“Adam, you’ve spent all day in your room. It’s time for you to go outside and play!”
“Not now, Mom! I’m playing Pokémon and I’m in the middle of battling the Elite Four! Once I beat them I’ll become the Champion and get to rule over all the Pokémon trainers! I’ll be like a king!… at least that’s how I think it works. The post-game in this series isn’t really that clear.”
“I’m counting to three! If I don’t see you outside playing basketball when I get to three I’m taking the game away!”
“But Mom, I need to keep battling so that I can become Champion and…”
“No ‘buts,’ I want to see you shooting and dribbling! And you better be having fun!”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in elementary school, it’s that kids are expected to love running around and playing sports. If you don’t… then you’re weird. The school I attended was pretty good at providing the students with a healthy amount of opportunities for physical activity, but I was just one of those kids that never really saw the appeal. Whereas many of my classmates loved spending recess getting together for a game of touch football, I just had a lot more fun reading and writing stories. I was clearly in the minority in my grade though, and I remember riding home on the bus and oftentimes hearing my schoolmates talking excitedly and with such passion about how great of a season the Giants were having or how epic of a play Derek Jeter managed to pull off the previous night. They may as well have been speaking French for all I understood.
Growing up, my family was just never really all that into sports. Between me and my two siblings, my older sister was the one with the most athletic capabilities; she was on quite a few teams back then and was actually pretty good. As a small child, my parents would often bring me along to watch her play and I’d always be so excited to see her in action; I’d even cross my fingers and close my eyes whenever she’d step up to the plate or was about to score a goal. She rarely disappointed and was the only one who could make sports somewhat interesting for me, which is a pretty big accomplishment.
With my sister showing so much passion and love for athletics, it was no wonder that my parents made the decision to sign me up with a local team as soon as I was old enough. The first one I remember them signing me up with was in a local soccer league. I was around 7 at the time and was pretty panicked at the thought of being left alone on an open field with a group of strangers, but it turned out I recognized a few of my teammates as kids from my class at school, so that made me feel a bit better. The coach was also pretty nice, and my mom had even dropped me off with a snack and bottle of my favorite soda. It seemed like I had basically been worried about the whole thing for nothing.
But then the coach told us to start doing jumping jacks. This is when things took a bit of a downwards turn.
Now I don’t know about you, but as someone who rarely partook in physical activity as a child, hence the eventual obesity and weight struggles, being told to all of a sudden start exercising was a bit of a culture shock. Suddenly I was running, jumping, and sweating, and pretty soon I was out of breath and racking my brain trying to figure out what horrible thing I had done to my parents to make them decide to subject me to this torture. My extremities were sending signals to my brain asking what the hell was going on up there. By the time the hour was up and I saw the familiar, yet blurry, outline of my mother’s car in the parking lot, I was like a traveler lost in the desert who’s convinced that the helicopter coming to rescue him was a mirage.
“So?” my mother asked when I managed to finally totter over to the car. “How was it?”
Being so young and not yet fully able to articulate my feelings, I responded with a low-toned “okay.” She had brought me a 7-Eleven Slurpee, and I buried my emotions in the sweet sugary embrace of its cherry-flavoring. Looking back, I’m relieved she even recognized me: all flushed and sweaty for once in my life, I must have looked like a different person. Hopefully she didn’t end up picking up the wrong kid that day. I wouldn’t blame her if she had, honestly.
My dislike of soccer continued to grow as the weeks passed and the practices became routine. Being one of the… less than passionate members of the team, my coach made the sound decision to designate me as a defensive player, which basically meant I would spend most of the time during games on just one side of the field and would often be switched out with the benched players. I was totally okay with this decision: during practices I had seen what being an offensive player entailed, and the amount of running they had to do was ludicrous to my fragile mind. Instead, I was blessedly placed with my teammates who were similarly uninterested in running up and down a field for an hour, and we spent the games collectively praying that the ball wouldn’t come within a ten foot radius of us and our shaking knees. And I often got to sit on the bench, which back then wasn’t at all a punishment and was more like a safe haven from the war-torn battlefield before me. I’d even get to watch the other players have at it, and that was far more entertaining from the sidelines. Sometimes they’d even have punch there. I don’t know why movies and television shows always make it seem like such a bad thing: the bench is fun!
