It’s been a while, but you’re always on my mind.
I remember the first interaction with the sport. I was five years old when I walked onto the patchy grass field for the first time. My cleats were brand new, my jersey went down to my knees, and my shin guards took up a greater half of my leg. That first day of having the ball at my feet almost 16 years ago would be the start of a great relationship. I had no idea what I was in for.
The first few years were full of a lot of post-game orange slices and lectures about not kicking the ball with your toe. The girls I played little league with quickly went from “teammate” to “friend” and our relationship got closer when the parents coordinated carpool schedules to practice. Seven girls would pile into a car after endless drills and sprints as the smell of sweat, dirt, and shin guards would fill the car. I realized at a young age that playing soccer felt like a hobby and not so much a sport.
As the years progressed, the intensity increased. Practice was more demanding and games were more competitive. Annual tryouts were required and I felt like I had to compete against my friends for a desired position, but this never faded my love for the game. In fact, my passion was enhanced. Needing to stand-out against my peers lead me to practicing more. Times when my friends from school would hangout, I caught myself on the turf field alone trying to perfect a move or kick. The minutes before the bus arrived in the morning would be occupied by kicking a ball against the siding of my house and my dad and I would go down to the field when our spare minutes overlapped. We’d pass together for hours on end until darkness overcame the field. I’d take off my cleats and put them in my closet, only to reach for them the next morning and do it all over again.
Then, there was the age where you’d play for two teams. Both “school ball” and travel would occur in the fall and if you didn’t think your life was overwhelmed with soccer by now, it sure was during these times. Carrying two backpacks on the bus in the morning while you’re dressed in a jersey for game day day became your reputation. After a school ball game, you quickly changed out of your jersey and chugged a Gatorade while driving across town for travel practice.
Weekends in the fall were not for Octoberfest and apple-picking, but for road-trips, hotel rooms, and early morning team breakfasts. There is nothing like a Columbus Day tournament. You’d think by then the heat would simmer down, but with playing 4-5 games all on turf, it seems like these were the hottest days of the year. Playing games back to back for two, sometimes even three days left your body feeling completely destroyed. Regardless of the bruises and pain, you’d pop an Advil, rub on some “Icy-Hot” and train for practice the next day.
But it was all worth it when you stepped on the field. Whatever sacrifices you made for the game paid off here. It wasn’t just a game, it was a representation of how hard you worked that week for the sport. The 90 minutes on the field is where you put everything aside and focused on being better, being a team player, and working for victory. Executing everything you trained for that week while your coach was alongside helping you, ensuring you that you’re doing your best was the reason you give it 110% during every play. There would be times bent-over, hands on knees, covered in sweat where you felt like giving up, but your teammate slaps your back which gives you all the motivation you need. Half time pep-talks, perfectly performed plays, and coordinated passes between teammates were the most exciting moments of it all. Talking about a big-win with your team for the rest of the day made everything worth it.
Then there was the day you played for the last time. The last drive to the field, the last first whistle, and the last last whistle. You gave it your all for 90 minutes one last time, sat on the field, and shed a tear. Sitting on the turf looking at the cleats that are being held together by duct tape that got you through so many hill sprints and examining the black and blues that you’re convinced will be on your thighs until the end of time, you thought about your love for the game. No matter the day you had, being able to let your anger out on the field kept the gears grinding. You got home and unlaced your cleats and threw them in your closet knowing that tomorrow will be your first day of retirement.
You reach for them every now and then and maybe play in a summer league, but the lifestyle of being a soccer player is unmatched.
I miss the game, but I’ll never get rid of my cleats. Once you’re a dedicated soccer player, it sticks with you forever.
There will be times I will be out and about and come across a field. I see kids with brand new cleats, a jersey down to their knees, and shin guards that take up a greater half of their leg, knowing that a great relationship is about to form.
I would do anything to be that bright- eyed kid again- I’d do a million more sprints if it meant I could do it all over. But I know the game will always be there and there are kids that appreciate it just as much as I did. I’ll always miss soccer and I’ll always miss the thrill of being a soccer player.
A retired soccer player