in computer games, as the sports simulations that our friend up the street so loved held no interest for me at all. I never made any attempt to play any organized team sport of any kind until my junior year in high school.