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Soccer Poet

Maddy and the Light Bulb

Maddy and the Light Bulb
Okay, I’ve finally succumbed to the reality that trying to be a dedicated blogger during the fall season is an unreachable fantasy. There just aren’t enough days in the week. I feel good about finally reaching a conclusion that any objective and logical observer would have reached years ago. I’m freeing myself of the stress of letting down the Poetheads. As a blogger, I can let you down no longer, because… I quit. Okay, not entirely. I’m just not obligated to you any more… which is convenient since I haven’t posted anything here in quite some time. So you’ll notice almost no change in the frequency of updates, but I’ll notice a greatly reduced level of stress; and let’s face it, it’s all about me, yes?

One of the more regular comments I get from readers is that the thing they enjoy the most about this blog is the ‘story behind the story,’ – the stuff you can’t get from the box score or the TV broadcast. And to be fair, that’s one of the cooler things about my job (as a coach, not a writer). I have a backstage pass to the Georgia Bulldogs. I have access to the plotlines that very few people ever know exist. And these storylines are where the real value of college sports can often be found. College soccer isn’t about kicking a ball; it’s really about the intangibles that we all cherish; it’s about the relationships and the struggle and the way we respond individually, and as a team. Those are my favorite stories to tell, because they are the ones that mean the most. Those are the stories I’ll tell for years.

So the Poet is taking a new direction. Instead  of worrying about a multitude of current posts, I’m going to strive for a random smattering of meaningful ones that I hope you will enjoy. And that begins right now.

It was a Friday night in August of 2010. We had just beaten Utah 3-0. It was my first win at Georgia, so the world was particularly perfect on that night. At least that’s how it seemed to me.

Maddy Barker stopped me in the hallway outside of our video room. She had tears rolling down her cheeks. She wasn’t just crying; she was practically convulsing. I don’t remember why she was upset, only that she was. And I don’t remember what she said exactly, save for this one sentence: “It doesn’t mean more to anyone than it does to me.”

Once in a long while a player will say something unforgettable, and you know it as soon as the words hit your ears. Maddy was so genuine when she spoke that night, I completely believed her. She was born to be a Georgia Bulldog.  In her heart, it would never mean more to anyone than it did to her.

I had only met Maddy a few weeks earlier, but that night I realized that this was a kid who wore her heart on her sleeve. And for four seasons of college soccer, that’s exactly what she did. There was no disguising what she was feeling… good or bad.

I’ve been doing this long enough to realize that when a player issues such a dramatic statement, she’s handing you a magazine full of silver bullets. Maddy said that it would never mean more to anyone than it did to her, and I fully intended to make her back that up. I knew the day would come when I’d have to force feed that sentence right back to her.

Two years later, we’ve got a Sunday game against Arkansas and we are playing like we never got out of bed. I mean we are just flat out awful. So I try to shake the rafters a little bit at halftime to snap us from our funk. We’d been struggling to score goals in a recent stretch, so I decided to call out our forwards, one by one. When it was Maddy’s turn, I turned over the mother of all trump cards. I said, “Maddy Barker, you TOLD me that it didn’t mean more to anyone than it did to you! Was that just a lie? Was that just a load of crap? Because right now it doesn’t look like it means a thing to you!”

(At this point you may want to make a note to have your future college soccer player read this entry.)

The tide of the game turned immediately after half-time. We scored two goals in the first five minutes of the second half to win 2-0. The players had responded.

For three years Maddy was a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get when she showed up to training or a game. She doesn’t compartmentalize her emotions. She’s fully committed to whatever emotion happens to be prevalent at any given time. A bad day of class could easily translate into a bad day of soccer. A bad day of soccer could spell trouble for the world. She could be the sweetest, funniest kid in the world on Tuesday. On Wednesday she’d make me consider alternative careers. But like I said earlier, there was no mistaking what she was feeling. What you see is what you get.

Maddy was one of my favorite people when she was happy, mainly because she’s just so damn funny. She can be so dramatic and so expressive that you would think that she was playing for an invisible camera. On bus rides, in airports, at restaurants… she could be the life of the party. At one point I told her that the day she graduated, she should just forget about the real world and catch the first plane to Hollywood because she was meant to be an actress. I stand by that.

Because Maddy ran so hot and cold, our relationship was sometimes tenuous. I’ll put it like this: if soccer was going well for Maddy, our relationship was dandy. If soccer wasn’t going well for her, well, then nothing else mattered. There were days when she could be an absolute lunatic… and not the good kind. But those weren’t the days that formed my opinion of her. I was 100% won over by the good, kind, funny, heart-of-gold Maddy; the girl who loved animals and children and would do anything for a teammate. When that girl went away for a while, I just waited for her to come back.

