It is deep twilight when the ref blows his whistle, the shadows cascading over the soccer field at Durham School of the Arts. We are the underdogs, the boys from Brogden, come down to play our archrivals from DSA.
The winner will be Durham's middle-school champion, and now--after two overtimes--we're going to a shoot-out. One by one, five boys from each team will step to a spot 12 yards from the goal, and each of them will take a shot against the other team's goalie.
It's a quick but painful way to end a championship game, soccer's sudden death, a lot of pressure for any 13-year-old child.
The crowd is hushed. I'm sure this is the largest crowd ever to see a middle-school soccer game in Durham, maybe 250 fans; and after cheering madly for 70 intense minutes, they grow quiet now, respectful, anxious, as the first player steps up to shoot. It's been one of those games that no one should lose. Now it's come down to this.
I feel so lucky to be here. When the Brogden coach left last year, my son Solly said to me, "You should apply for the job, Dad." Who can resist a plea like that from his own boy? When I told Athletic Director Kenny Villines of my interest, he found me a great assistant, science teacher Amy Brandenburg, and hired me right quick. A desperate man, I guess.
I coached the girls' team last spring and had a wonderful time. But this fall was to be my last season coaching Solly, so I was hoping for something transcendent. In my 10 years coaching at the YMCA and Solly's Strikers club team, I'd already coached nine of the boys on my roster. They are boys I love.
I remember lifting Matthew into his father's arms when he scored his first goal at the Y. I remember Sam C. at age 6 refusing to play until his dad bribed him with the offer of a post-game doughnut. And Sammy--on every team I ever coached over those 10 years, veteran of 1,000 games in our back yard, the guy who scored the goal on the first assist Solly ever had. An eternal combination.
That's not all: On the DSA team we're playing today are a half-dozen boys I've coached before. Sometime in the first half, I'm yelling to my team and I see DSA's midfielder throw a big smile in my direction: It's Owen, one of Solly's best pals and mine, too, smiling at me through the competition. Plus there's DSA Coach Amy Green, former soccer coach and devoted teacher of my oldest son, Abe. And my friend.
Brogden barely got into this game at all. We had to beat Githens first, rallying to win in two overtimes. And DSA is the big dog in this league--defending champs, undefeated and untied over two seasons.
Somehow, though, our boys believe they can win. They break the huddle at the beginning of the game with their traditional cheer. We're the Dragons, but Connor, our team leader in pure unadulterated fun, won't permit a Dragon cheer. Instead the boys begin every game chanting "Hit 'em in the head with a big kielbasa." And for today's game there is something additional: "1-2-3, Tiki Warriors!" A coach of middle-school kids can only marvel.
This afternoon, the team is tightly focused, and though DSA gets lots more shots than we do, it's clear we can play with them. Then the shocker: Sam C. plays a perfect ball to Bryan's head. Bryan flicks it on to Kevin who takes the ball out of the air and slams it past the keeper. Goal! The lead! The prettiest goal of the season.
But wait. Called back. Offsides. We droop for an instant, and then the game moves on, fast and furious. We can't burst through the DSA defense, past Nathan, the choreographer, or Davis, the six-foot wall of savvy. But I see plenty to like in our team--Jeremy's leadership and brilliant passing, Sammy's blazing desire, Robert's brainy sweeping, Luke's fearlessness, Alex's stamina and toughness, Tate's fine skills, Connor's focus, Bryan's hustle, Edgar's intensity, Josh's lightning speed and big left foot.
We're good, but DSA fields dangerous attackers like Neal and Juan--and DSA has Juju. Juju is Solly's good friend whom I coached for years, and is--in the eighth-grade vernacular--"a beast." Can we stop the best player in the city? Somehow we do, and the somehow is a hockey star who plays soccer so he can hang with his friends--Sam C., the only athlete on the field as big and fast as Juju. The fans' eyes are riveted to that match-up, two splendid young athletes in the best moments of boyhood.
The MVP, though, is Charley, our goalie. As the clock winds down, DSA presses the attack. Always Charley is there. He grabs balls out of the air, risks his teeth against onrushing attackers, punts the ball half the length of the field. The fans roar or groan with every save. The whistle blows. Regulation is over. The score? 0-0.
Overtime. I just feel happy we're still alive until Solly races into our gathering huddle. "We're champions!" he yells. "We're going to win this game! We're nothing but champions!"
What a moment for a dad. Solly is a bravura midfielder. He's not the biggest (okay, he's the smallest), but he's honed his game through years of hard work. Every day Solly has a soccer ball at his feet, juggling, shooting, juking. I take his sublime skills for granted now. But I never take his big heart for granted--his tenacious play against bigger opponents and the way he can lead a group of individual players into becoming a team. For an instant every eye in the huddle turns towards Solly. We believe him. We're going to win.
We battle on through the first and second overtimes until the final whistle blows. Still 0-0. Time for a shoot-out.
I know just what to say to the five boys who will be shooting for Brogden. "Guys," I say, and I can feel myself grinning from ear to ear, "This is fun. Getting to take these shots in a championship game is what it's all about. Have fun out there." It works. I see Kevin's face burst into a smile, his green-tinted braces (Brogden's colors!) flashing happiness.
Kevin goes first, taking the long, lonely walk--some 40 yards--through the barely breathing crowd to reach the penalty spot 12 yards from the goal mouth. Kevin is a clutch scorer, and he drills the ball hard and home. DSA scores, too, and then it's Sammy's turn. Sammy hit a clutch shot yesterday against Githens to tie the game, and today he buries another one.
So it goes. Solly hits his shot and so does Josh. Each team misses one shot, and by the time Nathan steps up to take DSA's final crack, Brogden holds a 4-3 lead. Nathan strikes the ball well--but Charley slides to his left. Blocked! From our sideline 26 boys race to the center of the field and collapse in a writhing green flesh-pile.
But much more--friends. Davis leads the way from the DSA sideline, Solly's close friend who marked him fiercely all day, handing out hugs and handshakes and "Good game, fellas," and everyone else is hugging, too, and slapping hands. That's what people say to me when they talk about the big game--how the kids patted each other's backs after good plays and picked each other up from the ground. How the kids took care of each other. Tom had it just right. I first coached Tom when he was 5 years old, and now he plays for DSA. "There was a lot of love on that field," he said.
I'm glad the trophy resides at Brogden, glad that the boys got to swarm the field in victory, happy about the ice bath they gave me at game's end. But what I'll cherish about the game is exactly what Tom saw. And I'll cherish, too, the vision of my underdog team, battling, battling, knowing at the end what they had become--together.