Soccer Poet

The Coach-Parent

The CoachParent

Yes, it’s been quiet here lately. Part of that can be attributed to the lack of external stimuli in my soccer world as of late. And a bigger part can be attributed to the surplus of newfound stimuli in my personal life. About two months ago I had what some might call a major life event. Let’s just say that after 42 years of dodging responsibility in remarkable fashion, in December I became an adult.

You’ve heard of parent-coaches, right? They’re the parents who become coaches. They make the world of youth sports spin round. Yes, some of them are qualified. Some of them have actually played the sport they coached. But many more are just those good natured folks who volunteer because someone has to and before they know it their mini-van is packed with muddy nine-year olds, orange peels, juice boxes, three ball bags, a clipboard and whistle. They are their own brand of hero and if it were up to me they’d be honored with a paid government holiday.

Recently I’ve fallen into a new designation: the coach-parent. After a coaching career that has spanned five colleges in as many states, I recently became the proud stepdad of a frighteningly beautiful, blue-eyed six-year old girl named Izzy. I am the coach who has become a parent. Finally.

As a bachelor for 40+ years, most friends doubted that I ever gave much consideration to parenting. They were wrong. Decades ago I decided what I wanted out of parenting. More accurately, I decided what I absolutely didn’t want – a really pretty daughter. And now I am certain that God is absolutely doubled over in a fit of laughter. I didn’t just get a pretty daughter; I got a freaking model. I mean no one is going to mistake this girl for my kid. Just my luck.

A little background… I met Izzy’s mom, Beth, a few weeks before I left for my freshman year of college back in a little place I like to call the 1900s. Our families vacationed at the same campground in Myrtle Beach. Neither of us remembers precisely how we met, but I was a lot cooler back then so the possibilities are endless. Maybe she spied me rockin’ the mullet at the arcade, jammin’ a new high score on Ms. Pac Man. Maybe she was awed by my chic pipe-cleaner physique. It could just as easily have been my superior body-surfing abilities and my Jersey accent/vocabulary. Maybe I let her watch me carry around my best friend’s guitar while I espoused to being “in the band” and regaled the campground groupies with tales about life on the road.

More plausible, I marinated in the ocean for an hour and a half before working up the courage to let a seven foot wave slam me into her, accidentally of course, before apologizing profusely then bragging that I had jammed a new high score on Ms. Pac Man. However it came to pass, from that point forward I was spending the week with the prettiest girl in the campground, which gave me infinite amounts of street credit amongst the other awkward teenage yahoos that had been eyein’ her up. When Beth was off the market, they turned and walked away like a flock of dejected seagulls when the last French fry gets eaten. And I was just fine with that.

To be perfectly fair, calling Beth the prettiest girl in the campground is a lot like calling Barack Obama the most powerful man in Northern Virginia. Beth would have been the prettiest girl in pretty much any campground, playground, fairground or Ground Round. She wasn’t just pretty. She was, “What the hell is she doing with me” pretty. She was without question the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Her eyes were downright hypnotic. And the strangest thing of all… she was CRAZY about me.

Knowing that I had a good thing going and not wanting to overplay my hand, I played it cool for the next 25 years before asking her to marry me this past fall. Okay, since we met pre-internet and pre-e-mail, back then we had to do this thing that involved a pen, an envelope and stamps for about six years. Occasionally I would make forays back down to Myrtle Beach and we would reconnect, but for the most part our relationship was of the pen-pal variety. As was typically the case in the eons that preceded the World Wide Web, the letters became less and less frequent until one day they just stopped all together. And we didn’t have a whiff of contact since 1993 when I was an assistant coach at Wheeling Jesuit.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Kid Rock releases his hit All Summer Long. Okay, I’m a big fan of that song anyway, but there’s this one line that I paid particular attention to: Sometimes I hear that song and I start to sing along and think Man I’d like to see that girl again. That line just stuck.

I think every guy has that girl. Stashed away somewhere in the not-so-deep recesses of a fond memory is that amazing girl who managed to somehow just float out of his life for no real good reason. She’s the one whose departure he’s never been totally at peace with. Beth had always been that girl for me. And although there wasn’t a lot I could recall about our times together, I clearly remembered two things: Beth was stunning and I always felt fantastic when she was around.

Back in 2007 it seemed that every soccer team in the nation had that Kid Rock song on its pre-game CD. Everywhere we played I would hear it during the warm-ups. And every time I would hear it I would decide to track down Beth. Just to see. Just…in…case.