As a side note, players on TV, they make getting hit with the ball or bouncing it off their head look so innocuous; I was hit in the stomach once during practice (“Oooh, look at that bluejay up in that tree! It’s so-” whack!) and spent the next ten or so minutes doubled over clutching my middle half-expecting a soccer ball shaped alien to burst out of it (that movie scarred me badly as a child. No, not Alien. Spaceballs). It’s not a beach ball like they make it out to be: that thing hurts, especially when it’s kicked at you with all the pent-up anger and frustrations of a third grader… okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the point.
My time playing soccer culminated in one practice session that took place towards the end of my second season on the team. At this point I had matured quite a bit, which happens when you learn the harshness of the world through a sport, and I was now frequently expressing my reluctance to attend practice. Though my parents were uninterested in my protests, it was at this point that I believe they finally came to terms with the increasingly likely fact that I was probably never going to become a professional soccer player in my lifetime (spoiler alert).
I had a doctor’s appointment, or something, that day that required me to be picked up early from practice so I could get to it on time. Well, rather than wait on the field with my team like a normal kid, just to show my parents how much I disliked the league, I took the liberty of waiting for my father to pick me up on the sidewalk a good distance away from them all. Needless to say, that was pretty much the end of my soccer playing days. The sport just wasn’t for me, and even now, looking back, of all the leagues I played on as a kid, I still say with confidence that soccer is my least favorite. My dad loves that story though, and he often retells it to family and friends, especially at times that will cause me optimal embarrassment. It’s mainly why I have such a clear recollection of it all these years later.
With my experiences playing soccer considered, you’d imagine my parents would maybe sign me up next for an activity that was a little less involved. You know, maybe something like an arts and crafts group or a young writers workshop: something that was maybe a little more my speed.
Nope, I was signed up for a basketball league the very next available season.
My dad really wanted to see me get involved this time around: he saw how much enjoyment my sister got out of the practices and games and really wanted the same for me. Before my first practice with my new team he sat me down at our kitchen table and made me a deal: he said if I could score two baskets during a game, he’d buy me a video game that I’d been asking for for weeks.
Well Jesus Tapdancing Christ, why didn’t you say that when I was playing soccer!?
From my first practice I was all in. I had made up my mind. No matter what, I was getting that video game. It wasn’t ever a question, but a certainty. I listened to the coach and did all the exercises with the passion and drive of a potential recruit for a professional team, all the while envisioning the moment when I’d finally score my second goal… basket, whatever, and be cheered and lifted by my teammates and carried off to the nearest Toys R Us. I lived and breathed the sport and even practiced during my free time. This was happening. It. Was. On.
Unfortunately this commitment came with a bit of a downside. With my new goal-oriented train of thought, my father didn’t take into account just how determined I’d be in getting those baskets. When the first game came around, two minutes in a teammate of mine had the ball and had raced ahead of the opposing players for a clear shot. He steadied his stance, arched his back, and got ready for his moment.
His fate was sealed as soon as the ball touched his hands.
Like an assassin emerging from the shadows, I snatched the ball from his hands, knocking him over in the process, and took the shot myself. Granted I missed, but in my defense the kid wasted my aiming time with how much he struggled with handing over the ball.
“The hell are you doing?!” he cried as he got to his feet.
I didn’t answer. In my head, I was playing for something much bigger than a win over the other team. There was little room for discussion: I was ready to wrap this all up and head home with my new video game.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember us winning many games.
It took me about four games into the season to achieve my mission. When I finally did, there weren’t many cheers or applause like I had envisioned, only a knowing smile exchanged between me and my father in the bleachers. To hell with the fact that our team barely won, that was one of the greatest moments of my life.
