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Soccer Poet

Part I - 20th High School Reunion

This entry originally appeared in my previous blog. It was one of the most popular entries so I've reposted it here.

Steele popped by the office today to kill some time. She asked, “Coach, what were you like in high school?” When you’re closing in on forty and someone serves that pitch over the plate, you’re going to swing for the fences.

I went to a prep school, which among its numerous distinctions, wins the award for most pretentious sounding: The Hun School of Princeton. Just saying that name makes you feel entitled to a fiefdom. If you’ve ever seen Dead Poet’s Society, well that’s what my high school looked like, except we were (thank heaven above) co-ed.

Demographically, Hun was more like a small college than a high school. We had day students and boarders. The student body was very spread out. Even the day students came from an area that extended out about forty-five minutes in every direction. The boarding students came from all over the U.S. and the world. I have friends who went to public school in Trenton and never moved away. They step out the door to get the morning paper and run into half of their graduating class. It’s not that way at all for Hun graduates.

Last January, Billy Kearns, one of my old high school buddies called. I hadn’t spoken to Kearns since oh I don’t know... 1988? Kearns asked if I would be our Class Ambassador as our 20th reunion was approaching. Let me be perfectly clear on this: In no way, shape or form did I agree to accept the position.

For starters I didn’t think I’d be able to put in the time that would be required to do the job properly. Plus I was never one of those ‘connector’ types in high school. I had my small inner circle of friends, and my slightly larger outer circle of friends, and a few on the periphery, but I was never one of those people that socialized with everybody. I was never one to go out of my way to meet someone. I was bad with guys and worse with girls. I’m still that way. I develop relationships one of two ways. Either you come and talk to me a few times or we’re put in a situation where we’re frequently around one another – like on a soccer team. It’s not that I didn’t care to meet new people. I’ve just always been socially awkward. Regardless, I wasn’t the best pick for the job.

I tried to decline outright, but my friend kept after me. So to get off the call I said I would consider it. But he would have to get back to me with a job description before I made any decision.

So a few months go by and I realize I never heard back. Maybe he forgot about it. Maybe he found someone else. It was a relaxing feeling. One less thing to do. Then, because I suddenly remembered what my friend was like in high school, I had a sudden and overpowering case of ‘AW CRUD.’ I scrambled to the phone thinking I might be able to pre-empt the inevitable but knowing deep down that reality held something far different. I called the alumni director of my high school (who I used to ride the bus with) and the first words out of her mouth were, “Thank you for being the Class Ambassador.”

I said, “Janine, I never said I would do it.”

She said, “Oh. Well the new issue of Hun Today (our alumni magazine) just went out and...”

I didn’t need to hear the rest. It was in print. That made it true. Kearns had stung me. I had officially become the Class Ambassador for the Class of ’86. Yay.

A committee was formed. MIAs were located. Invitations were sent. I’ve put out a couple of e-mails and made some calls, but I’d been avoiding actually thinking about the deeper ramifications. Now time is running out. I bought my plane ticket today. I can’t escape it any longer. Soon I’m going to have to face a few facts. One is that the best part of life is behind me. Another is that it ain’t coming back.

I spoke with one of my very good friends / classmates tonight. Her name is Terri. We’ve known each other since eighth grade. We also rode the bus together. Terri was the first girl I ever called, also in eighth grade, and talk about sweating bullets... I just stood there with that phone in my ear, wrapping myself in and out of the cord (phones used to have cords), saying hardly a peep, just stammering the occasional umm. I remember it like it was this morning. Her best friend from her old school, Traci, was there, and they were laughing because I couldn’t think of a darn thing to say. I was the really stupid boy on the other end of the phone who was so socially inept that it made for great amusement. They were just snickering away. All I could really think was, ‘For the love of all things holy, why in the world did you make this call?’

Terri and I started talking on the phone more regularly and I actually got good at it. Before long we were talking every night, usually for hours at a time. This went on for years to the point that I still remember her phone number, a number I haven’t dialed since circa 1987. We stayed friends throughout high school and for a few years into college. Traci and I eventually dated for a few weeks right around graduation. College came. College went. And twelve years had passed since Terri and I last spoke.

The last time I went back to my school was in January of 1998. It wasn’t for a reunion. I happened to be in the area recruiting and just popped onto campus for a few minutes. I also visited the homes of some of my friends’ parents and I was bombarded by sensory overload. I visited Jingo’s parents. Jing and I had been great friends and teammates since eighth grade and went on to be college roommates. His parents invited me inside and as I was sitting in their living room, I experienced this ‘thing’ that I could never accurately describe. It was almost dreamlike, except for the tightening in my chest. Sitting in that living room triggered all of these memories that, had I never returned to the scene, would have been forever lost to me. People, places, moments – all of them buzzing through me. It was like being in a Star Wars movie, with warships firing those lasers all around – but the lasers were memories. And none of them were missing me. Each one was a direct hit and they were coming so fast and so frequently that I couldn’t make room for all of them in my head or my heart. It physically hurt. I mean that. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was trying to hold it together, but I was going nuts. In this quiet living room in this beautiful neighborhood, I was having one of the most intense moments of my life. It was like the X Games brand of nostalgia. I’ve never experienced anything like it, before or since. But I know that’s what is awaiting me once again when I come face to face with my past.

In high school I was convinced I would conquer the world. But I never did. I never will. That’s been the easiest part to handle.

As I looked at that yearbook, the first thing that struck me is that I am now older than most of my teachers were. That’s a strange frickin’ feeling let me tell you. How in the world did that happen? When did I become older than my English teacher? Try digesting that one from out of nowhere. That’ll throw some perspective into your life.

I looked at all the yearbook photos, but I couldn’t bring myself to read all of the notes from my classmates. I started reading some of them, but I couldn’t bear to finish. I couldn’t bear to get to the part that said let’s stay in touch, friends forever, call me this summer, I love you. Because I know that I never, not once, called some of those people. And for the life of me I have no idea why. These were amazing people. Maybe I just assumed they would always be there; that the bonds could remain without effort; that somehow, someway, circumstances would all collect us together again under the same roof and we would just pick up where we left off. Ummm... That’s not actually how it works.

Terri said that when we graduated, she would never have imagined our group of friends drifting apart. I guess every class feels that way. I imagine every class thinks they’re different; that their bond is stronger than those that went before them; that they would do what the others could not. I know we did. I mean we really were a very tight group. And I guess that’s why our parents tried politely not to laugh at us. They lived every day in a place where we had not yet been... the R word... the Real world. And as a sixteen year resident of the Real World, let me tell you, this neighborhood ain’t what the agent promised me.

I’m not too sad about not conquering the world. My dream was to play pro soccer. I didn’t get there, but I got my trial, and on that day I didn’t leave any bullets in the chamber. I left the field with my head held high. No regrets about that.

I’m just sad that I’m old. I’m not saying that I’m decrepit old. I’m just not young and involved anymore. When did that happen? When did people stop watching me hit a baseball? When did the cheering stop? When did cheeseburgers start making me fat? I was a rail back in high school. I couldn’t for the life of me break a buck seventy when I was seventeen. Now I’m over the 200 pound mark and if I so much as look at a cupcake Jenny Craig unleashes a squad of storm-troopers.

You’re bulletproof when you’re young. I miss that. I miss testing our boundaries. I miss failing without any real consequence. I miss sneaking onto the back bumpers of cars and letting them tow us down a snow covered street. I miss the bonfires down the shore and the parties in my basement and concerts at the Spectrum. I miss sneaking out of the house at 2 A.M. to ride around and do nothing in particular with friends. I miss pool-hopping and our three-man slingshot which was the equivalent of an RPG for water balloons. I miss sneaking the boarding students off campus, and then sneaking them back on. I miss trying to borrow a 600 pound pig (ask me some time). And I miss the comfort of going to bed at night knowing that when I wake up, I’m going to see my very best friends, and thinking that that is how it is always going to be.

I also miss not having the answers. I miss the error of trial and error. There are very few awe-inspiring adventures left in my life. I mean back then, just navigating our way from Trenton to Long Island for a graduation party was an epic adventure. There’s no mystery in getting lost any more. There’s no romance to it. These days it’s too easy to find my way back. Let me tell you, getting lost with a group of friends is one of the most satisfying adventures life offers. (If you are in high school, I recommend that you refuse to use Mapquest or a GPS.  Someday you'll thank me.)

I miss being terrified of talking to a girl on the phone. I know that there will never be another girl in my life who will make my heart jump into my throat when she calls. I know that there will never be another girl who I’ll be afraid to talk to. There will never be another girl who I will ask a friend to do recon work on. Those mysteries have all been solved. Those things that used to be life’s daily Christmas presents are all unwrapped. Life is easier now, and I hate that.

I’ve been talking to a lot of my classmates lately and to a person we agree that if given the chance to do it all over again, we’d do it right now, we’d do it yesterday, no questions asked.

George Bernard Shaw once said that youth is wasted on the young. And it is. I mean, if I could do it all over again knowing now what I didn’t know then... I mean, Holy Cow! But I watch our student-athletes, not just my players, but all of them, and they all carry themselves with an air of invincibility. Part of me is jealous because I once had that. But a bigger part of me just roots for them. This is their time and you just want them to squeeze every drop of juice from that orange. It’s got to be so great to be them. And you just have to hope that they know it, and that they don’t waste it.

I think about Terri and the others and all of the great moments in their lives that I never got to be a part of, and how many important moments in my life I wish I could have shared with them.

What’s really funny is that when we met, Terri’s best friend was Traci, and mine was Scott. Each one of us has literally traveled thousands of miles and met thousands of people since eighth grade. Funny thing. Terri and Traci are still best friends, as are me and Scott. And pretty much everyone else has drifted away. And as much as I’d like to make it otherwise, that toothpaste ain’t going back in the tube.

Okay. I’m going to hang myself now. Enjoy your day.

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