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Soccer Poet

Silly Game

Silly Game
Because I hate loose ends…

In the Sept. 30 entry, CANNONS, I mentioned the case of Ryan Ferguson, who was wrongly convicted of murder and has spent roughly a decade in prison. Well, on November 12th, Ryan walked out of that Missouri prison as a free man, his conviction vacated. If justice has a to-do list, it can scratch this one off… finally. Now, not for nothin’, but being as Ryan Ferguson was sent to prison almost solely due to prosecutorial misconduct by the District Attorney, Kevin Crane, I’m not so sure justice has been fully served. I mean the guy basically spent his entire 20s in the clink for a crime he had nothing to do with. That’s a pretty big deal. If it were up to me, Kevin Crane would go directly to jail (without passing Go and collecting $200) and serve one day for each day that Ryan spent behind bars… plus one. That’s fair, right? It’s only when prosecutors actually have some skin in the game that they will think long and hard about tinkering with someone else’s civil liberties.

Moving right along…

This will be, allegedly, the last entry until after the new year. I knew I would eventually tell this story, but the initial plan was to hold off until January. But, if for no other reason than the passing of time will dull the details, I figured I’d better go ahead and get to tellin’ it. Plus, ‘tis the season for stories of inspiration, and that’s how I would classify this one.

There have been times… not many… but there have been times when I’ve encountered people who’ve told me in some form or fashion that sports are silly. These folks believe that sports are overvalued, that they should be a recreational distraction and not much more. They can’t fathom the significance that society attaches to a bunch of people chasing a ball around a patch of grass. In relation to the big picture, they view sport as a triviality, and they feel that those of us who don’t subscribe to that philosophy need to have our priorities realigned. And you know, I totally get it. I understand that as a culture we probably do put way too much emphasis on our games. And yes, paying someone seven figures to throw, catch or kick a ball does seem a little bit backwards when one in six children are born into poverty in the United States. Yeah, I get that.

In my younger days, when someone would say, “Sports are stupid,” I would get a little bit defensive. I mean hey, let’s face it, sport was a big part of my identity. Now, when I think about anyone who carries that belief, I really just pity them. And I don’t mean that as an insult; I genuinely do feel sorry for them, because those who never had the chance to play, well, they really missed out on something much deeper than chasing a ball around a field. They just don’t realize it because they’ve only seen it from the outside. And the view from there is thoroughly superficial. It’s only when you dig a little deeper… when you get beyond the wins and losses and the statistics and the trophies that you begin to understand what sport is actually about. And for me, it’s not until you get past those things that sports truly provide meaning.

Those who never got to be part of a team sport, or who never fully took the plunge physically or emotionally, missed out on one of the most fantastic experiences this life extends to us – not the chance to win a game, a championship or a trophy – but the chance to be a teammate; the chance to give yourself to something much bigger than yourself; the opportunity to commit your mind, body and soul to a greater good; to forge unbreakable relationships through the passage of shared miseries in the pursuit of a common goal. That’s a rough idea of what sports look like from the inside.

The chance to coach college soccer has provided me with the opportunity to bear witness to some truly magnificent and moving moments that make me thank God I get to do what I do. There have been moments that I will never forget if I live to be a thousand, and if you weren’t there when they transpired, you could never feel the full magnitude of their existence or appreciate in full how they moved me. Now, there have only been a handful of those genuinely special, larger-than-life moments, but when you see one of them unfolding in front of you, you know that it will never leave you. You know that it is assigning a value to your existence that goes far beyond chasing a ball. And you immediately recognize how lucky you are to be a part of it. I got to see one of those moments this year.

Let’s begin with the fact that never in my life have I been more stressed out heading into a soccer weekend than in the days leading up to our LSU/Arkansas trip. Let’s just say there was a whole lot on the line.

We knew we needed to take six points from the weekend, no easy task, particularly on the road. But we really had no alternative. We saw the map to Orange Beach and it was demanding a six-point toll from us. Anything else would be unacceptable.

That Friday morning, at our hotel in Baton Rouge, Robin called a meeting of everyone on the team who wasn’t a senior, to try and convey the urgency that the seniors were feeling as their careers were drawing to a close. Robin told them that they couldn’t possibly understand what the seniors were feeling, but asked them to try anyway… to try and imagine that the thing you love the most could be over in less than a week, and that in order to keep it alive, you were depending on teammates younger than you and praying that they understood how important this was to you and to translate that understanding into feverish effort for 90 minutes because it just wouldn’t work any other way. Robin wanted to make sure the younger group understood the importance of the game they were about to play.

