A friend of mine once told me that they didn't "get" sports. Not knowing where to even begin, I offered only a stuttering explanation. I couldn't grasp the concept because I had never really considered it myself. It wasn't something I thought about. I just played the game.
In elementary and middle school, I took gym class a little too seriously. It didn't matter what sport it was, I always wanted to win. I didn't have to be good at the game, I just had to want it more. While I did make friends, my hyper-competitiveness also alienated me from other people. A classmate once called me out on some of my behavior. It angered me that he was right. I don't look back proudly on what I did or said in the heat of the moment. One moment, in particular, imbued me with shame to this day.
In sixth-grade gym class, I remember crying in the locker room after a game. I didn't try to fight back the tears. I had lost and a classmate taunted me as a result. I tried to pretend I didn't care but I let it get to me. My gym coach eventually walked in. When he asked what was wrong, I could barely speak. I kept choking on my words. As I stood there looking up at him, searching for any indication of understanding, he peered down at me as if to say, Why are you crying over something like this? I've never forgotten it.
At first, I was confused. Why doesn't he care about this as much as I do? I began to chastise myself. It's just a game. Calm down, stop being a crybaby. Grow up. I walked away distraught. Time went on but I couldn't interact with him the same way without an underlying sense of anxiety, though he had probably long forgotten the moment.
I never wanted to feel that vulnerable again in front of others. Though I was passionate about soccer, I never let myself display visible emotion after a tough loss. I would feign indifference, often to the point where even my teammates wondered if I cared. I told myself it didn't matter. It's just high school soccer. No need to get worked up about it. While there were grains of truth to this rationale, that didn't stop me from caring. However, I couldn't bring myself to show it. Instead, I hoped my hard work on the field could prove to my teammates that I cared. Sometimes it did, but never as much as I wanted it to.
I care about sports to the point that it hurt. Once I got a concussion playing two touch football during elementary school recess. I remember tracing the eyes of the quarterback, watching as he released the football, and sprinting to intercept. But I had miscalculated. The ball soared over my head and I adjusted my stance, jumping backward. I clasped the ball tightly under the glaring light of the sun while bringing it in toward my chest.
I didn't realize I was falling until I secured the ball. Rather than break my fall, I chose to hold onto the ball. My back hit the ground followed by my head whipping against the pavement. Darkness immediately followed. I awoke a few seconds later surrounded by the concerned faces of my friends and the pale blue sky above. A tingling sensation radiated throughout my skull and my neck ached. I mustered just enough resolve to look down at my arms where the ball remained securely clenched. I handed the ball over reluctantly before being chaperoned to the nurse's office.
Later, my mother told me that everyone on the playground heard the crack of my head against the pavement. For the next week, I couldn't attend school due to intense nausea. Despite my weakened state, trading the injury for an interception seemed like a fair deal. It sounds harebrained to sacrifice my body in an elementary school pickup game but it's always been more than a game to me.
Sports have been a part of my life as long as I can remember, whether it was learning how to play catch in the backyard, watching the FIFA World Cup in the living room, or playing competitive soccer. Even during the holidays, sports were an occasion. Every year, after my dad finished taking his post-Thanksgiving dinner nap, we'd head outside into the driveway to play street hockey with my brothers and family friends.
While I dabbled in other sports, I ultimately chose to only pursue soccer competitively. Soccer became so much more than a sport. It became a part of my being. It molded me into who I've become. The lessons I've learned from playing soccer have followed me beyond the field. I learned to persevere. I learned to commit. I learned to toil.
Sometimes it's the simple things that mean the most. The soft thud of striking the ball right in the center. The bottom of my cleats brushing against the surface of the pitch, blades of grass and soil flinging into the air, the ball whistling faintly as it soars towards the goal, and the slight clap as the ball finally strikes the back of the net. There's even something oddly satisfying about hitting the goalpost. The loud thunk followed by the collective groan of the crowd. But I wouldn't trade anything for a well placed through ball.