Anson Dorrance once said that a player doesn’t have to like him for him to like the player. That’s how I felt about my relationship with Maddy. On the days when she would have preferred to see me dead, I still liked her. Why? Because I don’t value people based on their soccer ability. You can stink at soccer and still be a great person. I can compartmentalize like that. I liked Maddy because at her core she was a kind soul with a warm heart who genuinely loved her teammates.

Now… as much as I adored Maddy the person, there were many days when I wanted to strangle Maddy the player with my bare hands. Believe me, I’m not alone on this.

For three seasons, Maddy never really changed how she played. For three seasons we asked her not to try and dribble her way through a scrum of four opponents. We asked her to recognize when she was running into a bad situation and to just put on the brakes and turn around. We asked her not to force shots from bad positions. We asked her to calm down and pick her moments. By and large, we asked her to do less. And she summarily ignored our advice. It was a very frustrating existence. Here was this player with all types of speed and potential, but for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get the message past her ears and into her brain. We spoke with her. We coached her. We drew things up on the board. We showed her video. We showed her more video. We showed her video of other people. But for whatever reason, none of the concepts we tried to impart onto Maddy could find a way to stick. I thought they never would. And then… well... something quite remarkable happened.

Last spring we played a friendly in Atlanta at the Greater Atlanta Christian school against Auburn. GAC, coincidentally, is where Maddy went to high school.

A really strange thing happened that night, and on my honor, in 23 years of college coaching, I’ve never seen anything like it. Actually, I’ve never seen anything even close to it. I don’t know what caused it. I don’t know if it was something to do with a cosmic realignment. I don’t know if a stubborn synapse finally fired. I don’t know if the Holy Spirit decided to take in a game that night and was sitting in the stands. All I know is that on that night, Maddy Barker changed, and changed like nothing I’ve ever seen. Out of nowhere, without warning, rhyme or reason, this kid, who had made the same mistakes over and over again for three years, was suddenly a soccer savant. She was the best player on the field by a mile and not because of her athleticism; she was the best player on the field because for whatever reason, the light bulb had finally come on. She was a whole new player, making one smart decision after another after another after another. It was like an episode of Touched by an Angel. I swear she had backlighting.

I’ve seen players show remarkable improvement, but the word gradually has always been involved. A player might improve tremendously over the spring season. A player might go home for the summer and come back vastly improved. But I have never seen a player go from one level to another in such dramatic fashion with a perfectly vertical trajectory. On that night, Maddy Barker was magnificent… and the thing about it was… no one knew why.

I was so proud of Maddy that I wanted to say something to her after the game. But as I approached her, I noticed she was sobbing. Okay.. can someone please explain women to me right now? The kid had played the game of her life and was in tears five minutes later. I didn’t know what it was. Heck, it could’ve been anything. I figured that maybe there was some type of emotional undercurrent because this was her high school field and she would never play on it again and she was overcome with sentiment. Why did I think that? Because I’m an idiot.

As it turns out, Maddy and her boyfriend had broken up that day.


Yeah. Makes perfect sense, right?

So immediately I’m thinking we have to kill her boyfriend because as soon as these two get back together, the new and improved Maddy will go away and we’ll have our old model back.

Except that’s not what happened. Not at all.

From that one glorious night, a new player was born. A player who could terrorize defenders on the dribble, yet be dependable in her decision making. A player who would score fantastic goals, yet be wise in her shot selection. This player would cement herself as a critical cog in our attack; a winger who would soon show up in everyone’s scouting report.  Maddy Barker, in a moment as sudden as the flick of a switch, had become an exceptional and intelligent soccer player. For whatever reason, all of the sudden, Maddy just got it.  And not even a reconciliation with her boyfriend would change that.

Back in August, Kate Burkholder, our SID, invited Maddy to keep a blog about our season for the UGA website, and Kate couldn’t have picked a better candidate. With her emotions so much on the forefront, Maddy would express herself the way few could and shine a light into the life of a college soccer team.

There’s a value to seniors that goes far beyond playing experience. Your college soccer career is like a lifetime. You’re born on the day you show up for your first preseason. You die with the final whistle of your final game. Most freshmen can’t grasp how quickly this lifetime will pass them by. But seniors… well, they can see the end, and it’s rushing headlong toward them at breakneck seed. So seniors tend to approach their final season with a sense of urgency to accomplish as much as they can within the limited amount of time they have left.

That this was her final lap was not lost on Maddy. From the moment she showed up for preseason, she was acutely aware that the sand was draining from her hourglass.  

