Richmond

Posted on July 9, 2010

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I am a charter member of Underdogs Anonymous, my membership being a condition of my release from sports movie rehab.  This addiction is real, and I need the help.  I’ve watched ‘Hoosiers’ dozens of times, and I not-so-secretly believe that any goal can be accomplished, up to and including major orthopedic surgery, if it involves the music of Vangelis.  ‘Rudy’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Invincible’, ‘Remember the Titans”- these are my drugs of choice, and they are not safe for me in any dosage, large or small, because I will take them literally.  I am, after all, a guy.

There are two separate areas of the male brain: the area that perceives reality, and what scientists call the I Can Do That region, which located in a small lobe near the left ear called the Incredible Things About Me cortex.  This lobe primarily governs the male understanding of his skill set, including athletic prowess.  It’s like we have a little Terrell Owens in our mind, whispering bursts of cockiness and hype to all of us, and he goes mach 5 when watching a sports movie.   

I Can Do That Area:  Rudy made the football team?  And it’s a true story?  That’s awesome.  But you know who’s even more awesome than Rudy?  Me.  I’ve been favorably compared to a jaguar before- lithe, agile, predatory.  I could defiinitely do that.  In fact, why waste time?  It’s decided:  I’m going to be a pro athlete.   

Reality Area:  Are you sure?  Something doesn’t add up.  Nothing about you says ‘jungle cat’, or even ‘hamster’.  Your best sport, in the past, has been Four Square.  Your last company softball game ended up on YouTube.  1.4 million hits and counting.   

I Can Do That Area:  Sports movies don’t lie.  How come underdogs always pull through in real life?  How come hard work and perserverance always result in big payoffs and sexy, out-of-your-league girlfriends?  And how come my life has a soaring, inspirational soundtrack?  Answer me that.

Reality Area:  That never happens.  None of that happens in real life.

I Can Do That:  Just as I thought, no response.  You can’t refute sports movies, little man!

Reality Area:  I just did.  Stop ignoring me.  This is ludicrous. 

I Can Do That Area:  What I need is to learn a sport that will truly test the outer reaches of my athleticism.  I need something I’ve never played before, so football, baseball, and basketball are all out.  I have to know, when I am being paid to play sports and endorse body sprays that smell like a cinnamon grenade exploding in a potpourri bunker, that I was truly as incredible as I imagined.

Reality Area:  I’m doing Sudoku now.  Call me when the movie is over.

 I Can Do That Area:  What about soccer?  It’s perfect!   A test for my enormous yet untapped athletic skills, and completely unpopular.  And, best of all, practically nobody plays it!

Reality Area:  Oh dear. 

This exchange is a highly stylized, but mostly true, story of how I ended up 10 hours from home, in Richmond, Virginia, freezing to death in the gravel parking lot of University of Richmond Stadium, waiting to try out for a professional soccer team.  I blame my inner Terrell Owens.

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Flickers of antebellum Virginia still mark portions of Richmond- it is impossible to forget that you are in a Southern town, but sometimes difficult to tell.  Statues of Confederate heroes march along Monument Avenue like a stone funeral procession, blocks away from Panera Bread and a Subway.  Buried in the west of the city is the University of Richmond Stadium, whose vanilla walls create an aura of almost aggressive blandness.  In cold months, athletic heat converts to steam and drifts upward.  From the outside, it resembles a colossal bowl of oatmeal. 

I was there because, in January of the previous year, I bought a soccer ball.  I kicked  it around my apartment a bit, mangling my CD collection and knocking over my TV twice while playing keepie-uppie.  I’m sure the downstairs neighbors thought I was training pandas to demo bathroom tile.  Before long the little Terrell Owens in my brain was curious as to how good I could get at this game. 

I dropped everything and practiced every day for a year.  At the end of that year, in February, I signed up for an open tryout with the Richmond Kickers, a USL team in soccer’s minor leagues.  Now, in the UR Stadium parking lot, I discovered that, despite the South’s reputation for humidity, they also had actual season change.  It was cold, and I didn’t see Clark Gable or seersucker suits or any sweet tea anywhere.  ‘Gone With the Wind’ lied to me.        

The mix of hopefuls in the locker room made the Mos Eisley cantina look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  As I tied my cleats, I noticed one player who looked like a hobo.  He eschewed the traditional athletic look for a less conventional one involving unlaced sneakers, blue jeans and wild, bed-head hair that said “Officer, I have never seen crystal meth before in my life, and if I had, I would never store it in an empty Yoo-Hoo bottle like that.”  I thought about him as I jogged out onto the brittle, frost-bitten turf.  It comforted me to know that at least one person there would be worse at soccer than I was.

“Where does everybody play?”  the coach asked as we warmed up. 

