A Round and About Path to Soccer

My Dad and I, around 1966

I love soccer. That is unremarkable given how many people the world-over are devoted to the “beautiful game.” My path, however, has been less direct than most.

It begins like Mia Hamm, as documented by a photo of my Dad and me “playing” when I was about 3. I learned to walk because I wanted the soccer ball. “Just throw Kim a ball and she’ll chase it,” remarked my sister, years later. When I was older, maybe 8, I remember accompanying my Dad to a few of his games, including one at, gasp, Memorial Stadium, home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.

Hey, where’s the link to the movie of Kim, barely waist high, giggling while weaving the ball in and around the feet of family members? Where’s the interview with her neighbor, friend, and former teammate Katie crowing about the time the C Street Strikers beat the Back Alley Boys on a last second goal Kim scored on a corner?

Uh, I could show you one of my softball tournament ribbons. But I threw them out.

Let’s restart.

Although I played a number of sports, I grew up in Nebraska, which is all about football. In 1971-73, Cornhusker stars Jerry Tagge, Jonny Rodgers and Rich Glover, separately, came to our grade school, talked to us and signed autographs on paper footballs we had made. Then each showed a highlight film of tackles, runners sailing over pileups, and option plays galore: the quarterback rolling out and deciding to keep the ball or toss it to the I-back.

The neighborhood boys came to our house to play football on the front lawn. We blocked and tackled, faked and darted around one another, passed and caught. I broke Katie’s finger teaching her, successfully, to throw a spiral. In fifth grade, I bought a pair of used shoulder pads at a school fair. I asked my Dad if I would be able to play football when I got older. As usual in these “can girls do what boys can do” conversations, he did not rule out my options. He suggested that as the boys grew much bigger and stronger, I might no longer want to play football with them.

The social pressures of junior high put an end to my football years: it wasn’t an acceptable sport for girls. I played on the school’s volleyball and basketball teams, and threw the shot put and discus. I tried the 400, but discovered my life-long dislike of running for the sake of running and bagged it. Basketball was best since it involved chasing, dodging, and the physical contact of protecting the ball. I needed a summer sport, so played the midwest’s girls’ game: softball. Other than being able to throw the ball from right field to 1st base, I stank. There was no incentive for me, nothing to chase: what a boring sport. And, the girls weren’t so nice to me, perhaps because I had nothing to say about makeup or boys and only one of them went to my school; I didn’t feel part of the team. We did once play a tournament downwind from a stockyard for hogs. That was fun.

As far as I know, throughout my childhood there just wasn’t kids’ soccer in Lincoln, Nebraska. And while I knew my Dad played, I didn’t perceive it as a girls’ sport. Everyone, boys and girls, did play kickball on the school playground. I once saved Katie from being beaten up by Big Daphne, whom she kept kicking in the shins. I assured her that Katie was just going for the ball. I remember that I was surprised upon learning, our senior year of high school, that Katie was playing intramural co-ed soccer: hunh, soccer? Girls too? Cool! But I didn’t answer the siren’s call; I couldn’t hear her over my horn in the pep band.
In college, despite hanging around with swimmers and basketball players, I no longer saw myself as an athlete. That is, until 2 years after graduation, when I was back working at Oberlin and a friend asked me to join the rugby club. Running, chasing, rucking, mauling, tackling, punting and throwing a sort-of football: I was captivated. When I moved to Boston, I was going to sign up for another women’s rugby team. In what was one of several good choices I made in my early 20s: I decided I’d better not play since I didn’t have any health insurance.

It took until life came full circle for me to rediscover and, this time, embrace soccer. Soccer was finally on my radar. Women played soccer: the U.S. team had won the World Cup. The phrase “soccer mom” was in the vernacular. When our daughter was born, I was going to introduce her to sports and raise a strong, confidant woman. Baseball was out; I think catching, throwing, and hitting are too difficult for kids, and standing there, waiting for a ball to pass by, is boring. Besides, softball hadn’t worked out well for me. I thought maybe I’d help out my daughter’s soccer coach: no being a passive soccer mom for me.
The daughter I’d imagined turned out to be a son. When he was five, we found Malden Youth Soccer. Instinctively, I chased down stray balls and offered to help his assistant coach. After a season, Miguel said, “hey, Sam’s coaching his other kid’s team next fall. I’ll only be the head coach if you’re my assistant.” A season later, Miguel’s daughter switched to swimming. Unexpectedly, I was the head coach of a soccer team. Being the coach gave me “permission” to play soccer with them, and play I have.

Malden U10 boys

It is five years and many discoveries later. I love to play soccer, although I have never played on a team. I love to coach youth soccer, which has required learning the game. After growing up an avid Cornhuskers football fan and then losing my devotion, I’ve happily filled that void with the Boston Breakers, which is part of the Women’s Professional Soccer league. I am surrounded by 10-12 year old boys, raising them to enjoy, respect, and compete with strong confident women.

My earliest soccer memory is standing on a hallowed field of football fame, while I watched my male parent play.

A girl, unaware of girls’ soccer, on football astroturf, in a football-crazed state, watching her father play soccer.

A woman, after Mia Hamm, in a multi-ethnic city, leading boys to play better soccer.

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