Five Seconds

I played three sports when I was a grade schooler and in junior high: baseball, basketball, and soccer. I was uniquely terrible at every one of them. I would show maddening flashes of competence in one specific segment, leading people to conclude that I could improve with time, with growth, with experience. This never happened. I'd shoot baskets well into the night, think I had a feel for it, then shoot terribly. I'd spend an hour with my father at the batting cage, make consistent contact, and the game would start and I'd strike out again. Soccer was a little bit different; we were 11 and 12 year olds playing on full sized fields, and some of our forwards also played on the Sparta traveling team. This meant that my clearest path to the field was as a goalie and defenseman. Most of my time playing soccer was spent watching very small figures kick a ball around half a block from where I was standing. So not only did I not score a goal during my two years in the sport, I'm not sure that I ever crossed the center line.

I realized that I'd better get familiar with positions people didn't want if I was going to play. Let the other kids be the strikers and forwards; put me in goal. Make me the only guy between success and failure. If I can't do that, give me defense, make me get in their way, stop them, and kick it far away. Put me in right field where I can try to throw people out, actually throw hard enough to get force outs at second. I don't want to play guard and dribble the ball all the time; make me a forward and let me take midrange jumpers from the elbow. (Never scored double figures in a basketball game in my whole life, fouled out of two games.) I had accepted very early that I could not hit a baseball, but was going to try to do so anyway. Two handfuls of coaches had my stance changed, position in the batter's box, and would throw me pitch after pitch, and I could HIT those, no big deal, but throw me into a game with another kid on the mound and it all fell to pieces.

Ultimately, team sports were still a good lesson, even in the years in which I was placed with kids a grade ahead of me, the ones who realized that my wrecking the grade curve in English could immediately be rectified after class in PE. I loved competition and sports too much to not try it, though. Weekends would find me outside, throwing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball against the 2-story brick wall on the side of my apartment building. I read a lot, but loved sports. The books I read were sports biographies, and my entree into newspapers was through the sports section when I was nine. (By comparison, my family didn't get cable until I was 20, so blessedly, I was more inspired by Bob Verdi and Jerome Holtzman than Chris Berman.) I was relieved when both of my kids were born but didn't cry. One or two tears did trickle down when my beloved White Sox won the World Series in 2005, though: in my defense, I'd been a Sox fan for longer.

Yet for everything I followed, eating, sleeping, and breathing sports, all of those books about hitting by Charley Lau and Ted Williams and the guides and pictures didn't do a damned thing when I was in a game. All those stats, all of that watching John Paxson (I was nothing if not realistic; I was a jump shooter and not Michael Jordan) and I couldn't hit a reliable jumper from the corner. Same exact free throw routine, every single time, just like they said: bounce bounce bounce left right, bounce bounce bounce, breathe, shoot. Nothing. Loved to play. Even loved to practice. But I was no good. And I hated being no good at something in front of other people. I found out years later that my old Little League coach liked using me as an example of quiet dignity to the teams he coached later. "Jim Lyden struck out dozens of times and he never lost his temper ONCE." I think it was more an acceptance of there being things that I couldn't do, but you become a part of something and do what you can. It would have been immature to scream and throw things. It would have been embarrassing to cry. Crying was for things like getting rejected from an elite math and science academy, not a game. Pros didn't cry. Right now, can you picture Carlton Fisk crying? Enough said. But for everything I had in my head, no matter what the sport, when it came to actually do everything I'd studied and practiced, it fell apart. And just like I spent most of my adolescence and teens learning, I found out I was a head case. My stomach would clench before every at-bat.

Besides, I don't know if it was the chemical byproducts or the failures of nearby scholastic standards, but it wasn't uncommon for kids from nearby cities to show up several inches taller, with noticeable stubble, drivers' licenses, groupies, et cetera. We'd get clobbered a lot, even when we had excellent players.

