Action for Ace

Action for Ace
On the eve of our biggest camp of the summer, I jumped on a plane for Pittsburgh, rented a car and made the drive to Bethany, WV – population: one and a half pages of a phone book.

Bethany is dead in the summer. It’s a small and quiet town even when the college is in session, but in July, you could pretty much sun bathe in the middle of Main Street without a care in the world. Bethany’s not going to be on anyone’s list of vacation destinations. There’s just not a lot there. The busiest intersection doesn’t even have a stop light (you’d have to drive eight miles to see one of those). It’s in the business district, which consists of two general stores, side by side and one of them out of business, which sit across the street from Chuck’s Bison Inn which closes its doors during the summer recess. So in case you're checking your math, there are basically 3 businesses and two of them aren't even open.  And that’s it.

Yeah, a block up the hill is the post-office. But with the advent of email, college kids aren’t much for being pen-pals these days. Anyway, like I was saying, Bethany is a small town. People don’t just go there. Especially not in the summer. There’s usually no reason.

Way back in the winter of 1985 I took a recruiting trip to Bethany and immediately fell in love with the place. I got to play some indoor with the college guys and showed well enough to get the attention of the assistant coach, Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward. He sold me on the idea of coming to Bethany and winning a national title. That was enough to convince me of what I already knew; that when August rolled around, I was going to be a Bison.

I played for God-only-knows how many coaches in my soccer life. And I more or less liked them all. But Ace was the one I wanted to kill for. When I took the field, I would break bones to please that guy. He was my coaching soul mate. He knew I had a lot of aggression and he knew what buttons to push to get it out of me. I loved playing for Ace. It was my favorite time as a soccer player.

In 2006, during one of my previous blog lives, reflecting on our time together, I wrote this:

Ace is one of the most likeable people you could ever hope to meet. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s really just a kid. He’s a human cartoon, with a barrel chest and a big, bushy blonde mop of hair and a high pitch voice. Like many others, Ace came from a big city (Toronto) and fell in love with this tiny little town and its soccer program and stuck around for years after he graduated. He is the heartbeat of the alumni soccer association… I loved playing for Ace. At the age of seventeen I wanted to be Ace. He was far and away the best coach I ever had. But more than anything, Ace knew how to push buttons, particularly mine. Let’s face it, I’m not all that hard to figure out anyway. The Dan Blank instruction manual is about half a page, double-spaced. It was even smaller when I was seventeen years old. It didn’t take a whole lot of advanced psychology to get me in a frenzy. But Ace did it better than anyone else ever had. He had me figured out to a tee and he loved it. So did I. He had, at his disposal, a human wrecking ball that would act on command. I had a coach who didn’t try to stifle my aggression. Heck, he tried to make it reproduce. Ace knew he could get me riled and he totally abused the privilege. There were times he would flirt with my girlfriend just to get me bent. And once I tried to fight him because he was wearing a tee-shirt from the team that had knocked us out of the NCAA tournament.

I remember one training session in particular from my freshman year. It was a fitness day and we were getting absolutely worked. At one point we had to do as many push-ups as possible in a minute. Now I was never Mr. Push-Ups in the first place, but I was killing myself to crank out my best effort. I had gotten to twenty or twenty-five, and just for a second I paused at the top for a quick rest. Ace saw me and started screaming, “Blank’s being lazy! Don’t be like Danny Blank!”

Oh my God I wanted to punch the guy in the head. But even more than that, I wanted to work twice as hard. I never wanted Ace to think of me as lazy. On game days I wanted to kill for that man. It took eighteen years to realize this, but I was always fighting for his approval.

Bethany Soccer may have the strongest alumni association in all of college soccer. On our alumni weekend we don’t have an alumni game; we have an alumni tournament – two of them actually – an under-35 and an over-35. Typically over 120 former soccer players appear each spring to lace ‘em up and tell war stories about how good we really were. And Ace is the reason for that. For a quarter of a century he has been the common thread holding it all together, arranging all the gatherings, keeping everyone in the loop, keeping Bethany Soccer important to all of us. He’s the great connector. He counts friends on every team that has ever played for the college, even those teams that played a decade before he had ever heard the word Bethany. And his circle of friends reaches well beyond that. He’s got a charisma that pulls people in. Soccer campers, business people, college presidents… Mia Hamm… they all call Ace a friend… because people just gravitate to him. It’s really quite absurd.

