Friday, September 11, 2015

Old Friends

Despite the day and title this is not about 9/11, so no trigger warning needed. Most of this was written Thursday morning as I took a break from working on my book/petting Chalupa, who has decided that my lap is indeed structurally sound enough to support him as I try to work at my desk. So brave of him.


On Wednesday I figured the perfect way to top off a day spent working outside in temperatures in the mid-nineties paired with oppressive humidity would be an hour and a half long soccer clinic. Well, no, I'm mixing that up with 'sense of obligation combined with zero knowledge about soccer,' but in any case, there I was at 6:30pm, standing in a field consisting mainly of dead grass and dust along with forty or so others. While I've coached football, baseball, and softball already this was my first foray into soccer and man, soccer clubs in small NJ towns are weird. There's a strange sense of, I don't know, slightly embittered archness, like they know it's always going to be treated like football's little brother in the US but it's the WORLD'S GAME and all that. Me, I've never been a fan. I played the version in which someone got so bored playing it he picked up the ball and ran with it instead. Remember to pour out a forty for William Webb Ellis who not only created the game of rugby but also didn't fight it being named after the school he was at instead of himself, because playing 'Webb' or 'Ellis' would have been weird.

So this was a participatory thing, run by reps from the nearest Major League Soccer team. The Red Bulls, I think. Yeah, the professional team is named after a crappy energy drink. The guy running it was good at what he did, gently mocking but engaging as well. After a few opening comments he told us the general plan and advised us, if we'd brought them, to change into our cleats.

It'd been a long while since my softball days and the only cleats I'd had lying around the house were my rugby spikes, so I'd brought them. Note the name: spikes. Since I was a scrummie I wore boots that featured eight inch-long metal studs designed for digging into the turf as so not to be moved. Well, also for stomping on the nancy-boy cleats of any back who got caught up in a ruck or a maul. Purely accidental, of course. Ahem.

Past gougings aside, I pulled them out of my bag and sat on the baked earth to pull them on. They were a little more worn than I remembered and it was a bit of a struggle, as it always had been, to get my foot all the way down, but . . . damn, they still fit as if I'd bought them custom made. I could say it was like slipping into a comfortable old shoe, but, well, redundant. It was like, uhm, wearing a familiar, well-broken-in baseball glove, of picking up a pen that fits your hand well, or the way you sink into your mattress at night. Not just any mattress, but the one you shopped for, the one that supports you just right, the one that makes you sigh as you settle in.

Evidently my boots came equipped with a nostalgia button as well, because as I laced them up my face split into a grin as rugby-related memories came in a flood: my first post-practice naked birthday Zulu dance, complete with a face-first flop into a mud-puddle (and subsequent walk back across campus); the drink-up at West Point in a cabin in the woods surrounded by a platoon armed to the teeth; standing with my NoJo brothers drinking celebratory beers in the encroaching darkness under the RFK Bridge on Randall's Island, having just crushed Brooklyn to punch our ticket to Nationals; coming to on a pitch in West Orange, having just been knocked out cold by a teammate's heel to my temple.

I never said they were all pleasant memories.

I'll always treasure having had rugby as a part of my life. Giving it up was a tough choice, but at the time I had too many things on my plate in addition to being twice the age of some of our newer players. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was spongy and bruised*. Plus I couldn't justify vanishing for an entire Saturday 20 or 30 times a year any longer - not fair to my kids. So I hung up my boots until now, where they trotted out with me onto a soccer pitch.

They didn't make me a good soccer player. Hell, they didn't even make me a bad soccer player. I bumbled through drills, understanding how poorly I was doing wasn't the point. I kicked balls in the wrong direction, too far, not far enough, with too much English, with not enough English. It didn't matter. My job is the kiddie version of a cat wrangler, keeping them happy and occupied while they run around. My head coach is a lifetime soccer player and they actually give us Red Bull coaches as well, so I just have to show up.

In my cleats.

* hat tip to Futurama