By the time I got to high school, I played tennis. The only thing that's less of a team sport is probably fencing or boxing. My game was simple: I'm going to toss this little neon colored ball up in the air, whack the ever-loving shit out of it, straight at my opponent. There would be no letting anyone down but myself. There would be no one else between the lines to take credit or blame. And here's how I got better: I'd take a giant basket full of tennis balls and hit them as hard as I could, fill the basket up again, and hit them back, until I got a piercing pain in my shoulder and elbow. Then I'd go home and take some Advil and do the same thing the next morning, all summer long. Ultimately I got the serve up around a hundred miles an hour; I just couldn't hit much of anything else, and even the serve only went in about 75 percent of the time. Nowadays I'm a triathlete, a sport with rules about accepting help from anyone. You aren't even allowed to wear headphones when you run.

So when Nat told me she'd signed up Jarren for soccer, a part of me was very excited for him, but a part of me was really worried. He couldn't wait. He had new cleats, and he wanted to score goals. He was excited.

But he's my kid, and there's a picture I remember from his preschool. It was a bunch of prints on a bulletin board of the kids doing all sorts of activities, sitting together at lunch, playing together, laughing and smiling. And then there was a picture of Jarren. He wasn't with anyone else; he was sitting on the little stage in their assembly room, staring aimlessly at the middle distance between the walls and the floor, nowhere near the camera. He looked worried. He looked lost. He looked like he was thinking about a lot more than just what cars to play with from the toy box. Considering that I'd moved out of the house two months earlier, he looked just how I felt.

When I'd see him doing this at a table by himself, at that preschool and the next two, I wanted to grab him and tell him, stop thinking. Stop worrying. Please, no good can come of this. Just don't care about anything and let it rip, have fun. Just stop thinking and loosen up. Trust me on this.

So when he had his first practice and ran faster than most of his teammates, I smiled. Most of the kids on the team had played together the last couple years, and Jarren was the New Guy. When he would methodically go back to dribble around a cone that he missed, even if he'd missed it by ten yards and three other kids had dribbled around him, I nodded. When Nat, Amy and I were watching him learn how to play defense and the coach was showing him footwork, he'd pick it up very well. When they would do drills and scrimmage, though, we'd notice something as a kid dribbled toward him with the ball.

He'd stop. You'd see his eyes go ball-player-their feet-ball-player-his feet-ball, but by the time he looked at the player the first time, that player was gone.

We'd watched this for a few nights. "He's overthinking it," I whispered quietly. "He's got all this stuff and he's running through it and he doesn't just play."

His mom looked straight at me, and for emphasis, turned her head and stared at me again. I nodded sheepishly. The woman's not only my ex; she's known me for 20 years. Afterwards, it was becoming clear to Jarren that this would not be as easy as he thought.

At one practice he took a ball straight to the face, knocking him over like a sandbag. "Ooooohh," went the assembled group of parents. He got up, and his coach motioned him over. He grabbed his nose, looked at his hand, shook his head...and ran like a crazed maniac clear across the field to the bigger kid who kicked the ball in the first place, held him off with his forearm, steals it...

Nat, Amy and I all looked at each other. "He's pissed off," we all gasped. He dribbled around another kid and shot from 15 feet away, hard enough to get through two kids that were right on top of him. He missed by about six inches, and he played well after that, but it was like the extension cord got unplugged. For 15 seconds, driven insane by being hit in the head, he was the best six year old soccer player in Nevada.

We got cones; we'd go the park and just play. No lines, no rules, no drills, just kick a ball back and forth. I remembered stuff I'd done when I was kicking the ball against those bricks. If he wanted to do stuff with soccer, we did, otherwise we left it alone. It was better to let him find out organically whether he liked it or not.

During a night practice at the field, the coach corrected him on how he was dribbling; he was using too much of his toe and putting the ball too far out in front of him. He had to go to the back of the line three or four times. At the back of the line, I could see he was upset. I brought the water bottle out onto the field and asked him to come over. When he got back to our chairs on the sidelines, he burst into tears. "I don't want to play any more. I want to go home. I don't want to play soccer. I don't want to be in the games any more. I just want to go home."

I explained that the coach was just trying to make him better, the same speech I'd gotten, that his team needed him and it wasn't right to leave. That when stuff gets difficult you have to grit your teeth and push your way through it. That he needed to wipe his eyes, slug some water, and get back onto the field. I explained he was getting better but he had to keep trying. I told him I'd never scored a goal in soccer but I'd never left a practice or quit on my teammates, and he wouldn't either. He made it back out and made it through the practice.