The thing about Ace is that he is always giving. And I do mean always. The guy is like Santa Claus. Every time he reaches into his pocket it seems he pulls out something to give to someone. I cannot possibly overstate how much this man gives and gives and gives. It’s clearly his favorite thing and on my honor I’ve never seen anyone better at it. About nine years ago he started a clothing line and he made (and still makes) really cool gear. But those of us who know him thought from the beginning it would be a disaster simply because Ace would never sell something to someone when he could just give it to them instead. In my own closet there are five of his t-shirts and 3 of his hats and he still has never asked me for a dime. And when I tried shopping on his website, the damn shopping-cart function was disabled. It’s literally impossible to give this man money. His entire existence is predicated on the solitary principle of making other people happier than they were ten seconds ago. How many people have you met in your life like that? I know exactly how many I’ve met and I can count them on one finger. And those of us lucky enough to be a part of Bethany Soccer and the Bethany Soccer Alumni Association know how much better our lives are because of the man we call Ace.

Despite his Canadian roots, Ace's inner compass always pointed south toward the beach. When people talk about Ace, the word 'soul' inevitably makes it into the conversation. And Ace certainly has a surfer's soul. He digs white sand and salt air and a mellow sunset and afternoons mingling barefoot with the locals. On the beaches of Anna Maria Island is where his heart is content. It's the perfect place for a guy who just wants to find peace. It's where about two years ago his son, Jackson Kai, was born. That boy is the apple of Ace's eye.

In 2007 Ace was diagnosed with cancer. The surgeons removed a grapefruit sized tumor from his abdomen. They thought they got it all. They didn’t. So through the years Ace has battled cancer and chemo, fighting like hell through both of them. Still, the cancer remains. Now it’s called Stage 4. You don’t need a single day of Med School to know that that’s no damn good. No. Not good at all.

A few weeks back a movement began called Action for Ace, part reunion, part fundraiser. Ace was all in favor of the reunion but not surprisingly, wanted no part of a fundraiser. So thankfully the organizers didn’t give him a choice. Bill Denniston, Ace’s lifelong friend and teammate and currently the men’s coach at Robert Morris University, ran point on this whole project and when Ace wavered, Billy simply said, “Shut up and show up.” So Ace did. Along with 220 others.

People flocked to Bethany like a gold rush. Friends he hadn’t seen since high school made the drive down from Toronto. His roommate from the Tampa Bay Rowdies who he hadn’t seen in 25 years was there. From all directions they came. From California and Florida and New Hampshire. Friends and family flooded this tiny town for no other reason than to show their support. Naturally, as gathering are wont to do in Bethany, it turned into one helluva party.

Time stands still in Bethany. The place never seems to change. Well almost. In 1986 you could by a thick, delicious, fresh cut deli sandwich at Chambers General Store for $1.00. In 2006 you still could. But now that same sandwich costs $1.25. I was mortified to learn that prices had gone up 25% in just 5 years.

Our reunion was a lot like other BASA weekends, just without the soccer. There was a lot of reconnecting with old friends. There was a lot of laughter. There was a lot of beer.

On Saturday morning we stuck about 80 hackers into golf carts and did our best to kill a perfectly good golf course. I golfed with Jack Shafer and his wife Megan, and Eduardo (Ed of Spain) Ibanez. Let me be perfectly frank about this – we’re no darn good. But we had a blast being that way. The highlight of our lowlights was Eduardo’s attempt at a tee-shot that sent a ten-inch divot fifteen yards down the tee-box with the tee still in it. I’ve never seen anything even close to that. We had Eddie pose with his divot for a photo like he had landed a trophy trout.

That night we held a picnic down in Bethany Park next to the baseball field. No, it’s not a baseball stadium. It’s a field. No lights and a set of aluminum bleachers that can seat about thirty. That’s life in small town Division III athletics. Food was served. Joe Doiron wrote a beautiful song and sang it to the masses. It put lumps in throats and tears in eyes. There was an auction – a really good one. People made donations. All in all, the weekend raised $30,000.

