DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?
Sportscaster Al Michaels posed that question when the US ice hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On their way to the gold medal, a mixture of US college and minor league players came together to shock the sports world and provide an explosion of patriotic fervor during a low period of Cold War relations. The now ubiquitous chant “USA! USA!” was hatched during the course of that contest.
The game, which inspired a movie and propelled the head coach and several players to successful professional careers, brought ice hockey to the forefront of American sports consciousness for weeks; perhaps, as many as ten percent of the nation was excited.
By fortunate coincidence, I’m in Costa Rica this week and have watched the national soccer team advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup by remaining undefeated against the traditional juggernauts from Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece. Whether or not this performance qualifies as miraculous (some proud Costa Ricans claim it is not even surprising), the reaction of the country’s population is beyond comprehension for an American.
Yes, if UNC wins a national championship in basketball, several thousand people congregate, celebrate, and even make a bonfire. If a professional sports team wins a championship, their home city reliably hosts a “parade,” attended by thousands. Tee shirts and caps are sold to commemorate the event, but there isn’t a national swelling of pride. For instance, when the Yankees win a championship, their accomplishment is greeted by indifference by a vast majority of the nation and is more resented than cheered by the fans of the other twenty-nine teams.
Boy, is it different here! Following the win over Greece, spontaneous celebrations exploded across Costa Rica; people cruised hanging out of windows and perched on top of cars on city streets and highways with flags flying and horns blaring. People cried from joy, and President Solis spontaneously strolled from his home in the capital to personally lead the celebration. A poll before the tournament revealed fifty percent of the inhabitants of Costa Rica believed the performance of their national soccer team to be important or very important. This week, the number is over eighty percent. Since the win over Greece, people are uniformly dressed in team colors smile, and nod to strangers, and everyone understands.
In a world where news is filled with terrorism, drought, war and poverty, where politics has become toxic and culture increasingly profane, it is delightful to bask in a contagious haze of happiness. I recall having previously basked in several weeks of personal “do you believe in miracles” wonderment that also concerned soccer. But the story began several years earlier.
When our daughter, Kelly, started ninth grade at Ramsey High School, we encouraged her to try out for the girls’ soccer program. Her performance on the field prior to high school was best described as “energetic.” Soccer offered her an outlet for a variety of positive personality traits, including: fearlessness, persistence and positivity. But we’d rarely detected several other attributes of successful soccer players, namely: nuance, control and skill. If someone asked: “What position does she play?” there was no one-word answer. Kelly was “all over the place.”
Accordingly, we anticipated Kelly would be assigned to the freshman team. Perhaps, if the junior varsity was short players one day, she might assist. We were stunned when she burst through the door, and declared: “I made varsity!”
“You made what?” I asked.
“Varsity,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” I said. But I have to admit my thoughts were, in no particular order: “Is Ramsey really weak this year?” “Did a whole raft of freshmen make the team, since several of Kelly’s classmates had always outshone her in youth soccer?” and: “Will she be sitting on the end of the bench and, perhaps, be better off on the junior varsity?”
“I’m the only freshman,” she added.
“Julia and Joanie didn’t make it?” I said, incredulous, thinking of two highly skilled freshmen who thought highly of themselves, as did their parents.
“No,” said Kelly. “They were kind of upset. They were crying. They wouldn’t even talk to me after practice.”
“Oh, boy,” I thought, feeling a combination of dread about how several angry fifteen-year-old girls were going to treat Kelly moving forward, along with a guilty thrill of satisfaction and triumph.
“Are you worried about that?” I asked.
“No,” said Kelly, shrugging.
Fearlessness can be helpful in life as well as in soccer.
I knew George Wright, the only coach the Ramsey Girls’ varsity had ever had, since he was also a real estate lawyer. I called him the next day to find out what he was thinking. I hoped Kelly hadn’t misunderstood. Her triumph was so unexpected.
“George,” I said. “I’m thrilled, of course, and I promise I’m not one of those parents who’ll question your choices in the future, but do you see something I’ve missed?”
“Yes,” he said. “Kelly has an energy level we need that has nothing to do with ball skills or positioning. She’s going to be our designated ‘marker.’”
I’d played soccer, and was familiar with the term for playing tight defense, but I’d never seen Kelly focus on marking. I was concerned.
George continued: “In tryouts this week, in a good way, Kelly was disruptive and annoying to the other girls on the field.”
I was skeptical. “You think Kelly will be a critical part of your defense?”
George laughed. “Many of the teams we play have a dominant player in the middle of the field who makes the offense run. Kelly can mess that up. I think she’s inexperienced and oblivious enough to not be intimidated by All-County players.”
George explained: “My plan is this: Kelly’s going to go wherever they go. If they go up, she’ll go up. If they go back, she’ll go back. If they go to the bench for water, she’ll stand and wait for them to come back on the field. Her job is to be within one step of whichever girl I tell her to mark, to make her miserable.”
I was relieved to know George had a specific plan.
“But you have a job, too,” he added.
“Hunh?” I said.
“In the event Kelly needs to kick the ball, it would be nice if her skills were a little better. Can you work with her?”
“Sure,” I said readily; however, I was actually apprehensive. Though we kicked the ball around occasionally, Kelly was hard to pin down for consistent practice.
I’m certain we celebrated Kelly’s elevation to varsity suitably. But what I really remember was the rush of pride I felt. I’m Kelly’s stepfather, and we are temperamentally opposites. In brief, she is an extrovert and I am an introvert, with all the huge differences that implies. Accordingly, while we “got along” at home, we lacked a full range of common interests, and reacted to situations differently. Finally, here was a connection we could share.
