Moral courage on the soccer field

A coach inspires his players to reach beyond their limits.

Marlin Levison/Newscom/File
A varsity soccer coach talks to his team at halftime.

I recognized the voice of my high school coach at once, but his call still came as a surprise. He had retired from teaching decades earlier, and we had not kept up a steady correspondence in the intervening years.

There was lots of catching up to do, but what the coach really wanted to talk about was a game that took place when he was coach of the junior varsity and I was a midfielder on his team.

Our opponents were the varsity, and everyone expected they would score at will against us. But nothing like that happened. At a time when soccer was played very conservatively, the coach allowed us the freedom to push forward whenever possible. On this afternoon the strategy worked.

The varsity seemed unnerved by how often we had more players on their side of the field than they did. The game ended in a scoreless tie, but for our team, a tie against the varsity was a win. We had stood up to the older boys.

What the coach wanted me to understand 40 years later was how much the game had meant to him. It was important for him to express his gratitude to those of us who had played for him. There was a back story to the game that he wanted us to know.

The year before he had been assistant coach on the varsity, but during the off-season he had quit because the varsity coach was, in his eyes, a bully who abused his players. The coach's decision to quit had been a courageous act for a young teacher to take. He had defied a senior teacher, and his gesture had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the faculty.

The rift between the two men had become a topic in the teachers' lounge. The varsity coach had insisted our coach was too soft to produce a winning team, and in the heat of the moment, our coach had challenged him to let the varsity scrimmage us.

The varsity coach had been dismissive of the challenge, but finally, after weeks of badgering, he relented. Our game was a test for both men, and what had surprised me at the time, not realizing what was at stake, was the number of teachers, including the head-master, who were on the sidelines when play began.

They saw the game, as I have come to see it in retrospect, as a morality play. But what I am struck by today is the coach's reticence. In a game that meant everything to him, he had shielded us from the pressure he was under. He had made sure that if we played badly, we would never feel we had let him down.

As my call from the coach ended, I flashed back to my senior year when, as the new varsity coach, he led us to a tie for the championship in our soccer league. The coach had scheduled us to play an early-season game with a nearby college, and in the locker room before the game, we were all apprehensive about the prospect of facing a team filled with 20-year-olds.

The coach could see our nervousness, and so before the game, he talked with us longer than he usually did. The coach never gave rah-rah speeches, and this time was no different. It was an honor, he said, to be playing a college team, and we didn't want to make the other coach look bad for putting us on his schedule. We needed to be respectful. We should do our best to score as many goals as possible.

We all looked up in amazement. The coach never used irony with us, but it was hard to imagine our college opponents being pleased with a bunch of 17-year-olds beating them, let alone running up the score. They would hardly see a victory by us as a gesture of respect.

As we filed out of the locker room, nobody said anything. The only sound came from the soft clicks the cleats always made on a tile floor. But a few minutes later as we trotted out on the field, what the small crowd that always showed up for our games saw was a team that – for no apparent reason – couldn't stop grinning during warm-ups.

If anyone was worried about losing, it didn't show. The coach's talk had done what he wanted it to. During jumping jacks, there were even players laughing.

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