Fields of Different Dreams

I wrecked my ankle playing soccer in a rec league last Sunday. Once you leave the student life, walking around in crutches is no longer a convenient way to gain sympathetic looks. It’s a harsh reality check for the full-time worker. In the office, I responded with painful clichés:

“Trying to relive the golden years… Operating at 60 percent, but seeing the world from a different perspective.”

I should have slapped myself.

But back to the wreckage. When I arrived to the soccer field the previous Sunday, I was happy to be playing for the first time in several years–the only long athletic socks I could find in my drawer were semi-wool ski socks. My teammates greeted each other with low-fives as we warmed up on the rubber mattress that tried to pass for a lush, green field. I’d played on artificial turf before, and I understand that urban parks aren’t able to maintain the natural grass facilities I grew up with. After all, turf exists to enhance experience. Clone familiarity. Make grass obsolete.

We warmed up our keeper with some chip shots. The turf was essentially a huge mass of black, rubber confetti–a lightly sprinkled, fine mulch–and it flew up whenever our cleats met the ball. During warmups, my socks had already begun collecting the stuff, so I emptied out my insoles before the match started.

The old drive came back pretty quickly. I was beginning to reenergize the fast-twitch muscles that had gone dormant. Success was there: I put one in the back of the net and kept the team formation. But the fluidity was off. I tried making some sharp cuts in honor of the recently deceased Dutch Master Johan Cruyff. But I noticed more than once the subtle effects of what felt like moving against the grain of an extremely slow-moving conveyor belt. A nanosecond of delay. Even when I was settling the ball, I felt like my legs were planted in a firm sponge.

Going for a 50-50 ball, I slid, and my ankle came to a grinding halt. Searing, I hobbled off the goal-side end of the black-green turf. Call in the sub.

After the match, my teammates dropped me off at the local 7-Eleven. I went to the back and bought a 16-pound ice bag, limped home a few blocks, and lugged it upstairs into the tub. I hopped in and saw the dreaded black confetti pieces releasing themselves into the water. They sank to the bottom as I shivered.

Battling frustration and numbing, I pondered the fact that I was bathing with flecks of recycled tires and rain boots. Maybe those very same tires were once locked into minivan axles, transporting us to soccer games while our mothers drove.

Then I thought to Brazil, where I’d played on dirt pitches and semi-hard beaches, with twigs for posts. And Italy, where I’d juggled the ball for hours with my friend Francesco in the streets of his tiny mountain village. And the muddy New England soccer fields of my teen years, adjacent to farms with red barns and hay silos.

I put my head back and allowed the chopped ice to melt.

**

One afternoon about a year ago, my roommate and I headed to the nearby tennis courts. Our backpacks held a single can of used Penn balls, and Gatorade bottles filled with tap water. Once we were a half-block away, our tradition was to listen intently for the popping sounds of rubber, felt-covered balls hitting strings, and pray the courts weren’t crowded.

There were noises, and opening the gate only confirmed what we’d heard: the courts were packed. Twosomes and foursomes waited impatiently, trying to eagle-eye the players and get the first jump out of the starting blocks.

We waited and observed. There was a tall, broad character in the middle court who was giving lessons to a girl in her 20s. They hit shot after shot until their hopper emptied and their errant shots littered the entire complex, but they repeated. On the far court, there was a doubles team yelling at each other over a missed drop shot. Finally, the folks on the near court wrapped up. We prepared ourselves with some light stretching.

A dude with trimmed stubble and dueling racquet bags appeared beside us.

“Hey, you guys didn’t sign up on the list.”

“List?”

“On the other side of the court,” said the dude, his brows slanted. “We’re next. Sorry.”

“We arrived here earlier, gents,” I wanted to say. But I was confused, and too afraid to confront them. Though we had clearly arrived there 20 minutes before they had, we turned and walked for the backup courts, defeated. I guess we had forgotten the rules of the All England Club.

When we arrived to the backup courts 15 minutes later, not a soul was there. The chain-link fences were overgrown with vines. Some roots had penetrated the surface on both ends. And the backcourt was ten feet too short. I attempted to sweep away acorns, twigs, and leaves with a crude-looking rake I found.

But when we finally broke out the Penns, we got some good rallies in. Even if a ball caught a bad bounce on the cracked red hardcourt, we just laughed it off. This was an obstacle course. And we were now safe from the stifling eyes of players with hundred-dollar Nike polos and thousand-dollar smirks, our feeble egos strengthened ever so slightly. We were kings of a domain that was too ugly and coarse for some.

**

My view has always been this: sports yield fond memories. And the more “authentic” the experience–the closer we can get to replicating a Jordan free-throw-line dunk–the fonder the memories. Right?

Sort of.

It is the concept of authenticity that we must examine. We are led to believe that a sense of professionalism or expertise is the key to unlocking enjoyment in the ballfield or on the court. We are led to worship production value as authenticity’s truest form.

Expectation of seriousness. Expectation of flawlessness.

But I want rawness. Not rawness in the sense of an Adidas commercial, with sweat dripping down a point guard’s nose as he rests on his knees in a high school gymnasium, or cold breath vaporizing from a midfielder’s lips as she ascends endless concrete stairs in an empty stadium. Rawness is the natural, the intimate, the informal. We don’t see athletes ever really smile in these commercials, anyway, do we?

Call me a pacifist, but I don’t enjoy prickly people who love the same sport I do. Call me a naturalist, but I don’t want to play on a million-dollar field that decreases the already tiny grass-to-concrete ratios of our cities.

Let’s steer away from the artificial. Let’s promote the natural. Let’s rebel against the superficial. Let’s defend what should be plentiful.

I know some pretty great tennis courts where we can get started.

***

Matt Sulva is a writer and alpinist-in-the-making. He is based in Washington DC.

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