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Ball boy



Between the crescent waves of western winds behind me and the swaying loblolly pines across the field is a thin chalk line. I roam that line, goal box to goal box, with eagerness and focus, and unexpected joy.

In front of me, 22 girls are engaged in a brilliant physical battle of first-to-the-ball, make-a-run and have-at-it soccer. Behind me, parents and brothers and sisters raise all the levels. Someone in the visitors' bleachers yells, "Hey Nicole, keep it away from No. 16 in the middle!"

On a bright spring Carolina late afternoon, there is no place I would rather be. I'm the ball boy.

I fell into this vocation by chance. My tenure will be completed in a few weeks. Last year, at an early season home game for my daughter's high school team, the ball kept disappearing down an embankment. I shepherded it back up half a dozen times. I loved getting out of first gear and sprinting down the hill. Nothing virtual about it. I appreciated being so near the action.

Running the lines is exhilarating. I'm about as close as I can be to the game. It's rather intimate. I see how hard each girl is trying, how exhausted or determined they are. It gets intense inside the chalk lines. Privy to all the team-to-team dialogue, I stay quiet, in awe of how these girls have grown up.

Years ago, I coached a handful of these girls in the Durham Girls Soccer League. One year, we were Russia and all that mattered was the jersey color and playing time equity. Oh, and the snack schedule and having enough orange cones.

I love the flow of sports. It's rare in life to find that flow for any length of time. Soccer has a running clock: The game should flow seamlessly, up and down, switch-backed across the field, from the middle to the sides and crossed back inside. When the ball goes out, intersecting the plane of the chalk line, I want to be there, with the new ball. It's all about the fluidity of a white ball in space. I am invisible, one with the chalk line.

When I was in junior high, my hometown hosted the NCAA men's tennis championships. That was cool, so I volunteered to be ball boy. Looked easy on TV, right? It was all about getting the ball to bounce just right, into the server's left hand.

The first rounds were a party. We felt like we were the show.

Then came the finals, and Arthur Ashe. I ball boyed his single's final. We were scared to death crouched at the net. He had the hardest, most beautiful service on the planet. Each time, as he tossed the ball in the air on his first service and twisted his body, we thought the serve was going to come right at us. As he uncoiled his body and exploded into the ball and toward the net, we were wide eyed and wary.

On a sprawling green field in Orange County, a defender arcs the ball down the sideline. A pair of forwards streak toward open space.

Play on.

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