When I was seven, all I liked to do was read. Read read read. My mom was and is a very wise woman and decided that being a wimpy, nerdy bookworm was the fast track to many beatdowns, and signed me up for AYSO soccer.
I hated the first season, didn't really understand what the hell was going on, and wanted to quit. I'm not sure why I didn't, but by the end of the second season I really loved the game. I loved the smell of the field, the oranges at halftime, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than just me. I loved playing, touching the ball, and would dribble and shoot on an imaginary goal framed by trees for hours and hours after school.
Note that love doesn't imply ability. I'm not overly coordinated, and that, coupled with a serious vision problem (brought on by all that reading), and my reluctance to wear glasses on the field, washed me out of soccer by high school. I really missed playing and got back into it when I turned 30.
People that play soccer when they're older tend to fall into two camps. There are the ex college/high school studs/studettes, who have amazing touch and vision and ability. They know exactly where they are, where everyone else is, and what is going to happen next. Then there are the rest of us, hacks who occasionally get a good touch or light up a good run and feel that all too brief moment of being connected to the worlds most amazing game.
I'm a spaz, occasionally doing something nice, sometimes having great games, sometimes having terrible games, most of the time having randomly great and terrible moments in the same game. My only real gifts are speed and endurance, both of which are slowly disappearing as I get older. I can pass OK, and have decent field vision at times, but my first touch is more accidental than deliberate, I have no air game, and I have a pathetically wimpy shot.
I've been on the same team for about six years. It's a great group of men and women, most of whom are much better than I am, and very patient. One thing I've noticed over the years is that we've started to focus less on the actual games and more on the beers after the game. Its just as fun to give each other crap after the game as it is to play. Sometimes more fun.
Every season I swear it will be my last. In tonights game I was trying to move the ball across the field with a defender at my hip. I tried to reverse on him when all of a sudden I found myself flat on the ground with a really bad calf cramp. I made it clear to the ref that the defender had nothing to do with me ending up on the ground, and limped off the field to enjoy the rest of the game as a spectator. I don't know why my body chose that moment to betray me, but it was enough to end my night.
I'm not sure why I keep coming back. As mentioned above, my speed is no longer keeping me in the game. Seattles dirt fields play havoc on my knees and ankles. Pacific Northwest weather in the late fall/early spring is the opposite of warm and dry. Guys in their 20s are starting to burn by me, making me feel like a slow old man. And lately, more often than not, I find myself in the middle of the game with no anticipation, consistently a 1/2 second too late to the ball, and (even though I now see 20/15 thanks to lasik), completely tunnel visioned.
But there are those moments, really brief ones, where occasionally I get a glimpse of what it is like to really play the beautiful game. Tonight I got a pass, touched it to my inside, and moved the ball up the field. I could see everything, and it felt like I had all the time in the world. I drew a defender to me and flicked the ball to an open space right in front of my wing, who touched it once and lofted a beautiful high shot over the goalies outstretched arms. It was textbook, it was beautiful, and for that brief moment I was not a spaz, I was a player. It's an elusive high that keeps me coming back looking for more.
I'll take 400mg of ibu and walk off that leg cramp now. It hurts, but I think not playing would hurt worse. Maybe I'll quit next season.