I know you’re only 7-years-old, but I have to be honest with you about something: I hate soccer (football).
At least I did, until today.
Over the summer, after you watched every World Cup game, learned every fact there was to know about every team, and saw the American team goalie, Tim Howard, in action, you made your decision that you would be a goalie.
“A goalie?” I asked.
I thought it was kind of a surprising decision from a little boy – who is fast, but also smaller than most boys his age. I knew that a goal keeper was by no means a ‘glory position’ – no matter how many spectacular saves are made. I knew most people, particularly kids, shied away from that position. You didn’t.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
You simply responded by telling me to buy you goalie gloves. So I did.
“I don’t think I’ll get picked,” you told me. “But that’s my team, so I still want to go to the match.” I agreed we would.
The coach then told you in a heavy German accent: “You still need to learn. But, you want to play. I can work with that. You’re a good goalie. Show up at 8:30am. “
So there we were first thing on Saturday. I watched you run out on the field with your too big goalie outfit and gloves. Every single kid was at least a head taller and had 20 pounds on you. You placed your little body square in the middle of the goal anyway, readying yourself for target practice – you being the target.
I think there is a visceral reaction that a mother has (or at least I have) watching other people kick balls at her kid. I have to be honest some of those shots were hard for me to watch. Thankfully, your dad let me drill my fingernails into his arm every time the opposing team came close to your goal.
You really made some amazing saves that day. You also made some easy saves. Likewise, you missed some good shots, and missed some easy shots. It was all part of the game.
I was most delighted to see you having so much fun, dancing around in the goal celebrating when you, or any of your teammates, did well.
One mother commented how you didn’t seem to get upset when you missed a shot, whereas other kids might get angry or cry. I smiled and said nothing. I knew – my sensitive, competitive, red-head – how much it actually bothered you when you missed a shot. But somehow, on that field, you managed to keep your cool.
Then came the highlight of the game. I felt my heart creep into my throat as a mini ‘Ivan Drago’ came barreling down the field (seriously, I know many kids want to play professional sports, in this kid’s case it will happen). He was heading straight toward you in a break-away. I felt scared as this kid wound up his supersonic leg – I couldn’t imagine what you must have been feeling. And there it was – a hard shot directly to your chest, knocking the wind right out of you. I watched your face twist with pain as you fell to the ground still trying to grab at that ball. It rolled passed you into the net anyway.
The other team cheered wildly. Even your own team sighed with deep disappointment, as you struggled to get up. I knew you could hear them all. It was everything I could do not to run out on to that field. My eyes were locked on you – my baby - who not too long ago I had rocked and sung to sleep, whose entire world I could once fix with a kiss. This time, all I could do was whisper, “Get up, buddy. Get up.”
Then you did something truly astonishing: You got up. You looked back at us, made the ‘shake it off’ sign, and - in your too big goalie gloves - gave us a thumbs-up.
As if your 3-year-old brother could read your dad’s and my mind, he started shouting, “Dat’s my bwuddah! Dat’s my Eamonn!” We joined in his shouting, cheering loudly to the complete shock of the other, and even your own, team.
Your team lost that day. You came running over and asked me which save I liked best. I tried to share a life lesson and tell you how proud I was that you….
“Yeah, yeah…” you cut me off. “Which save did you like best?”
So I made something up.
Turns out, I didn’t have a life lesson for you that day. But, boy, you had plenty for me.
Because the truth is, I don’t know – and don’t really care - if you’ll still be playing football when you’re 15, 21 or 35. If it makes you happy, then do it. If not, don’t. But perhaps when you’re 15, 21 or 35 what you taught me, about football and life, will mean as much to you, as it does to me today. That is:
1. Maybe your goal to do or be something is different than others or unexpected of you; that’s perfectly OK.
2. Maybe you’ll want to ‘play’ in an environment that is not seemingly the norm, unwelcoming or tough; do it anyway.
3. Maybe the environment you choose or challenge you face won’t be easy - you may not get picked; but if it’s something you really want then stay committed.
4. Maybe you’ll face challenges where you think others are smarter, tougher and more experienced than you, and in some cases this may true; run out on that field anyway.
5. Maybe you’ll make some great saves and miss some great shots and you’ll make some easy saves and miss some easy shots; that’s the game - hang in there.
6. Finally, I have no doubt there will be many times when an 'Ivan Drago' will come running down your field. He will shoot hard and knock the wind right out of you. You will be knocked down, perhaps for a minute, maybe longer, while the ‘other team’ cheers and even your ‘own team’ shows deep disappointment. All you really need to do 'to win’ is get back up.
And the people who really count will be there cheering for you.
Most importantly, life, like football, is a game. Not without its challenges, but at the end of the day, it’s supposed to be fun.
So always, always keep dancing in the middle of that goal.
I find it ironic that, as parents, we are always trying to teach our children something. When in reality they have so much more to teach us. Lessons that we, or perhaps I, needed to be reminded.
Thank you, buddy. I’ll try to remember them.