Sitting in the bleachers watching my eldest play another sport using a round ball, working to defend his part of the floor as the clock wound down, I couldn’t help myself. I kept glancing at another clock on the wall, the round one without lights. It was quarter till seven and there was soccer to be played.
As I drive up the hill to our soccer complex, the darkness hides all the familiar sights. The goals, the towering light poles, the colorful team benches, even the signs that said ‘No Smoking’. Having turned off the parking lot lights during the off-season to keep the complex neighbors happy, the headlights struggle to pierce the void.
Driving towards the complex building, I happen to catch the ghostly outlines of cars here and there in the parking lot. A twinkling reflection off an extinguished headlight, an interior dome light making the drivers torso seem to levitate in mid air, or the soft glow of a cigarette of someone trying to relax before lacing up his cleats. I chuckle thinking of the irony of a smoker coming out twice a week to play no holds barred soccer. Stranger things have happened.
When I finally reach the complex building, the clock on the dash reads 7:00. For once in my life I’m on time for something! I pull out the one thing that is important above all others on this cold and dark night: the key to the electrical closet.
When I walk out of the building towards Field #4, the cold field lights are barely illuminated. A faint bluish-green glow starts to reveal the field as shadowed figures walk towards the benches. Young, old, tall, and short, we drift towards the bleachers out of the blackness of the parking lot and begin our rituals. Cleats need to be tied, muscles need to be stretched, balls need to be inflated, and recent sporting events need to be discussed. The field lights continue to brighten, revealing a brown pitch, devoid of green as the turf hibernates for a long cold winter. The glistening white goals stand at attention waiting for the game to begin. The complex surroundings disappear as our eyes adjust to the brilliant light shining down on our coveted rectangle of turf.
Teams are chosen, pinnies are distributed, and everyone on each team glances at the empty goals awkwardly as the unspoken question floats through their minds. Who will be suckered into playing keeper that night?
The victims take their place between the posts and the ball is dropped. Game On! The pace is quick with a number of ex high school and college players in their twenties on the field. Many of the youth league coaches in their 30’s and 40’s, like me, struggle to keep up but give a valiant effort and never quit. I see a striker making a break up the line and move to intercept as he winds up to launch a rocket of a shot.
WHAM! The sound of the impact reverberates across the cold dark night as the shot strikes the side of my leg. I shake it off as the stinging persists and chuckle as I see a handful of perfectly formed white pentagons amid the inflamed round mark on my skin. Damn that hurts.
As play continues, beads of sweat run down our foreheads even though the temperature is quite cold. Everyone’s hair looks like they just stepped out of the shower as the night moisture clings to it. In the bright lights, trails of steam float off the heads of the players as they pause to catch their breath. It seems as if a faint gray dome has covered the field above our heads as the match continues unabated.
Just as everyone’s muscles begin to object to the abuse they’re taking, the match takes on an almost mystical air. A layer of fog drifts in and floats a few feet above the pitch. Players heads seem to float above the cloud while their feet dance with the ball upfield. The keepers, poor souls, struggle to zero in on the ball as the fog thickens and play intensifies. From time to time the keeper will jerk their head towards that familiar sound of a hard shot and dive to the side to attempt yet another save as the incoming round projectile appears out of the cloud.
Attacks are stymied, goals are scored, and much energy is expended chasing down that ball with the dog-bone shapes on it. Like all games, this one too must end. Wispy layers of fog continue to dance along the pitch, illuminated by the bright lights above, as the players make their way back to the benches. The players shake hands, exchange pleasantries, and some like me gently ease themselves down onto a bench, having pushed a muscle or tendon too hard. My ankles, having been abused for much of my youth, aren’t particularly happy about their owner’s desire to stay in shape on the pitch. Cleats are stowed, sports drinks consumed, and the players gradually drift off towards the dark parking lot one by one. Headlights wink on like the eyes of a cat in the trees as everyone heads for home.
By the time I pack up and get to the building, the pitch is empty yet again. The proud goal posts are once again standing all alone, having thwarted many a shot tonight, even when the keeper went the wrong way. As I turn the key and the lights blink out, the place we call home for a few hours each week disappears into the night, appearing to sleep like we all hope to in a few hours.
I turn down the road leading out of the complex and can’t help but look back at the place I’ve spent so many hours at these past few years, knowing full well I can’t see a thing in the dark. I can picture in my mind exactly where the light poles, fences, goals, and building are. It’s like a second home, one where my kids learn the beautiful game and continue to grow up. Where adults who think they know a lot about kids and soccer quickly realize they have a long journey ahead. The soccer complex is a wonderful and dynamic place often swarming with people.
But during the off-season it’s a lonely place, sitting dark and resting until the next time the weekend soccer warriors return. I know I’ll be there, lacing up my cleats as the lights warm up. I can’t think of any better way to get my exercise.
Let me state right out – I am NOT a writer by any stretch of the imagination. I’m an engineer by training and like many geeks, find English is often a second language. But I’ve wanted to write something like this ever since I read an excellent article from Footie Girl about a recent tournament she had participated in. During a recent pickup game, the cold mist really gave the field a surreal look and I found myself thinking about how I might describe the scene. So thanks for bearing with me while I played author. I promise, for the good of the language, not to do it too often!