As an 8 year old, your responsibilities in life are pretty small. Getting homework done, watching cartoons, and playing sports were three of the primary activities that consumed a lot of my childhood. In particular, I really loved playing soccer as a kid. From my ten years of playing, I have a lot of great memories. However, I don’t think there was a more innocent time in my life than my early days of playing.
As a small 5 year old, I had my first foray into the world of rec league soccer. And the coach was this slick-mustached, balding, tan guy that I knew pretty well: My dad. In my time spent playing soccer and baseball, the coach’s son was always envied because he got to play the best positions, got the most playing time, and was generally favored more than the other kids. With my dad, it was the complete opposite. And I liked it that way.
Everyone on our team got equal playing time and everyone got a chance to play goalie. Considering at a young age kids are still learning to play a sport exclusively with their feet, the opportunity to play goalie and touch the ball with your hands was a highly sought-after position. In my two years playing for my dad, I never received better treatment than anyone else on the team. He understood that at our age, the sport was more about learning and less about winning.
Unfortunately, some of the other coaches in the league didn’t feel the same way. One coach in particular had his son on his team and would constantly hound him with “Hustle, Russell!” from the sidelines. It was a bit unnerving watching this grown man yell at his son like that. Because of rival coaches acting like winning mattered in our soccer league comprised solely of 6 year old boys and girls, my dad decided to turn in his whistle and retire from coaching.
But this didn’t stop my father from supporting me in my athletic events. He always attended my soccer games and gave me some advice at halftime based on what he was seeing. And usually, I benefited from it greatly. But one time, my dad’s participation was not so supportive.
I think I was about 9 years old, and we were about to start our game on a nice sunny Saturday morning. The only thing is, we had no referee. With no one else stepping up, my dad decided to don his whistle one more time and take control of officiating this hotly contested match up.
My dad has always appreciated the finesse side of soccer where technique and cooperation beats physical play. He made it clear in the captain’s meeting/coin-flip that any kind of excessive pushing or elbowing would not be tolerated. I always admired the kind of authority that my dad practiced. The “Take no bullshit and follow your beliefs” attitude has definitely rubbed off on me and has helped me many times in my life.
About midway through the first half, I noticed that our one player was continuously being pushed by the same player. Quizzically, my dad had not called a foul the entire time. I jogged up to him, and very calmly I asked “Dad, do you see that guy pushing our player?”
What came next was something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. My dad reached into his pocket, turned around, and revealed a Yellow Card! For those who don’t follow soccer, a Yellow Card is reserved for somewhat severe penalties and getting two in one match disqualifies you from the field. I was shocked. Me? A Yellow Card? From my dad? How could he? I didn’t do the pushing, that other kid did! All of these thoughts raced through my head as I stood there awe-stricken at the betrayal from my own father. Immediately, I felt the tears building in my eyes, and I ran off the field. I found a spot to sit near some trees until my mom, who was also at the game, came over and consoled me.
I felt so betrayed. My dad, the guy who taught me everything I knew about soccer, did this to me. How I could ever forgive him? The fireworks were just starting. Halftime came, and I saw my dad walking over to me. All of my sadness turned to rage as I prepared to let out all my frustrations on him. Fortunately, my mom beat me to it. “Tim, how could you do that to him. He’s just a kid and he didn’t do anything wrong. You had better apologize before he decides he doesn’t want to play soccer ever again.”
Begrudgingly, my dad pulled me away from everyone and I awaited the upcoming apology. Much to my dismay at the time, this is the gist of what my dad told me.
“Son, I’m not sorry for giving you that card. You deserved it. If I wasn’t the official, you would have never complained.” Damn he was right. But what followed was a little better.
“Do you know why I did it? It’s because I don’t want you to develop any sense of entitlement. You’re better than a lot of these kids because you actually give a damn and try your best. If I just gave into your demands, then you would lose that edge and become a whiner like some of these other kids. You can be mad at me, but trust me in the fact that I’m not doing this to make you feel bad. Anyways, stop your crying and go out and play. Their defense is slow. You got the speed to get around them easily and score.”
I stopped crying and took my dad’s advice. I scored two goals in the second half and our team won.
When I moved into my apartment, a few months ago, my family went out to dinner to celebrate. We were on the topic of sports stories, and my dad told me one time, I got blasted in the face with a soccer ball and kept going. Another father came up to him on the sideline and exclaimed “Damn, for being so small, your boy sure is a tough son of a bitch!” My dad just laughed and said, “He better be! Because he has to answer to ME!” In response, I brought up this Yellow Card story and his reaction was priceless.
“Oh, that? Yeah, I didn’t want you being some wiener kid who whined all the time.”
Gotta love my dad.