Eventually, though, I burnt out. My love for soccer had become exhausting to the point where I needed to distance myself from the game. In my last year of high school, I played lacrosse. It felt odd but freeing to start all over again. While I never stopped learning in soccer, I enjoyed picking up new skills every day I played lacrosse. I hadn't played another sport competitively besides soccer since the third grade.
The physicality of lacrosse proved to be the most enticing aspect. I loved donning my helmet and chest pad as if preparing for battle. The crack of sticks like swords clashing. The satisfaction of cradling through a hit or a stick check to the side. Picking out a teammate through a forest of waving sticks trying to thwart you at every turn. The crunch of a body check. Whipping the ball into the corner of the net.
I loved the feeling of being bruised and battered after a game. If I wasn't aching after a game, I hadn't played well. After stripping off my gloves and elbow pads, I'd always scan the surface of my skin, looking for the red, blue, and purple discoloration of fresh wounds followed by the green, brown, and yellow of past ones. Bruises reflected my own spirit and durability. I bore them proudly.
Though lacrosse drew me away from soccer for a time, I discovered that both sports shared the same basic tenets. The feeling of brotherhood. The singular mindset in the huddle. It didn't matter who we were in school, on the field we were one unit with the same goal. Defend our own. Strive together.
I loved the intensity. The challenge of remaining level headed when tempers flared. Rather than trash talk, I liked to chat with opponents during games. The conversations served as a reminder of our common humanity. I found it was often the most effective means of defusing tension on the field. I would shake my head when my teammates let the heat get to them but I also understood where they were coming from.
I shared a mutual respect with my opponents, even when they didn't deserve it. I would always make sure to tell them "good fight," "good shot," or "great save." I never skipped a person in line after we bumped fists after a game, regardless of what happened during the game.
I don't just miss playing sports, I miss everything else that came with it.
I miss the bus rides after a game. The smell of sweat and fast food. Always trying to muster the willpower to do homework and always failing. Playing obnoxiously loud rap music in the back of the bus, occasionally the Spice Girls' "Wannabe." The laughter and yelling that made it nearly impossible to sleep on the way back home.
I miss the road trips to Portland and California. Five or six teammates packed into the back of a red 2013 Ford Expedition EL. Not exactly the most fuel efficient car, about fourteen miles to the gallon, but it packed a massive thirty-four-gallon tank. The main redeeming quality was a built-in television screen. We'd hook an Xbox 360 up to cut down on the monotony of the five to a six-hour car ride. Playing FIFA in the backseat, yelling at the top of our lungs whenever someone scored. It's a wonder my parents were ever able to focus on driving.
For a brief period, I pondered playing soccer in college. I attended college recruitment camps but I discovered that I didn't want to pursue it to that degree. It felt wrong though to stop playing entirely. When I started university in the fall, I assumed I would join an intramural team but I quickly became overwhelmed by the transition to college and missed my window. Not wanting to lose out completely, I joined a student newspaper and volunteered to cover sports. I yearned for some semblance of the life I missed.
Now I sit on the sidelines, merely looking on. I've never been much of a spectator. I'd much rather act than watch. I can't help but scrutinize the decisions of players on the field. It's not that I think I could do better, I just want the chance to try. And while I do miss playing, writing about sports has its merits as well.
I enjoy telling the story of a game. Depicting the struggle of two teams pitted against each other. Though it's been done time and time again, each game is still unique in character. It may only last a couple of hours at most, but it features the same amount of drama and action as any world-class motion picture. I like watching how players make quick decisions. As a player, your vision is often limited. Watching from the stands provides the full picture of the field of play.
Writing about sports brings me back to my history class where I would present on ancient battles (I know, sounds a bit nerdy for a sports article). I write about coaches and players in the same way as generals and soldiers, waiting to see if their strategies come to the fruition. Watching them improvise and adapt to changes during the flow of battle. Ultimately, one side will prevail and be immortalized in the annals of history, whether it be on the local or world stage.
I'm not ready yet to leave the battlefield.
A piece is missing now. Part of me is always wishing to be out there, imagining myself out on the field. I just want to play the game.