Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Soccer Team

I’m hardly the first to ascribe a military metaphor to team sports. Young men seem to be genetically hard-wired to defend the tribe, and the same hard-wiring probably makes them join together and push themselves to their limits in a game that is somewhat like a 'battle by proxy'. Something very primitive pulls us to this experience; we seem to need it. [Note: The experience of young women is beyond my ken—I’d welcome hearing them share it.]

These considerations go a long way towards explaining why young men value the male camaraderie of an eleven-member soccer team: the sweat, mud, sheer intensity of effort, willingly endured pain, harried exhaustion, passionate cooperation, and the unquestioned loyalty towards your teammates while pressing yourself to your absolute limit in a struggle against an opposing team. Many of us wouldn’t have known what our limits really were without college athletic experiences. Moreover, the game of soccer provides an avenue for male affection to be safely expressed between young men within the structure of a game. Some might call it “male bonding”.

Playing defense on the soccer team was my natural inclination, unlike my roommate, Jon Wilbur (Class of '72), who was a natural at offense and one of the most gifted soccer players I’ve ever known. Colin Baenziger (‘70) was our team goalkeeper—a lonely position if there ever was one. Goalkeepers don’t explicitly get credit for a team win, but they can easily get blamed for a loss. Defensive players worked closely with the goalkeeper.

A ‘corner kick’ is a means of restarting play when the ball, having last touched a member of the defending team, passes over the line at the end of the field on either side of the goal net (thus, without scoring a goal). When the ball goes out of bounds under these circumstances, an opposing player takes the ball, places it on the corner closest to the defending goal, and then gets to try and kick it into the defending team’s goal net. It’s a little like leaning out the window of a building and trying to throw a ball into a window further down the side of the same building. The difference is this—all the corner kicker has to do is send the ball in front of the goal net to give one of his forwards a chance to then score a goal by kicking the ball into the net.

So, it’s a warm and sunny fall afternoon on the soccer field across the road from Leighton Hall. A corner kick has been called by the referee, and we fullbacks and halfbacks quickly find our defensive positions. I purposefully walk to take my place as right fullback next the goal post closest to the corner, about 25 yards away from where the ball will be coming. I gave our goalie Colin a look that I intended to mean ‘determined’. As I moved to put my shoulder against the post, Colin pressed me, “You got the post?!” Apparently, my expression had instead conveyed, “You could count on me if only I knew what to do.”

Meanwhile, the opposing team’s left wing had placed the ball on the chalk line at the corner, and was backing away as he lined up his shot. Colin quickly stepped back from my post as he positioned himself back in the goal box for the corner kick to come, and shouted to me, “Just keep your right side glued to that post and don’t move!” I did as he told me, leaning firmly against the goal post—I wasn’t going to let him down. The ball would not get between me and the post; nobody and nothing was going to move me off my position.

At college level soccer, boys have developed their power and accuracy in kicking. Try as we might, some of us made an unsubstantial, tentative delivery when we kicked the ball, making a sort of “Puh!” sound. I knew the kid making the corner-kick knew his stuff when I heard the sharp “Thunk!!” sound as the base of his ankle connected with the ball. The last thing I remember as I stood my ground next to the post was the sight of the ball curving toward my head, its surface pattern of black and white pentagons slowly turning end over end, and thinking, “I can NOT duck.” Then, “Bam!!”—the lights went out.

Being wounded in the course of a real war might be honorable, but catching a soccer ball with your face and getting a bloody nose makes you feel just plain stupid. I suppose for whatever I lacked in ability I might have impressed my teammates with my earnest intentions, since I don’t remember anyone laughing at me or giving me a hard time when I came to, flat on my back in the grass. I have no idea how the play went after the ball hit me. Greg Melville (’72) might not remember it, but he helped me walk off the field. I couldn’t see a damn thing; my nose was bleeding and I hurt like hell. As I sat out the rest of the game from the sidelines I tried to watch with my head tipped back and Kleenex held against my nose. A macho man that day I was not.

It was a bad day for many of us. At one point, the opposing team (St. Olaf, wouldn’t you know it) kicked the ball towards our goal from less than fifteen yards away. Colin yelled, “Got it!” When the goalkeeper says this, you stay out of his way—it’s like a command. However, a well-intentioned Jim Plasman (’72) still tried to stop it, managing to get only a piece of his foot on the ball, and deflected it past Colin’s hands and into our own net—thus scoring a goal for the Oles.

As those of you who are soccer fans will appreciate, half-backs (other terms are sometimes used) do a lot of running—forwards play offense and fullbacks play defense, but half-backs are often called upon to do both. Jim Rude (‘71) played half-back and was deservedly very well-liked. He was athletic, capable, friendly, and generous with his encouragement and advice to those of us who were younger and less experienced. He had tremendous stamina.

At one point Jim was trying to block an Ole forward who was maneuvering in mid-field to pass the ball. No one thought it was intentional, but the Ole forward kicked the soccer ball straight at Jim—hard—and it caught Jim squarely between his legs. Jim collapsed on the spot with an audible groan, which elicited involuntary sounds of sympathy from all of us who saw it from the sidelines. Like a seriously wounded comrade Jim was helped off the field by teammates Dan Mabley and Bruce Tully (both Class of ’71). Moments like this bring out in young men an unselfconscious caring towards each other which you generally don’t see.

Finally, Jon Wilbur (’72) deftly intercepted an Ole pass half-way down the field near the side line. He turned and with a sharp and solid kick sent the ball downfield directly over the side line at about eye level; it was a perfect shot. No one saw whether she was actually standing back behind the side line where spectators belonged. But the ball caught a girl (a pretty blonde Ole) square in the side of the head—“Thwap!!”—and damn near knocked her out. It would have been a beautiful pass; both Fred Rogers (’72) and “Broadway Bruce” Tully (’71) were in a perfect position downfield from the stricken girl to have taken the ball to the St. Olaf goal.

I can’t remember the score, but we lost the game. There were disasters that day, but winning isn’t everything.

No comments: