Yeah, yeah, I know. You come to “06880” looking for Westport stories — something off-beat or little-known. A profile of someone famous, semi-famous or obscure. A dig at dingbat drivers.
Well, today is all about me.
This post is a pure plug.
I’ve just published a book — my 17th, but who’s counting? — and it may be my favorite.
We Kick Balls: True Stories From the Youth Soccer Wars is a romp through my over 30 years of coaching. From U-12 through high school, I’ve seen just about everything. Every type of player and parent imaginable. Funny, weird, fantastic, awful situations. And that’s just one day.
I’ve made incredible friendships, forged lifelong bonds, and had them tested by too many deaths.
I’ve learned what makes teenagers tick. I’ve learned a lot about life — and myself — along the way.
Now you can read all this stuff too.
We Kick Balls has been called “funny, warm, courageous and edifying.” It ricochets from the World Cup to Dachau, from race and religion to 9/11. Somehow, soccer connects them all.
I always say, “There’s more to life than soccer. And there’s more to soccer than soccer.” We Kick Balls is a book about kids, life, and everything that happens to all of us, on and off the field.
Here’s an excerpt:
Planning a youth soccer trip takes time. There are forms to fill out, housing to book, transportation to arrange, information to relay to players and parents. D-Day took more organization, but not much.
Which is why a spur-of-the-moment, completely unorganized 2-day summer jaunt to Long Island several years ago was perhaps the greatest tournament of my youth soccer life.
Like spontaneous combustion, this trip blossomed out of nowhere. One afternoon I was at the beach, talking with 2 former players who just graduated from high school. The next morning I, several of their buddies and a few more they had never played with but knew by reputation were packed into 3 cars headed through rush-hour traffic to an event we knew little about. Just that somebody had a college buddy who had a friend of a friend who said one of the registered teams had backed out, and could we come down to salvage the bracket?
Our ragtag bunch spanned high school through college. The players did all the organizing, which meant agreeing what color T-shirts to wear, tossing food and water into coolers, wrangling cars from their parents, and somehow finding a map of Long Island. I was invited along as the “coach,” though the guys promised they’d handle everything themselves. Substitutions were irrelevant; they mustered only 11 players.
For a control freak like me, this was a welcome change. Here was a chance to see whether all my theories about soccer being a Petri dish for maturity and responsibility were true, or crap. It was also an opportunity to enjoy a couple of days out of town, in the relaxed company of a group of players I truly liked, who themselves loved soccer yet had never been together as a team. I felt like an anthropologist about to study a newly discovered tribe.
The tournament organizers seemed as loosey-goosey as us. We breezed in, said, “Yo, we’re here – Westport,” and received a hand-written schedule. Directions to the field were drawn in pencil.
We played 3 games that day, and won them all. It hardly mattered that our guys had never played together. With absolutely no pressure, they relaxed and enjoyed themselves. It was soccer the way it ought to be. Damn good soccer, too.
There were a couple of hitches, of course. One boy had to go back to Connecticut; he was due in court in the morning, on an underage-possession-of-alcohol charge.
A second one suffered a huge gash above his eye. We had no medical kit, and this was not the type of tournament where doctors and nurses prowled the sidelines. So I sent him to the hospital, and prayed he’d find their way back. In those pre-cellphone days, that was no sure bet.
We felt pretty good that evening, having launched ourselves, somehow, into the semifinals. That’s when we realized it had gotten late. No one had thought ahead to the possibility we would play the next day, so we improvised. We looked for a motel.
That was the hardest part of the trip. Every place was filled. Just as we were ready to give up and sleep in our cars – talk about your bonding experience! – we spotted a place that looked like it had been scouted as the Bates Motel in “Psycho,” but rejected as too scary-looking.
Excitedly, we checked in. The guys spread out their T-shirts and shorts to dry (which, happily, made the rooms smell better). A few remembered to call their parents to say they would not be home.
After a celebratory (and very cheap) dinner, we returned to the only motel in America without televisions. That fazed our boys not at all; they were having too much fun wrestling and airing out their rooms.
The next morning, heading into the semifinals, our low numbers caught up with us. With our underage drinker gone (he eventually beat the rap; obviously, he argued, the beer in the trunk of his car belonged to his father) we were down to 10 players.
The kid with stitches gave it his best shot, despite being unable to head. We wrapped his skull in a turban, moved him up front, told him to run around as a decoy and hoped he would not injure himself further. Five minutes in he got knocked to the ground, and bled like a stuck pig the rest of the match.
The boys, meanwhile, had whipped themselves into a frenzy. They had created instant traditions – chants, celebrations, even a ritualistic group urination (don’t ask) – and rode the power of those emotions as far as they could. But our foes – an Austrian team, hosted by the Long Island club sponsoring the tournament – were excellent. The match remained deadlocked.
Suddenly, with seconds remaining, the referee called a penalty kick against us. I learned long ago that complaining about officials’ calls is useless. They all even out over time, and a team that doesn’t score has more things to worry about than one call against them.
However, I can say with complete honesty that this penalty kick was bullshit. The referee, who no doubt was a host father for the Austrian kid who took a dive in the box, had it in for the happy-go-lucky boys from just across Long Island Sound. Obviously he hated Westport’s chants, celebrations and ritualistic group urination.
The game ended with a heartbreaking one-goal loss. Suddenly the emotion of the previous 48 hours washed over our players – the same ones who, 2 days earlier, were lounging in Connecticut without a clue they’d soon play 4 intense matches with players they’d never taken the field with before. A few cried, something they had not done even after losing high school championships.
The depth of their feelings stunned me. Clearly the two days had reached deep into their soccer-playing souls, and for that I was grateful. But when the boys started yapping about the injustice of it all, how’d they’d come “all that way” only to be robbed by a stupid friggin’ ref who favored Austrians over Americans, the reaction seemed to spiral out of hand.
Just as suddenly, reality intruded. A spectator – a girl who had cheered for the Austrian boys her family hosted – walked up to the most agitated of our many overwrought players. In a hideous Long Island accent coming straight out of a “Saturday Night Live” parody of “Saturday Night Fever,” she said, “Yaw just mad dat yoo lawst.”
The very upset boy stared at her. His eyes brimmed with tears but he said, calmly, clearly, and in tones usually reserved for particularly dim children: “No. I’m sorry. We didn’t ‘lawst.’ We ‘lost.’”
At which his 9 teammates guffawed, punched and high-fived him for his witty comeback.
In an instant, all was right with the world. We got in our cars, headed for home, passed by Shea Stadium, said what the hell and stopped off to watch the Mets.
They lawst too.