At the beginning of each new soccer season, I don't set many goals. During the season, I don't score many goals either, maybe once every 10 games or so.
That's OK with me. My aims are to have a good time and stay in shape. I'm the "old man" of our adult-league squad. I play in the back most of the time. My style of play echoes the words of my first coach: "If they don't score, we can't lose."
A few games ago, I could tell the other team's striker would give us trouble. His foot seemed attached to the ball by a string.
Early in the first half, he yo-yoed his way along our touch line, and sneaked the ball past our goalie. The score remained 1-0 for an hour. I shadowed him all that time, cuffing his string a few times. Their athletic keeper smothered our shots. The ref called the game tightly.
Rain sprinkled. Both sides sprinted less and passed more, hoping that finesse and good fortune would carry the day. Finally, our wing found the far post, tying the game on a gorgeous feed from the middle. Their goalie kicked the dirt in disgust. The ref calmly said that six minutes remained.
Once, soccer was my life. I remembered final scores and pretty goals for months afterward. I bought magazines and went to clinics. At night my dreams were full of the sounds of feet meeting leather, of the ball rustling into a nylon net.
These days, while I might daydream for an hour or two after a good game, the need to compete and to prove my manhood has atrophied to nothing.
Off the field, it's the same way. I sometimes think I ought to get an advanced degree, join a health club, see a financial adviser. But something about the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" lifestyle rubs me the wrong way. I don't make "to-do" lists; if it's not important enough to remember, then it's not important enough.
So I play in the back, and I'm satisfied if our team wins more than it loses. I don't set many goals. I just want to move the ball away from our net and up the field. It they don't score, we can't lose. My mind empties. The household budget, the differences between men and women, the politics at work - they're all on the sidelines.
With three minutes to play, our team began to lean and twitch, the way bowlers do after rolling a ball a bit off line. We tried to propel each shot into the other net with our minds. Finding myself among their defenders once or twice, I shouted back to Gary that I was "going up!" Not that he needed telling. After nearly a hundred Sundays, Gary and I can finish each other's sentences.
OUR center halfback took the ball deep into the corner himself. I knew his pattern. He likes the short pass. He likes to hear who else is near. His shots come from the top of the box. Where he was headed, he was bound to get tangled up.
I went to where he should have been.
"Top!" I shouted. Their net was on my right, about 20 yards distant. If he was surprised to hear my voice, he never showed it. He stopped his drive, squared, and pushed the ball onto my foot.
I was not in my comfort zone. In enemy territory, my knees often buckle and my feet stumble. I know how to stop an attack, but not how to start one.
But this time my aim was true. Just enough of my knee was above the ball. The shot lifted but did not soar. I heard only a soft rustle as it nestled in the upper corner. And then an echo.