I said good-bye to my friends around 2 A.M. and headed back to the airport for my 6 A.M. flight, figuring I might catch some sleep at the gate. I didn’t. I needed to get back for camp but my head was anywhere but Athens, GA and the litany of phone calls and emails I was about to get about what size sheets the campers would need to bring and which kid wanted to switch roommates. As much fun as we had, there was always that thing lingering beneath our every thought. We were there to celebrate… but that worked better in theory than practice. I spent the better part of five years at Bethany as a student. In the past two decades I’ve probably been back 30 times. But this is the first time I ever left feeling like an adult. It’s hard to stomach this, but play time really is over. We’re not kids any more... and this time I mean it. We’re real-world people dealing with real-world problems. And none bigger than this.

It’s funny, these things that can give you perspective. The things that have been stressing me out lately… after this past weekend… they just don’t matter anymore. The people who want money from me? Here. Take it. If that’s what you need to be whole, then help yourself. I look at my wife and my little girl and this very cool life I get to lead earning a living doing what I love, and I remember how truly terrific I have it.

One of Ace’s old college friends couldn’t make it back, but she sent an email. I don’t think anyone could ever sum up Paul Hayward better than this:

Paul, you have such a unique soul. You hold no grudges or hatred against anyone, even someone who may have hurt you. Some people may think you have your head in the clouds but you know it’s easier to see the SUN that way!!! Here’s to you as you are embraced by so many that love you this weekend in a place that you helped make so special for me and so many others just by being yourself,….a kind, sweet, happy, peaceful man who just wants to have fun in life. Thank you for so many wonderful memories.

I’m going to send some money Ace’s way tonight. I hope you will, too. When you finally meet the man, you’ll be glad you did.

Learn more about Ace and send your donations here.

I was also going to direct you to his website to buy some very cool gear. But wouldn’t you know… the shopping cart isn’t working.

Pe.Ace.

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soccerpoet 417
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Glory Glory, HALLELUJAH!

Glory Glory, HALLELUJAH!

“The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable.”

So yes, it was going to take something just a little bit special to lure the Poet from his indefinite impasse. The American Idol finale couldn’t do it. The Biggest Loser finale didn’t do it. Cam Newton going pro (again) didn’t do it. The death and disposal of Osama Bin Laden came close, but then again, hadn’t he consumed enough of our time? But yesterday I witnessed something remarkable and it’s not necessarily that I can’t stop thinking about it; it’s that I don’t want to.

On the strength of Abby Wambach’s goal in extra time of extra time to salvage our World Cup life, the U.S. Women’s National Team wrote a script that no screenwriter would ever have the nerve to consider. It was Indiana Jones escaping the jungle after being run over by the giant rock. It was, in a word – unbelievable.

To be perfectly blunt, I’m not a fan of the soccer we’ve been playing lately. It’s pretty unimaginative and we have some curious desire to repeatedly donate the ball to the opposition. There is no definitive style to speak of. Yes, there is a high ceiling for improvement as far as all that goes. And for years, nay decades, we have been criticized for winning games on athleticism, not talent. And in large part we have. But yesterday’s result did not come down to athleticism. Remember, for the game’s final sixty minutes, we had one less athlete on the field. What the result did come down to is that singular reason, that gift passed down from our forefathers, that convinces people from all around the world to pack up their belongings and leave their homes to start a new life on our shores – the American spirit; that nonsensical notion we all hold so dear that against all odds we can and will conquer the most unconquerable obstacles. It is why they call us arrogant Americans, because we walk this earth as if we have some divine right to believe that we can do the impossible.

That quarter-final, in my eyes, was actually two games. The first game ended with the referee’s comedy of errors that included a bogus penalty kick; the accompanying bogus red card that whittled us down to a ten-player team; the undoing of a phenomenal save of aforementioned kick thus leading to a bogus yellow card; and the retaking of that kick to level the score at 1-1. At that point the second game began and it was no longer about soccer technique or tactics or even athleticism. At that point the game became Brazil’s national soccer team against the American will.

And how fantastic it was to hear the cat-calls every time the world’s best player – Marta – touched the ball! How inspiring it was to hear a stadium full of Germans chanting USA! USA! Surely I was not the only one reminded of Rocky Balboa battling the big Russian at the end of Rocky IV. Above all, it was the resilient and reckless charge up the steepest mountain to right a horrific injustice that defines this script.