Problem was that after that song was played in this stadium or that stadium, there were still two hours of a soccer game to be played and then a meal and a bus ride and by the time I got home or to the hotel, I had forgotten all about it. This was a reoccurring thing and each successive time I’d hear that song (and start to sing along) I’d grow a little more frustrated with my forgetfulness and promise myself that next time…

Then one day I’m recruiting up in New Jersey. I’ve spent a long day at the fields and as I’m pulling into my parking spot at the hotel, that song comes on my radio. And I hear that line. And I decide that I will fight my A.D.D. tooth and nail to remember my mission all the way up and into my room, which is where I used the power of Facebook to search for that girl.

There were about a dozen girls who shared Beth’s name in the search results. But when I saw the little thumbnail pic at the top of the page and those stunning blue eyes jumping off the screen, well… there’s just no mistaking those eyes. I recognized her in an instant. One of us hadn’t aged a day. So I sent her a message. And then I married her.

Beth and I had already decided on being married before she and Izzy moved to Athens. There was no actual proposal or announcement. It was just something we evolved to pretty quickly. Beth is every bit the beach bum that I long to be, so she was fine with the Poet Special, a skeleton package consisting of a no rings, no frills trip to the express lane at the Justice of the Peace. We weren’t longing for whistles and wedding bells. We would have been happy to do it at the ATM. But the more I thought about it, and the more I listened to my boss advise me against mailing in the effort, the more I didn’t want to entirely skate past the formalities of tradition. After all, this was a pretty big deal and I was only gonna get one pitch to hit. Beth deserved a formal proposal. Plus, I didn’t want to bury her with the hassle of explaining to her gaggle of girlfriends who’d never met me why her husband-to-be hadn’t ponied up at Jared. Besides, three decades from now when we’re having some blowout argument over where she left my Flyers snuggie, I don’t want her coming over the top with the whole, “You never even proposed to me” argument. Let’s face it, that’s the mother of all trump cards and it never gets shuffled back into the deck. Nope. I wasn’t gonna chance it. I was gonna go full Richie Cunningham. That meant buying a ring.

After a disastrous debut day of ring shopping and the realization that I had no taste and not the slightest idea of what constitutes an acceptable ring other than roundness, I made a savvy tactical decision to recruit some help. There are times when having a team full of college women at your disposal can come in real handy. Catching up on Grey’s is one. Shopping for jewelry is another. So the next afternoon Laura Eddy and Maddie Barker met me at the ring counter, gasped in horror at my initial selection, then promptly picked out a beautiful ring that they were certain would knock Beth’s socks off. So I bought it. And I was promptly paralyzed by the thought of losing it.

I can’t explain the wave of emotions that was overwhelming me once that ring was in my hand, but it was pretty intense. The thing was worth more than the Jeep when it was still running and it was the perfect size for me to lose in no time at all. I was terrified of leaving in the shopping cart. I asked the girls to walk around the store with me for a few minutes just so I could calm my nerves. Suddenly everything in my life revolved around one idea: Don’t lose the ring!

I was overcome with paranoia. I was suddenly suspiciousof everyone who crossed my path. It’s like they all knew I had this pricey jewel and they were just waiting for their chance to snatch it. My eyes darted across the parking lot as I exited the store. On the drive home I became a secret agent behind enemy lines. I kept one eye on the rear view mirror, switching lanes for no reason whatsoever, looking for a tail. Once safely back inside my house I searched for an adequate hiding spot which would undoudtedly pose another daunting problem. Hiding a diamond ring is no job for a guy on the A.D.D. bonus plan. Once I chose a hiding spot it was basically a coin flip about whether or not I would remember said spot. It was entirely possible that in a matter of a week I would be talking to police officers about a ring that I think was maybe stolen although I couldn’t be positive about remembering exactly where I had hidden it. Yes, officers. Yes, you heard that correctly. I can't be certain it's been stolen, but I have a feeling it was. So I left myself a series of cryptic notes – notes that weren’t too descriptive, consisting mainly of symbols and stick figures and a doodle of Chaka Khan. The notes needed to be vague, in case they fell into the wrong hands. And again I feared that even I wouldn’t be able to decipher the clues I was leaving for myself. I couldn’t believe that something small enough for me to swallow was causing so much stress. Finally I just refused to be consumed by the worry. I made peace with the fact that I was probably going to lose the ring and even if I did, life would still go on.