From that point on my interest in basketball fizzled out: I had achieved my Everest at 9 years old and nothing was ever going to be able to top it. I could die then and there and be totally satisfied with the life I’d lived. I was more than ready to hang up my sneakers and jerseys and retire to a life of leisure and writing and-
Two months later I was signed up for baseball.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about joining Little League: of all the sports my sister played in as a kid, baseball was the one she most excelled at. Any team she was on frequently made it deep in the playoffs and I remember how her opposing teammates would need to take a few steps back in the field whenever she stepped up to the plate. Needless to say, I felt quite a bit of pressure and a strong desire to prove myself as I walked onto the diamond as a player for the first time. Thankfully, though, I had my mother to help me along; she was one of the coaches on the team and was very encouraging and worked with me outside of practices to improve. I’d imagine most kids would feel a little embarrassed at the thought of having their mom also be their coach, but that wasn’t at all the case for me. My mom had an infectious love for athletics that resonated even with my teammates. Somehow, she knew an infallible path to work her way into the exclusive, and even more difficult to maintain, status as a “cool” adult. She’s someone I could never be ashamed of, but rather someone I could point to with a smile and say: “yeah, she’s my mom and she’s way cooler than yours.”
Regardless of my determination though, baseball just wasn’t my sport. Don’t get me wrong, I still tried hard at my practices and, I’ll admit, occasionally daydreamed about how epic it would be to lead the team like I imagined my sister did, but my skills just didn’t match up. No matter how many times I threw the ball at the pitchback in our backyard, I just always stayed a bottom-tier member of the team. It sucked, but it taught me to know my strengths and find different ways to try to contribute to the team. For me, this meant trying to be as observant and aware of the game and players as possible.
One of the things I quickly picked up on was the behind the scenes strategy that went on between the coaches. You see, whenever a team would be up to bat, two of its coaches would stand out on the field, one by first base and another by third. In between pitches they would talk with the runners and work out with them when to run, when to wait, when to steal, things like that. From the sidelines the system seemed innocuous enough. After all, up until that point I had never once made it to first base, so I had no idea what it was like to experience that one-on-one mentorship first hand.
Well, that all changed one day when, in an unforeseen turn of events and a walk, I somehow found myself standing on first base. My pants covered in dirt from getting to finally execute an unneeded slide (dammit, it was a long time coming and I wanted to try it!), I was blinking wildly and taking in the fact that I had, indeed, accomplished a first. I had barely a moment to celebrate my triumph though before the first base coach bent down to me and whispered something in my ear.
“Go. Run to second. Steal,” he muttered.
I should mention that there was also a runner on third. Looking back, I can see what the coach was intending: by me trying to steal, the opposing team players would throw the ball to second, giving the runner on third the opportunity to slip through and score. It didn’t matter if I made it to second as long as our team got the run. Makes sense, right?
Well I had a different agenda.
I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity, throwing away my time on the field for the coach’s godforsaken strategy! Just the fact that I had somehow even made it to first was a miracle in and of itself. Who does this coach think he is, claiming ownership of my miraculous time on the field?
And so, with all the gall and defiance my 9-year-old self could muster, I turned to my coach and said a word.
I’ll never forget the look my coach gave me after I said that word. It was a look I had never before seen in an adult’s eyes. It was a look of a shock and hope, a look that said “oh, I totally just heard him wrong and he’s about to listen.”
He hadn’t and I didn’t. I got a pretty stern talking to when I inevitably got “out” and the inning ended.
Like with soccer, my time playing baseball culminated in one outing that took place towards the end of the season, except this time it was a much bigger deal. By a miracle of miracles and probably with God himself lending his hand to help us, we made it all the way to the championship. We were a close team; everyone, even me for once, wanted this win badly. I have never in my life been so invested in a baseball season as I was while I was on that team. Every one of us played our hearts out all season. This meant a lot. We were ready to bring it home.
When the game started things got serious quickly. Like something straight out of an Air Bud movie, the game went back and forth. Everyone was so tense that you could feel the growing hype among my teammates as we pulled ahead, and then their overwhelming dread when the other team tied it up. Fitting of the movie theme, it all came down to the final inning. It was bottom of the ninth, we were down by one run, there were two outs, and we had runners on second and third.