During Kelly’s first two years of high school soccer, I never missed a minute of her games. At home, we practiced together once or twice a week, and I drove her to club soccer games. I enjoyed our one-on-one time together more than ever before. On the field, she fulfilled George’s expectations perfectly. She was so good, in fact, at frustrating the opposition’s best player, that one was expelled by the referee for swinging an elbow at Kelly’s head, and declaring: “I’m gonna pull your f…ing braces out!”
A defensive specialist, Kelly scored only one goal each year and the team was mediocre, but Kelly always played as hard as she could; I certainly wouldn’t have expected more. With her seventeenth birthday looming midway through the junior year, Kelly had other things on her mind besides soccer, including: social life, driving, social life, saving baby-sitting money for a used car, and social life.
In a fit of playful encouragement, I said to her one summer day: “If you score twenty goals this coming season, I’ll buy you a BRAND NEW car.”
Kelly’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Absolutely,” I said.
“Twenty goals,” she repeated. “We play twenty games, so one goal a game.”
“Or two goals every other game,” I said, laughing.
Kelly ran out of the room shouting: “Mom! Mom! Guess what?!”
“You promised her a new car?” asked my wife, Katie, incredulously, while we waited for Kelly to come to the dinner table.
“Only if she scores twenty goals,” I said. “She’s scored one a year, so far, so it’s not exactly realistic.”
“You’re bribing her, with the promise of spoiling her,” she said. “Do you think that’s good parenting?”
“I prefer to call it ‘incentivizing,’” I said. “Anyway, if she were somehow to score twenty goals, she’d get a soccer scholarship to college and I’d make money on the deal. It’d be a win-win. But, you know, twenty goals is impossible.”
Kelly arrived at the table. “We’re gonna practice in the basement every night.”
“We?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ll serve me the balls and supervise. What do you think of the Honda Civic?”
Initially, I was skeptical. For several weeks, however, Kelly practiced without fail and made me a believer. We devised a routine where she preceded me to the basement to work alone for fifteen minutes on dribbling skills, then I came down to toss balls to her: left foot, right foot, left thigh, right thigh, chest, head, EVERYWHERE. In the final five minutes each evening, I would revive goaltending skills not used for twenty years, and catch shot after shot. Kelly’s improvement was so remarkable that she quickly outstripped my knowledge of technique, and we arranged additional private lessons with Minor del Rio, a former professional player, coincidentally, from Costa Rica.
Once the season began, Kelly emerged as the junior star on a senior-dominated team. Her style wasn’t subtle; she careened around the field like a bowling ball going through pins. I modified her incentive so three assists would count as a goal, too, since it would be bad if she shot when a pass would be preferable. Thus, fifteen goals and fifteen assists would also earn the car.
When the season reached its climax at the 2000 New Jersey State Championship game against Delran, Kelly was already choosing upholstery. The Honda was hers, with eighteen goals and twelve assists. For the final game only, George put her back in her old role as the marker of Delran’s star, Carli Lloyd. Not only was Carli All-County and All-State, she was All-AMERICAN, on her way to becoming the center-midfielder for the US Womens’ World Cup team. Kelly delivered several strong shoulders (and, perhaps, a bit of an elbow) during the first five minutes of the game, and Carli was never a factor. Ramsey won, 2-1.
A reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the story. The girl got her car, the team won the championship, and the father was delighted. But more was to come. On the strength of her stellar junior season, Kelly was invited to play on an elite club team for the winter and spring instead of the local team on which she’d previously played. Compared to the smooth and silky players the coach was used to, with their multiple college scholarship offers, Kelly was still “a diamond in the rough.”
As usual, Kelly wasn’t intimidated. She pin-balled her way into a starting position and was unapologetic that no one mistook her style for ballet. She insisted we continue our practice routine, IN ADDITION to all her other practices, and assured me I was still helpful, even while I was certain she was beyond me.
Kelly’s senior season started sluggishly; she failed to score in the first eight games and the entire team seemed to be suffering post-Championship apathy. Still, she revived at mid-season and produced fifteen goals in the final seven regular season games, all wins. When the playoffs began, Kelly was in her element as the senior leader, the center-mid-fielder, and the captain. She scored one goal in the first round victory, all three goals in the second round, the game winner in overtime of the semi-finals, and we traveled down to Trenton again for the State Championship game against Freehold.
This time, it was Kelly whose reputation and press-clippings preceded her. The opponents kept her bottled up for most of the game, and what I recall, primarily, is that it was freezing cold. When the clock wound down with the score 0-0 and Freehold controlling play, no one on our side of the field would have been upset with a co-championship. Unable to stand the continuing cold and stress, Katie decamped for the restroom with about five minutes left in overtime.
When Katie emerged to meet us in the parking lot, she glanced up just in time to see Kelly burst through three Freehold defenders to deliver a thunderous finish that nearly broke the net. The sudden-death goal provided a second consecutive State Championship for Ramsey, made a local hero of Kelly, and allowed all of us to stumble through the next several weeks with a sense of “do you believe in miracles?” Accolades along the lines of “All-County” and “All-State” poured in and upgraded Kelly’s choice from a so-so college with a Division-3 soccer program to an excellent university with a Division-1 soccer team and scholarship money.
As the Bergen Record newspaper noted in a feature on Kelly the following week, I had once written a novel-length manuscript about a young soccer player that was a fictional composite of my three children. In the story, the protagonist takes a final shot at goal in the final minute of her final game and hits the goalpost. I explained to the reporter I didn’t think anyone would have found the story believable if the ball had gone in. Apparently, real life is stranger than fiction.
All in all, for a few weeks, our family lived in its own private Costa Rica, where we nodded and smiled to each other and didn’t need words to express our happiness. As for Kelly and me, it was bittersweet when she left for college. After several improbable years of soccer, I’d lost my practice partner. But at the same time, my stepdaughter had become my daughter.