Beth and Izzy moved in on December 20th. I officially proposed on a snowy Christmas Eve out on the back deck. Mainly because I figured it would be an easy date to remember. Plus, we’d been unpacking boxes for five straight days and it was the first real chance I had. And honestly, I was still petrified of losing that ring and figured the safest place for it was on Beth’s finger. Beth’s parents were staying with us and while Beth was in the shower I made my first all-in move of the night. I needed to get Beth’s parents together in the same room. Her dad was an easy mark, relaxing on the sofa watching some television, digesting. Nothing was gonna move him. But Beth’s mom… the woman wouldn’t sit still. She was always cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. My kitchen counter was already shinier than an ice sculpture and she was applying a third coat of Pine Sol. I tried waiting her out. I was certain she would lose steam and join us in front of the TV, but the woman was like Hazel on Red Bull and Beth’s shower wasn’t going to last forever and I was working with an imminent deadline. Fearing I could wait no longer, I went proactive and asked her to take a break for a minute. She looked at me with momentary suspicion but quickly relented. Once I talked the sponge out of her hand and got her into the living room, I jumped back into the kitchen. I steadied myself with a deep, deep breath, then returned to the living room and handed her dad a beer. I said, “Here, you might need this.” Then I said that if it was okay with them, I’d officially like to propose to their daughter. They were delighted. It was a very cool moment.

As much as we may have enjoyed a traditional wedding amongst family and friends, we needed function over form. We needed to get Izzy on my health insurance ASAP which meant a trip to the Justice of the Peace. Well, in our case, a very nice judge in probate court.

Our wedding date was set for January 10th. Yes, a Monday. The 10thcoincided nicely with the biggest snowfall Athens had seen in decades. The irony was lost on no one. My best friend, Scott, who lives in California, texted me on the 11thto see if I was married. I told him we got snowed out. He asked how I made it snow.

Funny guy, that Scott.

Two weeks later, despite another forecast for heavy snow (Really?), Beth and I made our way to the courthouse. The judge was fabulous and kind and a lot more serious about the ceremony than either of the people who were about to commit to a lifetime of togetherness. He immediately stressed the importance of the commitment we were about to make and asked how long we had been together. This had all the earmarks of a disaster, so remembering something I’d heard in a marketing class about telling the best possible truth, I told him we’d been on and off for 25 years. That seemed to appease him and the ceremony commenced.

Steve served as my best man. Julie and the kids attended. As did Dee. It felt weird not to have at least one soccer player at my wedding. To be fair, there are probably a hundred or so I would have loved to invite from all my stops along the way, but that just wasn’t realistic. So I decided to deputize Dee as the embodiment of all the wonderful players who’ve been such a big part of my life. I couldn’t think of a better person to represent all the players who I wished were there.

And finally, there was Izzy. Izzy watched the ceremony from the judge’s chair, gavel in hand, waiting for the high sign to make the proceeding official with a loud wooden bang.

I wish I could have kept my composure. I really do. It just wasn’t going to happen. Have you ever been in church when something struck you as funny and you started to laugh? And the harder you try not to laugh the harder you actually do laugh? Yeah, that was me. It was a disaster. The whole time I tried to distract myself by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance backwards in my head and breathing out of my eyeballs. Thankfully I held it together just long enough to say, “I do.” Izzy banged the gavel, I kissed the bride, and just like that we were ‘til death do us part. And I was a dad.

Naturally that scared the bejeezes out of me. I mean of all the things you really don’t want to screw up, being a parent has to be near the top of the list. But I was convinced that 20 years of coaching had given me a leg up on anyone else who could have stood in my shoes. For starters, I wasn’t going to be the push-over dad. And I’m not. I refuse to be Izzy’s campaign manager and her on-call rescuer. I remind myself that I’m not raising a kid, I’m raising an adult. When she tries to get her way by batting those big baby blues, I flat out tell her it won’t work. I remind her of exactly what it is I do for a living and tell her that girls have been trying to manipulate me for over two decades so she’ll need to bring more to the table than a pair of sad eyes. Oddly enough, I only had to explain that to her twice. Now she doesn’t even bother. Another thing we’ve miraculously dispatched with (for the most part) is crying.

Crying was a major concern for me. I was at peace with the solitude I was leaving behind. I understood that I would no longer have a monopoly on the television. I could handle sharing my space with stuffed animals and doll houses and a battalion of zoobles. The one thing I wasn't prepared to handle was crying. I thought about the last flight where I sat in the same row as a crying baby and how it made me want to jump out of the airplane. And that flight was an hour and a half. I kept imagining being stuck on that plane for seven straight years. Crying was at the top of my list for crisis prevention.

