My first jersey was pink. I was in kindergarten. My dad was one of the coaches, the first of many years he’d play that role. He might have seen coaching as the natural progression of his love for soccer; he might have hoped to transform a group of suburban girls into eventual Olympic champions. Maybe he expected nothing more than to convey his love of the game to the next generation.
He probably didn’t expect us to spend most of our first game huddled around the ball, an inside-out phalanx of bubblegum-pink t-shirts with a ball ricocheting within.
I played goalie in the pink jersey years. My mom will, to this day, tease me for my tendency to pick the dandelions that were growing in the goal box while the action was at the other end of the field. It just seemed like a reasonable way to pass the time. What was I supposed to do, just stand there and watch? I had overexcited parents and stampeding footsteps to alert me if the ball was coming back.
My husband remembers all his most crushing defeats and most victorious saves from when he played soccer around the same age. I don’t remember any of that – just the weather, the dandelions, and the cluster of pink shirts far away at the other end of the field.
After that, the jerseys were steel blue. We fitted in with the rainy skies and the muddy fields, all of us pale and desaturated by fall in the Northwest.
On one of those gray days, I was playing forward. I much preferred defense, but my dad was trying to get me to branch out. By halftime, I was tired, and a few minutes beyond that, I was exhausted. I raised my hand four or five times, trying to call for a sub, but my dad had me play on. He even subbed another girl off the field, but I had to stay in.
I can’t remember why he refused to sub me out. I think he wanted me to keep it up, lead the team, set a good example, so on and so forth. One of the perks of being the coach’s daughter was having an unofficial leadership role placed upon you at all of eight years old.
Only, at eight years old, I didn’t give a damn about leading. I just wanted five minutes to catch my breath.
It rained often. The goal boxes turned into mud pits. On the really cold days, we couldn’t feel our feet, but that just made us braver when we had to charge a much taller fifth-grader to attempt a tackle. We were already soaked, so falling in the mud wouldn’t matter, and with various body parts going numb, the collision wouldn’t even hurt. Our blue socks turned black with mud. The white turtleneck I wore under my jersey for warmth was sodden up to the elbows.
We trudged back to the car after another loss. It was dark and pouring. Strands of my thin hair were plastered to my face. Mom wrapped me in towels and I climbed into the car and tried to close the door.
We had a minivan then, with a button you had to depress to make the door close. I remember my hands were so numb, and my strength was so depleted, I couldn’t push the button, not even with both hands. I kept pressing, watching with detached fascination as my thumbs turned white but the door refused to close.
I switched to tennis after that: it was played mostly indoors, and for outdoor matches, when it merely looked like it could potentially sprinkle, you didn’t play.
My husband texts our friends. We all have World Cup fever, and the weekend forecast is promising, so we gather a few friends, some cones, and a soccer ball and head to the nearest park.
The sun is out, but it’s rained recently so the grass is slick. Even though we can barely run on it without slipping, we start off playing three-on-three anyway.
Within five minutes, I’m winded, additionally so because I can’t stop laughing about it – twenty years ago, I could have run like this for an hour. Luckily, the others are not much better off.
“Apparently we need to do this more often,” I say.
“I was thinking never again.”
After the opposing goalie slips and nearly does the splits trying to make a save – and after we are all red-faced and sweaty, but too proud to admit how tired we are – we switch to passing the ball in a circle. I get to stand and relax for a few moments, feeling my heart rate return to normal while the sun glitters in the dewy grass.
I try to catch a high pass with my knee, but misjudge my angle and the ball sails past my waist towards the fence. I run, racing my shadow for the ball.