Okay, so I’ll say it… the radical change of fortune to misfortune, the extra helping of heartbreak – it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving team. I’m glad it happened. Yes, I’m thrilled that we won. But I am over the moon that we did to the Brazilians who have no one to blame but their Brazilian selves. And how great that in the end, the it was the Brazilians that tripped over their own Brazilian-ness. First Erika with that disgraceful dive… well not really a dive… more like a nap-time lay-down… that blessed us with just enough bonus time. And Christiane, with the ball at her feet and the chance to run out the clock in the American end, tried a senseless and risky pass that was intercepted and then not touched by another Brazilian until there was the need to pick it out of their net. So for Erika disgracing herself and our game on worldwide television, and for Christiane not knowing when enough is enough, I say Ha stinking Ha with a little bit of Tee Hee Hee thrown in for good measure.

If I had her address I would send Erika an email. It would say, “You are the reason that Americans don’t like soccer. You just lost the World Cup.” And of course, “Thank you.” And yes, “Tee Hee.”

The game had so many talking points it’s easy to gloss over the fantastic play of Hope Solo, even when penalties weren’t being fired her direction (she faced seven of them). It’s easy to forget and almost impossible to imagine the contribution of the American defense, particularly when we switched to three at the back, to keep us within striking distance. If you’ve never played, you can’t possibly understand the difficulty of that particular task.

But in the end, this game’s iconic moment was Abby Wambach planting her header into the vacant Brazilian goal to resuscitate us when it seemed there was nothing left to do but go gently into the light.

Ya know, there’s just something about this team. I don’t mean this specific and current group of players. I mean the entity that is the U.S. Women’s National Team. Somehow they keep finding ways to draw this country back in, reminding us how glorious and empowering it feels to wrap ourselves in the American flag and shout from the rooftops. Time and again they deliver on the biggest stages, and that legacy, that responsibility, gets passed down from one team to the next. I loved how in her post-game interview, Wambach referred to ‘all those players that had gone before’ her. It was a nod to those pioneers who gave this sport legs and its athletes opportunities that players would have never even imagined 30 years ago. It began with the 1991 team that took the “world’s game” and beat the world over the head with it. Then the ’96 team followed in kind with a dramatic thriller to win Olympic gold. Then the ’99 team that rose to all unreasonable expectations to not only win the World Cup, but to make sure people were in the seats to watch them do it. Then two more Olympic gold medals, both in dramatic fashion. And now this.

Part of their appeal goes beyond our patriotism though. Part of what attracts us to them goes beyond what they do on the field, because they don’t use that celebrity to play the jackass off of it. Part of why we like them is for the things they don’t do. They don’t bathe in their egos. They don’t turn up in the police blotter or the tabloids or Court TV. They deflect individual praise onto their teammates as if by reflex. In short, they are very convincing in the role of role model. There’s something we crave from our gold-standard athletes, and quite frankly, too often those athletes leave us disappointed. But what our soul searches for – heroes really – has been embodied by this team since the day it was formed.

Much like Team USA in the 1980 Olympics, the signature win really isn’t the money win. There’s still work to be done. And I really hope they do it. I really hope they go all the way and win the whole damn thing. For if they do, they will close the chapter on the 1999 team and all those who follow will have a new standard against which to measure themselves. And then finally, Mia Hamm will have a chance to rest.

In the Team Room at Ole Miss we had a mural – a ceiling to floor, black and white photograph. In the foreground is the slightly blurred image of a player, her shoes two feet above the grass, who has just scored what surely must have been an important goal. In the background, her teammates and fans have risen in celebration, some of them captured in midair by a fortuitous photographer. It’s a moment of pure ecstasy.

When we were designing that room in the spring of ’09, Ellen Lord and I knew we wanted that photo to be the centerpiece, but we didn’t know what catch phrase to put on it. Eventually it was not the goal-scorer that got our attention; it was those fans and teammates celebrating with her. It was how in that one moment in time a player took so many people to a better place with one swing of her foot. It is a gift. No, not just a gift, but the best gift an athlete is given – that chance to inspire people, to reward them for their investment, to move them out of their world and into her own better world for just a few seconds. And suddenly our catch phrase just popped out: This Is Why.

This Is Why. That gift is an athlete’s reward for doing all the hard work, all the sprints, for playing through pain and through rain and for never giving up even when dying seemed like a perfectly reasonable alternative. That one moment… that one chance to move those people is why you do all that.

Shortly after the USA beat Brazil, Ellen wrote me this very simple message: Now that is why.

Amen.