I think that 9 out of 10 times, crying is a choice. My theory on crying comes from 20 years of running soccer camps for kids ages 5 and up. I’ve seen so many kids have some type of collision on a soccer field and they’re reaction is completely predicated on the reaction of the first adult/coach they see. If that adult goes into rescue mode and gets all soft and fuzzy and asks, “Awwwww, are you okay”, you can bet your butt the waterworks are about to commence. So I learned long ago that when one of those moments is upon us to run over and celebrate the campers heroism! Before the kid has the chance to decide that crying might be the appropriate response, I’ll congratulate him for being so tough. I’ll say, “Man, that ball smacked you in the ear and you didn’t even cry! You must be the toughest kid at camp!” And wouldn’t you know, that kid simply chooses not to cry.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely a time and a place for shedding some genuine tears, but having to turn off iCarly isn’t one of them. So to maintain my sanity I decided to bring my camp philosophy home.

One night something didn’t go Izzy’s way and she started crying for whatever reason and I matter-of-factly asked her, with a hint of distaste, “Why are you crying?” – as in, Don’t you feel stupid right now? It totally broke her thought pattern. She must’ve answered that question in her mind and realized she had no idea why she was actually crying and she stopped. Izzy was so used to people running to her when she cried that it became a mechanism for her to get her way. Then all of the sudden she’s living with this new guy who is completely unaffected and keeps telling her that she doesn’t have to cry. “Just don’t cry, Izzy. It’s pretty simple. Just choose not to cry.” And if that doesn’t work, I just get up and walk away.

For Christmas Santa brought Izzy a pair of ‘moon shoes’, which are basically a bouncy pair of six-inch risers that I strap under her sneakers so she can stagger around as a hazard to herself and others. The first time we tried them out, before we left the porch, I instituted a rule. I told her that she might fall down and it might even hurt a little, but even if it does she’s not allowed to cry. She was good with that. She didn’t fall down that day but she’s fallen down since then, including once off her bike. I wasn’t there when she fell off the bike, but she told me all about it when she got home. Know what she was most proud to tell me? Yep. She didn’t cry. Now when she comes home from soccer practice she can’t wait to show me the bruises on her shins. We call them war paint.

Izzy cried at least once a day for the first five or six days she was here. I think she’s cried maybe twice since (at least when I’m around), and one of those was because she was losing a game of Chutes and Ladders. To be fair, if my kid is gonna unravel because she’s losing a game, who am I to argue with that? The competitive meltdown was my signature move.

Anyway, being a dad is a trip. I love it. Izzy cracks me up. She's already narrowed down her career choice to either an actress or a dog walker. So I'll be sending her to dog walking school. Izzy loves her new home and has totally drank the Athens Kool-Aid. Her closet is almost exclusively red and black. Yes, there’s some

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pink in there but I blame her mom for that. But make no mistake, Izzy is a Georgia Bulldog to the core. Just this morning I had to laugh when she declared, for no apparent reason, “I would just die if we weren’t UGA fans.” Good girl.

Most importantly, Izzy is crazy about Daddy. And there's just no words to explain how that feels.

Izzy’s been good for my health, too. When it became clear that I would soon be father to a beauty queen, I high-tailed it back into the gym and started pushing iron like it was my job. Just to shave a few more years off my life, Izzy’s pretty set on becoming a cheerleader. Fantastic. In no time at all I’ll be beating up... I mean, dealing with high school boys and I want those little punks to fear me like a SARS outbreak. I’ve already sketched out my master plan. The first time I show up at Izzy’s school I'm going straight Road Warrior. I’ll be wearing camouflage pants, a sleeveless shirt, face paint and brass knuckles, and with eyes wide as saucers I’ll be arguing emphatically with the ‘voices in my head’ as I march down the hall punching lockers and howling intermittently. I may even go to prison for a few years just to build up my street cred. I want Izzy’s name to be synonymous with Psycho Dad. Teenage boys, thy enemy is me.

Although coaching has certainly aided my transition into parenthood, it hasn’t exactly been the magic bullet either. I still have more questions than answers and to be honest, in a sense coaching has spoiled me a little bit. For example, I can’t understand why 25 college girls will come running from all directions when I say, “Bring it in,” but the other night at dinner I had to say, “Izzy!,” seven times before she even acknowledged my presence and took the asparagus out of her ear. I guess we’ve all got some learning to do.

Being married is easy. Beth's amazing and we spend most of our time together laughing. The parenthood thing... well... that takes a little more concerted effort. So you’ll have to forgive me if my postings have grown a little infrequent. The time once devoted to writing has been reallocated to playing Uno, watching Sponge Bob and helping with math homework (Hey. I’m serious about that.). Yes, a lot has changed. As much as it pains me to admit it, guess I’m finally a grown-up. Who knew?

updated: 10 years ago