By the end of that meeting, the group decided that it would not let this group of seniors go down quietly. They wanted their seniors to know that. And they agreed that freshman, Marion Crowder, would serve as their spokesperson.

While Robin was talking with the non-seniors, Steve was meeting with senior Nicole Locandro. Nicole, who has truckloads of talent, could occasionally disappear during a game. We couldn’t afford that. Not on this night. We needed our very best Nicole. We needed her to be a force in the center of midfield. We weren’t going to win if she didn’t impose herself on the match. Steve wanted to make sure she knew that we needed a big performance from her. Actually, we needed a big performance from everyone.

A few hours later we boarded our bus for the drive over to LSU. There was an undeniable tension – an urgency – about the players as they stared out from underneath their headphones. They knew this was a big one. They knew how much was at stake. Soon we would have a lot of answers.  

Our pregame routine typically consists of Steve reviewing the tactical plan for the match followed by me trying to give some type of motivational speech, and then we take the field.

The players crammed into that visitors’ locker room, elbow to elbow, and watched as Steve went point by point through the tactical keys. All eyes were locked upon the skipper. I studied their faces, searching for some telltale clue as to what our future held, hoping I might find the answer before the exam even began. But the answer eluded me. Of course it did. It always does. Still, it was impossible to miss the urgency in that crowded room. It was as real as the air we were breathing.

When it was my turn to speak, I said, “Usually at this time I stand up here and say something, but tonight I’m going to cede the floor to Marion Crowder.”

Then I watched this freshman from Mississippi, who stands no taller than an end table, rise from her seat and face her teammates, some five years her senior. She took a single, deep breath to steady herself. With unmistakable compassion and a quiet confidence, she slowly began to speak:

“Seniors, we know that there is no way for us to truly understand what you are going through, and we’ll never fully understand it until we’re in your shoes, but I want you to know that we’re going to give you everything we have tonight. You all have been such great leaders and role models for us, and you’ve taught us so much about what it means to be a part of this program.”

Ten seconds after Crowder had begun, I was lamenting that we weren’t videotaping this moment. This was a moment that, somewhere down the line, deserved a bigger audience. It was a window into everything that truly is important about athletics. This was a moment that would transcend a soccer game and justify every bit of meaning we assign to sport. This was one of those things you would never understand when you never stood on the inside. An energy was forming… a call to arms… and it was steadily picking up strength. An unspoken contract was being cemented amongst every player in that room, that on this night, there was no individual, only a common cause that everyone was willing to fight for. And then, to those seniors, Crowder made a promise of sorts.

“You’ve carried this team all year.  Well, now it’s our turn. Tonight, you get on our backs; because tonight we’re gonna carry you.”

As Crowder spoke, I swallowed down the lump in my throat. I wanted to look down at the floor but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The courage it must have taken to stand at the front of that room and tell those seniors that on that night, they were going to get a gift from every one of their teammates. Her words were so thoughtful and genuine that you couldn’t help but believe in them.

And although it was Crowder standing front and center, this was not her show. She may have been the messenger, but it was this entire group of underclassmen who had made the commitment, and in their eyes, and in the subtle, subconscious nod of their heads, you could see that this message belonged to all of them. They were not dipping their toes in the water. They were one hundred percent, all in. And the seniors were right there with them.

You know, regardless of what happens before a game begins, you never really know how things will actually play out once the whistle blows. I was no less nervous when I exited the locker room than when I entered it. But I knew I had witnessed a special moment. I knew that we had the beginning of a great story. The only question was whether or not the ending would live up to it. The answer came quickly.

On that night, our team put together it’s most beautiful and convincing performance of the year. To be honest, and I’ve thought a lot about this, it may have been the single best performance of any team I’ve been a part of. It was as perfect of a game as I thought we were capable of playing. On that night, we made a stand. Each and every player committed wholeheartedly to the cause, and it was surely a sight to see. It was as if everything we had worked on since August came together in ninety remarkable minutes. And Nicole, the senior whom Steve had asked for a big game, well, she went out and delivered the single-best performance of her career.

We won that night, 2-1. But for the sake of the story, we had to do more than just win. For this story to truly have legs, some underclassmen would have to make tangible contributions. After all, that was the promise, right?

Freshman Rachael Garcia scored her first SEC goal, two minutes into the game, to put us out front. We added another in the second half to go up 2-0. It was from the foot of Marion Crowder.

Silly game.

Merry Christmas!

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