I sensed that he wanted something more specific than “on the field somewhere”.  I was stuck.  I had no position.  Had never played one.  Apart from a couple of cameos for a friend’s league team, where I distinguished myself by not once, but twice, drinking someone else’s Gatorade, I had never played anywhere but the park. 

“Defense,” I said, sure that this was the safest place on the field for someone with so little experience.

At the other end of the field, I saw the vagabond-ish young man juggling a ball, performing tricks with the easy fluidity of a dolphin pod.  When it finally dropped to the ground, he took off running, sneaker laces a-flap, at a speed normally reserved for birds of prey.  In denim.  Not a good sign.

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Soccer is truly international.  If your goal in life is to meet as many people from foreign countries as possible, a soccer tryout is a sefe bet, apart from a university physics department, although the physicists will be in worse physical shape, and more inclined to talk to you about how the universe is theoretically shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s forehead. 

The Richmond tryout, in addition to hosting at least one Croatian player so spindly that he made Mr. Bean look like Hulk Hogan, also had enough Dutch players to repopulate west Michigan.  And these Dutch are not pessimists.  Their optimism works overtime.  They are the kinds of upbeat people that could find the silver lining in a cholera epidemic, likely due to massive levels of Prozac in the Amsterdam water supply.

The South American players all moved like ballet dancers, the cobra-like touches of their feet ghosting the ball to the exact millimeter where it would be most dangerous.  The Americans all looked like free safeties, capable at any moment of rampaging off the field and tearing down great portions of downtown Tokyo.  The Dutch never stopped smiling, so great was their joy at playing soccer and, possibly, being under the influence of strong narcotics. 

Still, I was confident.  This was destiny.  I’d done everything sports movies told me: worked hard, dreamed big, and followed that dream when everyone  told me it was crazy.  The only question now was, how long would this charade last before I could take my place in the pantheon of superstar athletes?  I didn’t have all morning.  

We began by playing small-sided games to warm up, 8 v 8 on shortened fields.  I played well, connecting some short passes and making little fuss defensively.  I made a couple of charging runs up the left wing, the kind Ashley Cole specializes in.  When I was open, I made the pleading, hands-open gesture that, in the body language of soccer means ‘Pass it to me, wiener.’  And I said ‘Nice ball!’ a lot, even in situations that didn’t necessarily call for it, like when the coach asked where the orange pylons were.

Clearly, I thought, destiny was afoot, like Aslan in Narnia.  Everything was going well.  This proved that ‘Rudy’ was right, and had been right all along; things like this can actually happen.  Destiny was on my side.  After lunch I would blow up, score a few goals and then receive the reward I spent my entire childhood dreaming of.  Destiny.  After lunch.

—-

After lunch destiny did not show up.  We switched to a full field, 11 v 11 game, and my presence devolved from “genuine competitor” to “fight for survival.”  The one thing you cannot possibly understand about upper-level soccer (or all sports, in general), which  I did not before this tryout, is the speed of it.  Everything happens fast.  The ball moves like electricity, appearing first in one place, then immediately in another.  It’s like trying keep track of a pinball score; eventually you just give up and enjoy the pretty colors.    

My choice of ‘defense’ as a position exposed me to a new type of terror that only someone who has watched a lanky African running at warp speed towards them can understand.  I was immediately swamped.  Waves of attacking players exploded at me like meteorites crashing to earth.  I felt helpless.  Exhaustion rendered my thoughts unintelligible, like those bridge columns with advice like, “ruff the diamond so that East can dummy and coagulate the geronimo.”  Nothing made any sense.  I was playing terribly.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.

When I subbed off, my cheerful new Dutch friends came to encourage me.  “Nice work, man,”  they said, smiling.  “You could barely tell you’ve never played before!”  I appreciated their support, but what I wanted was their anti-depressants.  Game over.  Tryout over.  Dream over.

So, in one way, sports movies lied to me.  Even though I did everything they said- dreamed big, worked hard, ignored those who told me I was wasting my time- I didn’t accomplish my goal.   But in another way, they told me the truth.  Sports movies aren’t about underdogs, or winning- not really, anyway.  They’re about resurrection.  

Saying ‘yes’ to the wild possibilities of our lives is a learned skill.  We have to be taught how to live outside the boxes we build for ourselves.  And because of that, sometimes there’s value in doing something crazy for no good reason. 

Those kamikaze experiences come from breathing life into something burning deep in our hearts.  When we say ‘It’s too hard,’ or ‘it’s not practical’ or ‘I’m not good enough,’ we let those things die.  And with every ‘no’, our hearts turn into graveyards, ones that we have to walk through daily, as we wash dishes or open spreadsheets or make sales calls.    

Because of Richmond, I know that life can still come from the graveyard, like Lazarus exiting the tomb.  For me, it was a soccer tryout.  For you, it could be hiking in the Rockies or writing a children’s book or coaching Little League.  What matters is that it’s the passion you’ve always wanted to pursue.  Just make sure that it’s totally nuts.   

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