I grew up in a small community nestled in the Rocky Mountains. There were about 30,000 people, and, unlike most places in the US, everyone was obsessed with soccer. The craze began in 1999, when our local Division II men’s soccer team made it to the national championship game. I was only eight, but I knew that someday I could do what they did. When I started playing, I felt like a newborn baby rhino, stumbling all over with my stone feet and popping the ball with my little tusks. So I was shoved to the back of lines, and eventually I was told to just stand there and watch everyone else, but there was a catch: I couldn’t let the mini ball get into the six-by-six-foot net. Even as my teammates and I got older, and graduated to full-size fields and equipment, the goal was still my home.
I didn’t grow up with much; I never had the best equipment, most of the time it was shoes too big and gloves too small, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t need much to play, just a ball and a field. If I failed a test or struck out with a girl (not that those things ever happened), I could get a touch in, and all of my problems would escape with the ball. It was a coping mechanism, but I took it for granted. I complained about the 12-hour trips (complete with piss bottles rolling around on the bus floor), and I hated always being the youngest player. I was 14 the first time I played in a varsity game, and I remained the youngest player on the team until my junior year. When I look back on my soccer career, junior year was my favorite season. We broke records, played a beautiful game, and opened up so many possibilities.
The tale begins on a late October afternoon, with a mountain range as the backdrop, and close to 400 people surrounding the small field. They came to watch two teams of semi-pubescent young adults probably just kick the shit out of each other for 80 minutes. This was one of the biggest home crowds I had seen, so my heart was beating at double time. We were playing some jabroni team from Colorado Springs; most of them looked sickly and pale from the high-altitude air. From the very beginning I set the tone for my team. The other guys had a breakaway in the first five minutes, but I smothered a kid’s legs like I was The Blob. I picked up the ball as he lay whimpering on the ground. I looked for an outlet to get the ball forward again, and the crowd’s clapping and screaming was enough to carry me through the rest of the game. We rolled over them, easily completing strings of passes and controlling the ball the majority of the time. The next game wouldn’t be so easy. It was against the third-ranked team in Colorado, and we had to travel to Fort Collins, a nine-hour bus ride each way.
We left on a Friday morning in our quest to not only beat a #4 seed, but also to be the first team in school history to get past the second round of the playoffs. We had never ventured this far upstate for soccer. The whole bus ride, our assistant head coach was rocking out to Beastie Boys and old-school Nas, which became our theme music. One of our only stops on the way was at a shitty gas station called the “ThunderDome” or something. It was a hole in the wall that somehow managed to carry all kinds of treasures in its tiny square footage, including do rags. I bought a black one, and I wore it with pride. I wore it all during warmups and looked like a real asshole, but I was taking a stab at our assistant’s music choices, and I like to think it had the other team a little confused. It was a tough battle; they were the third-ranked team for a reason. They had a Brazilian exchange student who had a rocket for a leg, and he left an imprint of the ball on my chest. But they couldn’t crack us. We got the win, and the entire team was treated like high school royalty when we returned.
Our next opponents were a bunch of prima donnas, twinkle-toed soccer players who everyone hated, even me. You could almost see the dirt rising off them, and they needed to be put in their place. The only problem was that they were really good. We were lucky to be in that game at all. They hit the crossbar twice and the post once. But after halftime, we were ready to play. Within the first five minutes, we had an opening. Our cheeky-quick forward had made two defenders and the goalkeeper run into each other and then simply passed it off to a wide-open sophomore, who almost kicked it over the goal from the six yard line. But the ball snuck under the crossbar, and we won. I think we even had champagne on the field. The other team thought we were rubbing it in, and we had to hurry to the bus before it got ugly. Our coach informed us when we got on the bus that one of the players on their team was on the US Men’s U-18 National Team. Later that summer, he had a hat trick on Italy’s U-18 team, but he failed to score on us. We were heading to the final four.
We had exceeded my every expectation that year, I knew we were good, but top four was a great accomplishment for a group of “hippie” mountain kids. The one thing you think about when you play high school sports is holding the trophy high above your head for your team. We battled hard and had our chance, but it slipped through our hands. We lost with just ten minutes left. I was defeated at first, but we came back to very supportive family and friends. We were our school’s first soccer team to reach the final four, and a few of us were nominated to the All-State teams. This crazy wild ride with some of my best friends was over, but a new one had opened up: there were seven players who went on to play college soccer on partial athletic scholarships, myself included.
We all went our separate ways and soccer was different from then on out, but my Nike cleats, Puma gloves, and my bright yellow goalie jersey will always stand out in my memories. I don’t know where I would be without soccer, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am today. I owe so much of my life to a leather ball, some stitching, and a little bit of hope.