The games started, and in the first few games it became apparent he was really quick. The coach would put him all over the field, and he'd gradually get better at jumping into the fray, getting the ball out and doing the right thing with it. He'd wind up at midfielder and could keep up with anyone. He got onto a line with two other very skilled kids and at one point in the second game had the ball out in front of him on the right side, dribbled it to about 10 feet out, and shot it as hard as he could. It missed the net by three feet; he buried his face in his hands.

Getting Jarren a goal became a cause celebre for the coaches and other parents. After a 4-0 win over a team of smaller players, the coach said, "I thought we were going to get you one - we just ran out of time!" The Dragons had three straight games that were 0-0 draws, including a doubleheader. We all had fun cheering for all of the players. The other parents would marvel, "He's FAST." We'd laugh and nod. The team was the very definition of average, winning two, losing two and tying three.

When I picked him up at school on Friday, he had his soccer bag and uniform with him for the weekend at my house. "It's the last game," he said. "I have to score a goal." I smiled and nodded. He would go on to repeat this sentiment four more times that night. He insisted on our Friday night stretching exercises. He made sure to get to bed early.

As a parent, it's a cliche that you want the best for your kids. Of course you do. But there's those little moments of triumph that you know they want and you simply can't get. No matter how many times Jarren takes his Star Wars lightsaber and fakes left and beats the invisible goalie top shelf in front of my sliding storm door, he lives in the wrong climate to be a pro hockey player. I was sitting in the stands at a Little League game where Brian was coaching for the first time and laughed at what he was feeling as a seven-year-old girl was mistakenly called out. He jumped in the air while holding a clipboard, and the umpire corrected the call, and life moved on as scheduled.

But Jarren was insisting on something that he couldn't just make appear. All those 0-0 games and slogs had taught him that it just didn't happen some days. What if this wasn't the day? What if the other kids were a lot bigger, or he didn't get space to shoot, or any one of a zillion things happened? His teammates could all get sixteen, and he just wouldn't be in the right place? And bear in mind, soccer has an opposing team, poised for as great a disappointment if he scored. I can still see an orange ball going past my right foot, just below my hand, in the second half of the first soccer game I ever played in goal. We were already down 3-0, so it wasn't the end of the world, but I can't remember where my keys are sometimes, and that particular memory is 25 years old.

After waking up before the alarm at 6:30 and eating breakfast, he was dressed and had his cleats on. I'd made sure to have the camera with me. And not that I'm superstitious, but I had my yellow shoes, yellow shirt, yellow bracelet, and blue Sox hat. The shirt read NO GIFTS.

Jayson had to run back to his room for something, so I grabbed Jarren by the shoulder. "No matter what happens today, if you score or not, I'm really proud of you. You worked really hard and got to be a better player. When you go out there today, I want you to have fun and play hard. As long as you do your best, that's what matters; not if you score. Just have the best game you can."

As I explained later to my parents, when the ranking champion of blowing things out of proportion is giving the win-or-lose speech, you know Jarren's too far gone. This is beyond "Take my advice, I never do." This is "Dad, it's time to ignore your own personal history, maybe your entire life story while you're at it, and say the right thing." Then we loaded his bag with one of my yellow water bottles and headed out.

We were there before the field was ready for them; there was an early game. "Today's the day," I said to Nat. I found out that his mantra of "I have to score a goal" had been going on all week. We watched the other team do a round of push-ups and other calisthenics. Our team would probably have done these if they a) had ever done such a thing before the game and b) were there 20 minutes before game time. I'd nicknamed our team the Miami Casuals because practices tended to have most of the players arrive 20 minutes after the start, and games had guys hitting the bench after the clock had started. The other team's kids were bigger and more skilled. This could be a very long day. Jarren started at left wing on the front line. They were putting him up front to mix it up and take shots.

