Saturday was kind of a big day for our family.
Robert was back on the soccer field.
If you’ve known my family at any point in the past 16 years, you would rightly believe we are soccer fanatics.
Before my knees started aging more rapidly than the rest of my body, I played in an adult soccer league. All three of my sons played all the way through school. Somewhere near 98 percent of our weekends over the last decade and a half have been spent on soccer fields.
If there is a televised game from England, Scotland, any other European country, South America, Mexico, North America or Australia, we’re watching it. Nothing against Africa, the Middle East or Asia, I just don’t get any channels that carry games from those places. One day I will.
When we call soccer “football,” we’re not making a joke. We watch so much football from other countries that we have seriously referred to American football as “American football.”
So two years ago when our youngest son announced that he was quitting soccer, it was like a death in the family. We went into mourning. We had family meetings about it. Robert’s two older brothers weighed in on his departure, both of them as concerned as Jean and I. I can’t count the number of times I sat down with Robert and begged him to explain to me why he would want to leave the game he, and we, so desperately love.
Robert’s interests had drifted. He wanted to be in the woods with a rifle during hunting season, rather than being on a soccer field. He took a job helping out on a farm. The kids he was running around with weren’t soccer players.
Robert made this decision his freshman year of high school. I felt he was old enough to make up his own mind, but young enough that he needed to really talk it through before making anything final. In the end, even though I thought it was a mistake, I let him make his own decision.
Robert has always been a big kid. Nathan is only 18 months older than Robert, and so Robert was always trying to keep up with his older brother. When they were little, they went through competitive growth spurts where one would be taller for a month or so and then the other one would be taller. Robert was always bigger than the kids in his classes.
And then around his 8th grade year, Robert got bigger than everybody. He now stands 9-feet tall and weighs 700 pounds. For breakfast every morning, he eats a bowl full of Smart Cars. He doesn’t even put milk on them. He’s so big that when he started working on a farm, he couldn’t work on a regular cattle farm but instead had to work on a buffalo farm.
On the soccer field his signature move was to let other kids run into him, fall over, and then he would stand over them menacingly until they tearfully begged their coaches to be subbed out for the rest of the game.
But he also has massive good skills with the ball. His decision making was always phenomenal. His pass percentage astounding. His free kicks precise.
If he was an imaginary player in a video game, he’d hit 92 percent on the skill level. He’d hit 85 percent on the speed level. He’d hit 99 percent on the strength level. And he’d break the game console on the ego level.
As a center back, he was also the PK taker on the team. Most center backs, even at the professional level, are more apt to sky a PK. Ask John Terry.
I used to love to watch him play.
So it’s been almost two years since Robert played soccer. He gave up the game completely. He didn’t even go to pick up games.
A few weeks ago I took all three of my sons to the soccerball park and the three of us kicked around for a couple of hours.
It was the first time in several months that I’d kicked the ball around, and I had so much fun. I love to play, but my knees can only take so much.
When we were done, Robert was talking about maybe playing soccer again.
To ease him back into the game, he signed up to play in Saturday’s Oconee Cup.
This is a fundraiser for the Oconee County Warriors Soccer Booster Club. It’s an all-day event where every team plays at least three games. Games are short, 20-minute halves. Instead of 11 players on a side, it’s seven players on a smaller field. A 7 v 7 game is very, very fast and intense. You’re constantly moving and constantly on the ball. And it’s June, so it’s hot as blazes with the sun beating down on you.
Robert was placed on the JV team, and he didn’t start in the game. Some of us were joking that these double blows to his ego would probably be more than he could handle. The only other time he played in an Oconee Cup (the summer before his freshman year), he started on JV and through the course of the day he moved to the varsity team where – as a rising freshman – he was bossing rising seniors on the other teams.
But it’s been two years since he played.
When he got into his first game, it was an immediate disaster.
With his older brother playing keeper in the goal behind him, Robert let an opponent come past him with the ball.
To make up for the mistake, Robert threw his entire body – feet first – at the ball.
Robert, the kid from the other team, and Nathan went down in a pile of flailing legs, flailing arms, and a cloud of dust.
Robert managed to tackle the other kid and his own keeper, while the ball rolled into the goal.
Jean and I cringed and hid our faces behind our hands. When someone asked if that was our son who tackled his own keeper and allowed a goal, we told them, “No, that kid just looks like Robert.”
His next smooth move was to stand three feet away from his grandmother and cuss out one of his teammates like he was yelling at one of the buffaloes on his farm.
But then things started to settle down. As the day progressed, his skill started to return. His touches on the ball were better. His passes improved. His decision making went from aggressively and wildly violent to aggressively and thoughtfully precise.
And then something really fun happened.
In the third game of the day, the Oconee team had to win to advance to the championship. I had run home to feed and water the dogs, and when I got to the game Oconee was losing 3-2 to Cedar Shoals.
The ball came back to Robert who passed a beautiful ball forward. The kid who received the pass sent in a cross and Oconee scored to tie. The boys scored another goal and fought to hang on to a 4-3 lead, and when the referee blew the whistle the Oconee boys were headed to the championship game.
The Oconee Warriors have historically had very good soccer teams. Two teams in the last 10 years have gone to a state final. Several teams have gone to Final Four games.
But in these 7 v 7 tournaments, Oconee doesn’t do well. A couple of times the boys have made it to a final, only to lose. I do not remember Oconee ever winning a final in a 7 v 7.
Oconee’s JV team played Archer’s JV team and Oconee opened the scoring. Then Oconee scored again. And again.
I lost track of Oconee’s goals, but I think the final score was 6-2, with both of Archer’s goals coming late in the second half when the Oconee boys were done and just waiting for the whistle.
So in his return to soccer after two years, Robert helped his team win Champions T-shirts.
After four games, he was beaten and battered. He came home and went to bed. Sunday morning when woke up, he had trouble walking.
But before he went to sleep Saturday, he sent a text to his former coach and asked if they could do some private training, and he asked me to sign him up for try-outs for club soccer in the fall.
I’m not saying it’s an episode of “Father Knows Best,” but Sunday morning when Robert said, “I wish I’d never quit playing soccer,” I enjoyed a moment of feeling like Robert Young.
Rob Peecher is author of Four Things My Wife Hates about Mornings, and he wishes his knees weren’t as old as Robert Young.
Update: In typical Robert fashion, he went to one of three of the tryout days for the club team and then decided, again, that he didn’t want to play soccer. In less than a week I went from Robert Young to Homer Simpson, the bumbling dad once again outwitted by his son.