I love this sport.
I love this country.
And I love those who have committed to, trained to, and protected this country.
So here I am, wanting like many my age to lose a little weight, be a little bit more fit. I go to find a neighborhood field where I can run a training program that will help me in my playing and refereeing efforts, and also burn some calories.
It took a little longer than I expected, but eventually I found a field that had a lot of room and also had a seven on seven game already going. I took that to mean that the ground wasn’t too bad and went ahead and parked there.
With a couple of recent events, I’ve been working pretty hard so I had planned on just a medium workout/partial recovery session. Some jogging, some sprinting and longer running, some work with a ball. About 30 minutes or so. Initially, that was more important to me than playing and I hadn’t really thought to ask in. Of course, I *wanted* to play, but I knew that getting the workout in would be more effective for me. I had hoped the guys didn’t take it the wrong way that I just walked by…
The workout went fine. I was actually able to push myself a little more than I had planned, and the ball work was more effective than I had expected as well.
As I’m finishing up and about to do the warm down, I set down my ipod and not a moment later, the bigger guy with the booming voice asked if I wanted to join in. My workout mostly done, how could I say no? They seemed like a family/friends group – mostly guys 25-30 with two 10-12 year olds and a 14-15 year old mixed in. Various rates of skill and fitness. Most of the skill was higher than mine (70%? Probably, including the kids…!), but all having fun and joking around and playing. Jerseys from around the world - Inter Milan, Argentina, Tigres, Liverpool, etc. - are on display.
Introductions all around, started playing. I take advantage of a little more athleticism (probably because I hadn’t been out there as long as they had) to be available for passes, etc., try to pass quickly and share the ball as much as possible.
The loud guy who invited me in is one of the larger personalities. Always talking, obvious skill on the ball although I’m sure he was in better shape a few years back. He sets the tone for the game and it is a good tone – play hard enough that we’re all challenged, but fun enough that it isn’t too serious.
About 15 minutes in, I notice something that just made me smile. At a break while a ball is being chased down, I catch that guy teaching one of the younger players - who didn’t seem to be his son - how to deal with people grabbing the jersey, etc. “When a guy grabs your jersey from behind, you do this”, etc. It reminds me of watching Oscar Pareja teach the FC Dallas Development Academy kids...
After the guy moves on back into the game, I find myself near the younger player a moment later and mention, “and remember to be aware of where the referees are” with a wink and a smile. Mostly because it is part of the lesson, but also I can’t help myself – this is the kind of atmosphere that just oozes the greatness of sports. And everyone is into it. Everyone is challenging the younger kids enough that they had to work to be successful, but not bowling them over with their size and skill advantages. It isn’t overpowering, but there are always little encouragements, little lessons. This is how young players learn – with older players and the game showing them what works and what doesn’t.
You see the same thing in other sports, too. Football, baseball, basketball, etc. It is one of the incredibly human things, and I always love seeing it. My father was always trying to teach me golf, and I will always love playing with him. Shamefully, I never shared his love for the sport itself…. On the other hand, the other sport he helped me learn and love was soccer. We had a family kick-around a few years back – me, my dad, my sister (who played collegiately), her husband (who grew up in Manchester – yes, is a United fan) and others. That is one of my favorite family memories.
So here I am, dropped into the middle of this group of friends and family. The game makes it easy for me to work into a group I’ve never met, and may never see again (although that is unlikely – they invited me back and when I’m available, I’ll definitely swing by.) And I’ve done that same thing on three continents, with people from all around the world (twenty countries, and probably half of the United States). It truly amazes me at how a simple round object can connect billions of people.
So maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but I can’t help but love the game – because with one simple experience, I’m reminded of how great humanity is, so that when I read the news of the most recent atrocity in [insert random country here, unfortunately even our own], I know that while there clearly is still evil in the world, our inherent nature is a positive one.
And nowhere else other than the sport of soccer have I seen a single, simple concept spread across such a wide swath of the world and have such a wide, connecting impact.
Some might point to the Olympics – and they obviously have a point. It is another massive show of the greatness of humanity. But the Olympics are a set of events – a wide variety of sports that happen to be under one umbrella. With soccer, it is one set of rules – an amazingly simple set of rules, no less (although obviously, the interpretations have many shades of color!).
And it isn’t every four years. It is constant. Somewhere, there is always a soccer league playing at just about any time of the year. You have youth leagues, pro leagues, pub leagues and international play. Yes, you have the World Cup every four years, but you have other international tournaments in between: the Euros, the Gold Cup, Copa America, the African Cup of Nations, etc. And you also have all the various club competitions.
It is an amazing collage of people of all ages, religions, gender, class, etc. And to bring it back to Memorial Day a bit, isn’t that one of the things that we pride ourselves about the United States? The melting pot?
So thank you to all who have helped make the US what it is today, most especially those in uniform, past, present and future. The ability to enjoy that interesting cross section of my favorite sport and my love of country is in large part because of your efforts. I cannot in any way thank you enough.
After setting this down and coming back to it, I find myself thinking it isn’t enough. Okay, so we take a day off of work and some go to Memorial Day parades. But what are we doing to really help past, present and future veterans? Legitimate issues of medical challenges, post-traumatic stress disorder (or whatever technical name you want to use for the way the horror of war changes you), general challenges of re-integration into a regular job and regular society – they are happening all the time and I don’t really get the sense that we have a handle on the scope of the problem, let alone are working to fix it.
And let’s not just think about those who have served – just the time and energy to prepare to serve is a major sacrifice. Mentally preparing yourself to be ready at all times to go to war to serve your country – think about what you would have to go through to get ready to get on a bus or plane headed for where-ever, then to be ready to do what is asked of you in an environment some of us can’t even imagine, no matter how many times we watch Saving Private Ryan, etc. And we haven’t even touched on the effect this has on the family of those who serve….
Please reply to this post with feedback – especially thoughts on what can be done. Share experiences – where people can volunteer, contribute funds, etc.
If I were to guess, it would start with the USO - http://www.uso.org/. But is that enough? Or is there more? I don’t know – I’m asking.
So first, thank those you know who have, are or will serve. Then think about what you can do to help them through the challenges they face – if for no other reason than they help us avoid challenges we may not be able to face.