The ball spent most of the first half in our side and the middle of the field. Early in the first half, their team managed to get five players up on offense, and one of their kids rocketed a shot from 20 feet out past our goaltender, who didn't even flinch. Not as in "dazzled by the moves and screened from view," but more like, he wasn't even aware the ball was in the net until he heard it hit the net behind him. To top it off, they were all really fast. Our average speed guys were practically standing still and Jarren and the fast guys were walking a lot after plays, seemingly struggling just to keep up. Jarren looked exhausted.

Natalie laughed and looked over at me. "You didn't feed him enough sugar for breakfast."

"He had four cinnamon waffles!" I said in mock exasperation. "I should have brought some Gu packets!"

At halftime it was 1-0. When he could stay caught up, he was doing a good job of positioning. The two teams came out and the Dragons would be shooting at the goal nearest to me, and I got a good look at their goalie. In an under-7/under-8 league, this kid had grabbed the crossbar above him and was trying to pull himself up. I was going to ask him for his car keys but it might have ruined our team's chances for the end of year Sportsmanship Award.

"That's not a good sign," I said to Nat. She shook her head.

Most of the second half went back and forth as a series of throw-ins along the sidelines. In terms of "things you don't see every day" there was the kid whose shoe flew off as he was attempting to clear the ball, causing the ball to go about four feet and the shoe to fly 10 yards, thus prompting the ref to stop the game to make all the players ensure their shoes were tied tightly.

When things resumed, the cloud of players moved back and forth, and the ball came over the center line. Jarren followed his coach's instructions, heading down the middle. There were probably around two minutes left.

Joe passed the ball to Jaden (yes, welcome to the Aughts, the Dragons feature Jaden, Hayden, Aidan, Jarren, Joe, Raymond, Conor, Geo, and Tristan) and Jaden found a seam where Jarren had gotten between the defenders.

I could see it setting up. One of the most maddening things about any sport where you're a spectator is your ability to see more than the players on the field. In my head - always forever in my head - I can go, "him to him to him over there score." but for it to work, the three "hims" have to see it too, and they don't always. But somehow, Jaden saw it-or he just kicked the ball in the direction where it could happen.

Jarren got the ball between the two defenders, and he was faster than they were. He was dribbling inches in front of them with about 15 yards between him and the goal.

It's a breakaway if he gets the step.

I've seen my kid run; he WILL get the step. He did.

All I'm thinking is, if he stops, he'll lose it. If he thinks, he'll lose it. Don't think. DON'T think. Just go. Please.

He got a stride toward the goalie, who wasn't out fast enough to cut the angle. He should have jumped when his last defender got beat and left the center to charge the ball, I thought, but he didn't.

The planets were aligning.

PLEASE don't think.

He was at the edge of the goal box, a step from point blank - two steps closer and he'll bounce the shot off of the goalie - and planted his left foot. In one quick motion, he shot with his right foot, low to the right corner.

The goalie lunged to his left side.

Net.

I jumped up, screaming. Nat and Amy both jumped up. The whole sideline went crazy. Jarren pumped his right fist, then jogged back towards the bench along his sideline. He was grinning from ear to ear and kind of covering his eyes, looking down. "Look at him! He's shy!" one of the other parents laughed. His teammates ran by for high fives and back slaps. The whole field was watching him in that moment when he scored, and if he would have thought about it for a second, less than an instant, it never would have happened. There are traits you want your kids to have, and Jarren reads, can spell, is very well-behaved and polite, is funny and strong. But I've never wished harder in my life for my kid NOT to be like me than I did in those five seconds.

The game resumed and would remain tied. Jarren never stopped smiling. I couldn't stop shaking, particularly when I was changing my Facebook status to read "GOOOOOOOOOOALL!!!"

Pride? Absolutely. Excitement? Sure. But I think "sympathetic relief" sums it up better than anything.

And somebody's absolutely coming back in the fall to play again. He can't wait. But in the fall, there's a twist. Jayson is now old enough to play.

God help us all.

(Three seconds after, when I remembered I had a camera. Jarren's on the left. His teammate Raymond, #5, is doing a far better job of dancing and celebrating than Jarren. #13 is Jaden, who got him the pass. You'll have to excuse the photo's blurriness; you've just read how my mind was otherwise occupied.)


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