Back on the sidelines again

After a long absence, I was recently back in a familiar place, on the edge of the soccer field. I was visiting my daughter and her family on a Saturday morning as her two youngest daughters aged 4 and 6 were playing soccer in their different age groups.

I don’t know much about soccer, but in my previous life I sat on soccer fields for 14 years, so it’s a place where I feel at home.

My soccer experience began in 1988 in Waco, Texas, where we moved for my husband Dave’s job. Our son Sam, then 6, wanted to play on his new friends’ soccer team. Whatever Sam wanted to do, his little sister Reagan, then 4, also insisted on doing it.

I signed Sam up for his friends’ team and then went with Reagan to the 4-year-old organizing team meeting. When the league organizer explained that they had youngsters who wanted to play but no coach, all the parents stood around silently looking at their shoes.

“We can’t have a team if we don’t have a coach,” the league guy said.

More silence.

Reagan tugged at my shirt and pleaded, “Mom, please!”

I reluctantly told the group I would be willing to help, but I confessed I had never touched a soccer ball. “I know Nothing about football,” I told them.

“No problem,” the man replied quickly, while the other parents nodded encouragingly. “At that age you just have to teach them to walk in the right direction and have fun while doing it.”

Uh-huh. For sure.

At the first training, the other parents discovered the shocking reality that I was telling the truth. Worse, I obviously wasn’t even sure myself which way to go for the kids.

Finally, another mum, who admitted she played football as a child, said she would help coach. We split the chores: she taught the kids how to play soccer, and I sat on the sidelines and held those who cried. (Crying is inevitable when 4-year-olds are playing soccer.)

Sam quickly decided that football wasn’t for him. But Reagan loved it, although most games she just happily ran up and down the field without ever touching the ball.

She continued playing when we moved to Austin a few years later. She now managed to kick the ball occasionally and even scored once or twice, much to her surprise and mine.

When we moved to Tampa in 1993, Reagan continued to enjoy recreational league football “just for fun.” Then something unexpected happened. The coach of a competitive team called and asked if she might be interested in playing on that team at an upcoming tournament.

“For real?” said this mum, who’s been on the sidelines for five years now but still knew next to nothing about football. “Reagan?”

“I love watching her play,” said the coach. “She’s fast and developing good ball handling skills.”

Those kinds of calls continued, and Reagan eventually joined a competitive team and played for a gung-ho football coach named Jim, who told Reagan — and her parents — that she had a lot of potential. If she works hard, he said, she can become a really great player.

“For real?” said this mom, who was still struggling to remember the right direction for the team to head. “Reagan?”

But then, with Jim’s constant urging and his irresistible ability to inspire confidence, something magical happened. Reagan became a really great soccer player. As we traveled everywhere over the next few years, attending games and tournaments, even Reagan’s soccer-ignorant mother could see that she excelled at the sport.

At times, Dave was able to join us and play his part as Reagan’s loudest one-man cheering and (unnoticed) coaching section. I tried to limit it to a very narrow vocabulary. He was allowed to say “Yay!” “Go!” and run.” That was all. He was not allowed to say “Oh, for God’s sake!” and what are you to doah?” and “Reagan! Wake up high!”

Soccer and soccer practice became a year-round affair, with league soccer and high school soccer alternating. Always a team captain, Reagan became a fearless competitor and often came home bruised and bruised. Every time she fell on the field, Dave would yell, “Get up! Get up!” Stand up! Stand up!”

Every time she fell, Reagan got back up.

Until she didn’t.

I was chatting with some other moms at a high school game one night, not watching as closely as I normally would, when we suddenly realized that it had gone quiet. Then, to my amazement, I looked around and saw Dave, Mr. Get-up-get-up-get-up, rushing onto the field, lifting Reagan off the grass and quickly carrying them to the sidelines.

We feared she had permanently damaged her knee, but an orthopedic surgeon worked hard to help her heal the injury — without surgery. Reagan was mesmerized by the way the doctor expertly guided her in solving the problem and helping her get back on the field.

“I think I might want to do that,” she said one day as we were driving home from the doctor’s office. “Maybe I want to be a doctor who knows how to fix things.”

Long story short, thanks to Coach Jim’s publicity and amazing network of contacts—and Reagan’s very hard work—several colleges offered her Full Ride football scholarships. Instead, she chose the University of Notre Dame, which had the No. 1 team in the country at the time and only offered her a small partial scholarship (much to Dave’s chagrin). In her freshman year there, she played enough soccer to earn a letter. In 2002 she retired from athletics.

Now, 20 years later, she is a doctor and knows how to solve many of the problems patients bring to the emergency room where she works.

That past Saturday she was sitting next to me on the soccer field. Her husband Neil paced the end of the pitch, ready to film their daughters’ goals should they score. My youngest granddaughter’s game came first and I was quick to call on my previous coaching skills as the booing 4-year-old fled to the touchline to have her tears wiped away.

Then came the older sister’s game and I watched in amazement as the 6-year-old scored goal after goal, dodging her opponents with ease and racing across the field, showing off her ball-handling skills to to take on a World Cup contender. I still don’t know much about soccer, but watching my granddaughter play the sport her mother excelled at, I couldn’t help but think she had the potential to be a really great soccer player will.

Then, after the game, my opinion was confirmed when a dad from the other team approached the 6-year-old and complimented her. “You did great out there,” he said. “You used your right foot and your left foot. I really enjoyed watching you play.” Then, only half-jokingly, he added, “Well, what high school are you going to go to?”

The tiny Dynamo, who is now finishing first grade, smiled shyly and shrugged. She didn’t know.

I do not know it either. But I hope I’ll be there on the sidelines if it happens.

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