Friday, July 12, 2013

A Beautiful Game

I blew out my knee when I was thirteen in a skateboarding incident.  Just before I started high school I signed up for cross country because I thought it might help get it better.  Unfortunately during an afternoon of pre-season practice of “Indian Runs” I hit a gully and blew it out again.  That pretty much ended high school sports for me and I went into fine arts and student government.
When I was in college I started doing some intramurals and some dorm games.  I learned that I could play softball, soccer and a little friendly touch football with the friends, boys and girls, we knew.  I started running at the fitness center to increase my speed and get my knee strong.  A friend of mine suggested I try out for his local club soccer team and I did.  They took me on and that became my game.

Soccer, or football if you’re not an American, is called “The Beautiful Game,” and it really is.  It is simple.  There are only 17 rules or “laws” that govern the game.  It requires little equipment and does not require you to be a large person.  It is built on the premise that it is an honor to be able to play the game and that all players alike deserve respect.  One of the most awesome things I once saw was during one of the World Cup games a player from the Iranian team lost his father during the tournament and all of players on the opposing team presented him with flowers during the routine pre-game handshakes. Usually in big games like that when the match is over the players on both sides hug and exchange jerseys. You have to admire a sport like that.

When my oldest son, Ben, was eleven or twelve I coached his recreational soccer team. These were in the days before I got so obsessed with work.  On the first day of practice a couple and their boy came up to me and asked me if I was the coach.  They said, “We signed up our son, Danny, and they said this would be his team.”  I looked at my roster and I said, “”Yeah, I got Danny here.  He’s new to our team, but we’ll blend him in.”

They said, “He’s not going to practice today because we wanted to talk to you first. Danny has some issues.” I looked over to where their son was sitting in the grass playing with a gameboy. They continued. “Danny is autistic. Not severely, but he has challenges.  He can sometimes be hyper-focused or sometimes randomly distracted.  This is the first time we tried anything like this.  He loves soccer, watches it on TV, plays with his ball and when he said he wanted to play we thought we would try to give it a go.”  I thought about it for a minute. I took out my coach’s notepad and started scribbling. I ripped off the sheet and handed it to them.  I said, “Here’s the name of a store where you can get him reasonably priced cleats. He’ll also need socks that come up to just below his knees and shin guards. They’ll help set him up so he can practice.  When we get closer to when games start we’ll get him a uniform.”

For the most part Danny did really well in practice. Sometimes he would struggle with things.  What I liked was that other boys never got frustrated with him. They all kind of watched out for him.  If he was out of position in scrimmage they would gently grab the sleeve of his t-shirt and say “No, Danny.  This is where you have to be.” If he couldn’t get the hang of a technique drill one would say, “Here, I will do it really slow.  Just do what I do. Step over the ball, now turn around, and then kick.”

In the first game that Danny played I held him out until the second half and then buried him in the defense.  At one point the ball came to him and instead of kicking it down field, he settled it and started rushing it down the field. He passed to a couple of the wingers, who sent it back to him, and then he drove like Wayne Rooney.  He put it right in the back corner of the net.   I thought to myself “I have to rethink how I am going to use Danny.”

Because there are usually so few goals in soccer players tend to be very jubilant when a goal is scored. When Danny scored his first goal all the guys swarmed him. It totally freaked him out. I signaled to ref and he nodded that I could go on the field.  I took Danny back to the sidelines. He was trembling.  I asked him what he needed.  He sat down on the grass, reached into his bag and said “I just want to play my gameboy.” 

We quickly learned that Danny did not like that kind of affection.  I moved Danny up to a midfielder and he continued to score goals.  We tried clapping to recognize him but he did not like the noise.  I called his mother and asked her what we could do.  She told me that he was OK with gentle tapping. After that whenever Danny scored a goal the boys just said things like “Good goal, Danny” and gently tapped him on his shoulder.

Things were not always magical with Danny.  He could often get distracted and just wander off the field and start playing his gameboy again. I remember one game where he was on one of his amazing runs and he just stopped.  He came to me at the sidelines and said, “You like Pokemon don’t you?”  I looked at him stunned.  “Yes, Danny I play it with my sons. We collect the cards.”  He said, with that flat expression he always had, “Ben says you have a Charizard card. I would really like to see that. I hope I get a big one like that some day.”  I put both of my hands on my forehead and sighed.  I said sternly, “Danny, I will bring it to practice next week. Please just go back and play.” Without a word or a gesture he went back on the field and played.  I made sure I brought it the next week to show him.  

When I coached Ben in those days every kid got a snack or a treat after every game and a trophy at the end of the season just for participating, which I never really understood.  I tried to mix it up a bit. I would also after the final game award a medal on a ribbon to the season’s most valuable player, the best leader, which was usually the captain the boys had elected, and a spirit award.  I let the boys through secret ballot decide who would receive these.  Danny unanimously received the spirit award that spring. The parents were all gathered around and as I started to put the medal on Danny his mother started shaking her head, no.  I handed it to him, said “Good job, Danny,” and just tapped his shoulder.  He said “Thank you,” went and sat down on his mother’s lap.

I made a little speech about how much I appreciated that all of the parents let me spend some time with their kids and how great they were. My wife and I had come to the field separately because I had to get there earlier.  When I got to my car I found Danny’s dad there waiting for me. We shook hands and he said “I really appreciate that you let Danny play.”  I told him it was no problem. I told him, “If a kid wants to play, I would never say no.  We had our ups and downs but Danny did great.  He’s a good kid.”

He leaned back against the car and said “He is a good kid. We just hope that every time he accomplishes something: does well in school, builds something with Legos, does something like this, and we encourage him that we might be moving closer to helping him to have a life.  So far, so good.  We walk around with a lot of hope in our house.” 

Hope is an interesting word. It can be used as a verb or a noun. I like that Danny’s dad used it in both ways. I prefer the latter use of the word. I could get into some sort of sermon on hope but I’m not going to. I think this story says it all. Those of you who read this blog will see that I like quotes, so I’m just going to leave you with a couple. The first is a quote from a man named O.S. Marden.  He was a man in the early 20th century who had a medical degree, ended up owning hotels, and was for awhile was a well known spiritual author.  Here it goes.

“There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow…the hopeful [person] sees success where others see failure, sunshine where others see shadows and storm.”

This one is from Mark Twain that I also like a lot.

Lord save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.”

That sums up my feelings about hope.