After ten years of coaching soccer with my two children, I was invited to join a men’s team playing indoor at several arenas. The first few games were an absolute shock, as my body was not accustomed to the full-out sprinting and stops and starts of soccer. My heart rate rose quickly and I was often thankful to come off the field after a few minutes.
That was not like me. In all the years I’d played sports my strength was always speed and endurance. After a season of indoor soccer, I did improve in anaerobic conditioning. At one point while playing in an evening pickup match one of the guys in the box turned to me and asked, “How old are you again?”
I told him, “Forty-five.” He replied, “You don’t look like it. You still have speed.”
Unfortunately, that speed turned into a liability in the early 2000s when I came running after a loose ball, leapt over a fallen player, planted my left foot in soccer cleats and went to turn. My knee collapsed and I came tumbling down. I’d torn an ACL.
Turn of misfortune
That was an injury I’d never considered possible in my life. Growing up as an athlete, I played so many games of ballistic sports in basketball, soccer, football, baseball, tennis that I never dreamed the knee would come apart. I once heard a former Chicago Bear and football analyst Tom Thayer say, “ACL tears are often a fatigue problem. When the muscles wear out, the support isn’t there.” As one ages, it is also a strength versus torque issue. Joints and connective tissue lose flexibility as the years pile up. That’s what happened to me.
I did rehab my ACL tear and return to playing soccer. The orthopedic surgeon used a cadaver part that I named Jake. Sadly, I also tore Jake playing soccer two years after the surgery. It probably would have happened one way or another.
So I live with fun memories of playing soccer as an adult, but those days are definitely over. I loved those evening games. The excitement of the contest. The opportunity to contribute. It was a blast.
I wasn’t the star of the team or the principle goal-scorer by any measure. My contributions were more valuable on the defensive side, where I typically guarded the top scorer on the opposite team. I took pride in trying to shut down the best players.
From that position, my job was to move the ball upfield and deliver it to one of our forwards. One of my favorite moments during all my years of playing involved a stolen pass in the backfield… that I turned upfield and sent into a curving pass that rolled right to the foot of our left forward. It only took him one step to strike the ball for a goal. It happened so smoothly that the feeling was satisfaction beyond measure.
That’s the part of soccer I loved most. The rhythm. The flow. The creativity.
I did have play forward outdoors, but only for half a season, because that’s when I tore the ACL the second time. It was a muddy Sunday morning after a dry spell. The soccer field was close-cut grass, level and greasy in consistency. We only had eight guys for the match and I was getting really tired playing center forward because no one else on the team could keep running. My distance running fitness did come in handy now and then.
We were losing 6-0 by halftime and I was frustrated and desperately eager to score because the other team was acting like assholes. The Mink in me emerged, and I took off from a rare stolen pass on our side and received the ball from a teammate at the top of the box. I planted my left leg, turned to shoot and was struck from the side by a clumsily sliding opponent. That was an asshole move too. I felt the knee go “Snick!” and that was that. The cadaver ACL was gone.
I prefer to dwell on a moment that was far more transcendent. We were playing a team composed of English guys and they were superior in skill. Somehow we stuck with them the whole match. The game was tied 3-3 with just a minute or two to go. A ball popped loose to me in the backfield and I looked up the side of the pitch. It was all green. There was no one to stop me if I moved fast. At full tilt I took off dribbling down the field with a defender trying to catch up as I moved just past the opponents goal box at the far right side of the field. Without looking up, I swept my right foot through the ball and it disappeared like magic into the near upper corner of the goal box. GOAL!!!
Our team erupted in cheers. At that moment the opposing coach, a crusty old English gentleman with a gray mustache, came running up to me with both fists clenched, then he extended a robust handshake. “Nice strike on the ball!” He exlaimed. “You won’t be sleepin’ tonight!”
He was so right. As I arrived home it was past ten o’clock p.m. I stripped down, shaking the black rubber filings from the soccer field out of my shorts and ass crack. I stood in the warm water and took a shower. That goal kept racing through my mind. I was still so excited as I lay down in bed that the feeling of that strike kept playing on repeat. Over and over again. My heart rate was high from all the late-evening exertion. So I just rested there with that Englishman’s words running through my head. “Nice strike on the ball!” I can still see that shot to this day. And I can still hear his words.
That’s the best kind of unfinished business of all.