And that was when I heard the worst thing imaginable.
“Alright, Samuel, you’re up.”
Oh dear God. Oh sweet Baby Jesus no.
My heart was pounding as I rose from the dugout and walked nervously to the plate. I’ll never forget how weak my legs felt, how my head was starting to swim. One of the coaches handed me the bat and gruffly said, “all up to you, kid,” which only seemed to exacerbate the tension I was now starting to feel down in my bladder. Squinting against the bright sunlight, I stopped by the plate and adjusted my oversized helmet. I looked the pitcher dead in the eye. He was a big, scowling fellow, tall for his age and way more built any of the other kids. All game he had been throwing hard and fast, the kind of throws that had kids like me recoiling and afraid to approach the plate. And I’ll never forget how his face looked: determined, self-assured; he was very much aware that I was now all that stood in the way of him and his team winning the championship. Looking at him in that moment through my tense and nervous eyes, he’s what I’d imagine a child-version of Goliath might look like.
Time felt like it had slowed down. I felt a hush fall over the crowd and I knew everyone was watching me. I dared not steal a moment to glance at my parents for reassurance for fear if I broke eye contact with the giant my eyes would fill with tears from the tension. A gust of wind could have blown me over at this point. I muttered a prayer and raised the bat, my fingers sinking deep into the grip.
And then this weird feeling filled my body.
It was a feeling of opportunity, a realization that this didn’t have to be the pitcher’s winning moment. It could be mine. The game was in my hands. If I got a base hit, just a lousy single, the runner on third would score and tie up the game. Even better, if I got a double we’d win! This was my chance to be epic. This was my chance to be “the man.” If he was Goliath, than goddamnit I was gonna be David.
I gritted my teeth, met the pitcher’s scowl, and swung as hard as I could…
…and of course I struck out.
I didn’t even make it back to the dugout before I was full on bawling. I cried a lot that day, more than I had in quite a while. I just remember my teammates’ crushed faces. That was the day I quit playing in sports leagues for good. It was awful.
From then on I fully embraced the fact that I’m best with sports from the sidelines. Nowadays I enjoy watching the Super Bowl and attending the occasional baseball game with family (have you tried Cracker Jacks?!). Granted, though my hatred for soccer still stands, sometimes, if it’s not raining, you just might find me outside playing frisbee with my friends, little brother, or brother-in-law. Hell, I’ve even taken up biking recently, which I guess kind of qualifies as a sport. I’ve learned from my experiences to appreciate the fact that, though I’ll never be much of a player, even sucking is okay as long as you’re having fun.
And that’s what I think is most important about sports.
I was going to end this post there, but there’s actually one final thing I’d like to touch on in closing. A few weeks ago I got a call from a school: they were looking for a substitute to fill a role for a few days. I was going to be heading to Los Angeles to attend E3 and spend a few days with family shortly, and figured I could use the extra cash. With that in mind, I accepted.
Well, it turns out the role in question was for a gym teacher. Me! Of all people! A gym teacher! Imagine that!
I walked through the doors of the school and had one of those “Oh my God, is this really happening?” moments. At the office, they gave me my instructions for the day along with an additional slip of paper saying what sport I was supposed to have the kids play.
My heart sank a little but I was quick to head to the gym to set up the goals and get everything in place; it wouldn’t be long before my first class came in. And when they finally did, the whirlwind didn’t stop until lunch and then dismissal.
And I ended up having a blast.
It feels weird for me to say that I actually enjoyed sports for once, but I did. Me, the furthest thing on the planet from an athlete, actually liked soccer. Soccer! Of all things!
But the biggest takeaway I had from the experience happened when I was out walking the other day and a little boy came up to me and called me a word I never in my life thought I’d be called.
“Coach!” he cried, his face lighting up as he pointed up at me. “Remember me?! You were the best! I don’t usually like soccer, but you made it fun!”
He smiled and waved as he continued on his way. I waved back, but inside I was feeling like I had when I stood at home plate and stared down the pitcher.
And I smiled.
Crazy how life goes sometimes, you know?