She made that clear in her blog entries, even two weeks before our first game, when she wrote, “I know in my heart I am not ready for this chapter in my life to be over. I will do everything in my power to extend this season for as long as possible.”

Two weeks later, discussing our trip to Texas, she wrote, “As I sit here on the plane coming home from Texas, I realize this was my last “first - big” travel weekend… Typically everyone sleeps on the early morning bus ride, but strangely enough, the seniors, were unusually talkative. I think we all subconsciously knew that this was one of those “last” moments, and we were going to make the most of it.”

And two weeks after that, “We are so blessed to have so many little girls who come to our games with our names and numbers painted on their faces, and they wait in long lines just to get our autographs and have their pictures taken with our team after the game. They may dream of having the chance we have each day to play soccer for the Bulldogs. That is truly a humbling experience, and I am reminded to never take this opportunity for granted.”

Maddy was playing out her senior season with more than just urgency; she was playing with unmitigated desperation, holding on for dear life, cataloging every moment that would qualify as a ‘last’ for her: the last preseason, the last home opener, the last practice, the last home game, the last road trip, and on and on. Maddy had an unobstructed view of her own mortality and she was going to squeeze the orange for every last drop of juice. And that’s how she played. Every game.

Maddy wasn’t just better than she had been; she was stellar by anyone’s standard. Fueled by desperation at the thought of losing that which she held so dear, Maddy became a dominant soccer player and, of all things, an important leader. The player who had needed so much ‘counseling’ from teammates as an underclassman, now counseled others. It was truly a sight to see.  One day it occurred to me: Maddy Barker was all grown up.

Each year at some point or another the players will hear me say, “Your career is finite. One day it’s going to end and there’s nothing you can do to change that. And when it’s over, the very best that you can hope for is to leave with a clear conscience and no regrets about the effort you gave.” Maddy was going to leave her senior season with a clear conscience. That was unmistakable. Anyone who saw her would attest to that. The girl was on a mission.

Now, as I may have mentioned, Maddy is an emotional person as it is, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. Given the chance, she’d play soccer forever. Soccer is her everything. It is her greatest passion and her identity. With the stress of her career coming to an end, her pot was often on the verge of bubbling over. In her previous years, it was easy to shrug off those moments because the physical commitment hadn’t always matched the emotional response. But this time it was different. This time we watched a kid put her heart out there for the world to see, game after game. This time the effort dwarfed the response. This time Maddy led by magnificent example. So when some players were flat and unfocused at the start of a late season practice and Maddy came to the coaches to vent about it, well, let’s just say her credibility had grown.

I’ve seen the end of 23 college soccer seasons. It’s never been a happy occasion. 23 times I’ve seen careers die. It’s always heartbreaking in some way, form or fashion; not for the end of my season, but for the end of their season… or the end of their lifetime as college soccer players. If you haven’t had this experience for yourself, let me assure you, it’s devastating.

When we got knocked out of the SEC tournament, Maddy, not unpredictably, was a complete wreck. Her greatest fear had been realized. College soccer was no more. No more games. No more practices. No more teammates. Nothing to do each afternoon when 3:30 rolls around. At that point there’s not much a coach can offer except a hug. So that’s what I gave. And feeling all of that sadness bursting out of that kid, well, it brought a tear to my eye, too. This girl had worked too hard. She deserved better.

When we didn’t get an NCAA bid, Kevin Copp made a wonderful observation. He said that the biggest disappointment was that Maddy’s story was left incomplete… her movie was missing its third act... and what a sight it would have been to see her playing in that tournament knowing that every game was potentially her last. Her story deserved a better ending, if only for the handful of people who understood the beginning and the middle.

All Maddy had really ever wanted was to be an important part of this team on game day. Eventually, she got there. Through determination and hard work and a timely sprinkling of divine intervention, she got there.  She was fabulous all season long, and the longer the season went on, the more fabulous she became.

If you ask Maddy about her best moment, she’ll probably tell you it was scoring the tying goal with about two minutes left against Alabama. It was a heckuva goal and a wonderful moment and I’m glad it was hers. But for me, Maddy’s shining moment  was the game against Florida. In her final game in Athens, Maddy gave every bit of herself to this team. Her work rate was off the charts.  She played that game like her life literally depended on it and man, it sure was a sight to see. As Robin noted, Maddy left everything on the field that night. In her final home game, that’s when Maddy’s legacy was truly created. She walked off that field with a crystal-clear conscience. On that night, I can say with certainty, it didn’t mean more to anyone than it meant to her. I’m just happy I got to be a part of it.

I’m glad that, at the very least, Maddy got to leave that game with one very memorable souvenir. How’s this for your final goal as a college soccer player?
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