The SpeechEli 9.8 had a soccer game last Saturday.
So far, the season had been a big bag of fun. He'd played in two games, scored three goals with two assists, and was enjoying being the fastest kid on the field again (he's not the fastest in hockey, although he's certainly made up a ton of ground). Even though he was playing up to a 10-12 league, and so were his friends, they were tearing it up.
Through a scheduling quirk, they were playing the same team they'd played the week previous. They'd beaten them 7-2, it could have been worse than that, and on the surface, it seemed like another rout.
"Don't expect this to be easy," I said on the way to the game. It's much tougher to beat the same team twice in a row."
"Like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay," he said.
"Right," I said. "Pittsburgh looked in control in game one, and then Tampa Bay came out and totally outplayed them. These guys got embarrassed last week, so they're going to come out full strength from the first second this time. And if they do, just be ready to match how hard they're playing, and don't get discouraged."
"Got it," he said.
The game started and I was wrong. It wasn't a rout--it was an ass-kicking. Unfortunately, it was Eli's team that was getting its ass kicked. The other team had an additional player they hadn't had the week before, and both he and the other best player were 12. And Eli's team was missing their third-best player.
Eli started out on defense, and managed to hold the score at 0-0 with what seemed like a dozen long clearances, but as soon as he shifted to forward, the dam broke. The ball was in their end at least 80% of the half, and they were lucky to only be behind 2-0.
Walking off the field, all the kids looked discouraged. They were shocked.
Eli walked toward me and just nodded. When he reached me, I put my hand on his head. "You're a leader," I said. "Go lead."
He started walking toward his teammates, and at that moment, the referees called the coaches from both teams over (to discuss their constant complaining in the first half). While their coach was gone, Eli gathered everyone in a circle, put his arms around the shoulders of two teammates, and started talking.
I couldn't hear what he was saying, but after a few seconds, he started gesturing as he spoke.
This went on for at least a minute, then the coach walked over. She barely had time to say anything before the second half started. She did tell Eli, though, "I want you as a midfielder, but you can go anywhere you want. Get the ball."
Now the ball was in the opposing team's end 80% of the time, and Eli was flying all over the field. His teammates were flying all over the field, too. He scored, then less than 30 seconds later, he stole a ball, made a perfect pass to a teammate, and it was tied 2-2.
I'd like to add the dramatic, storybook ending here, but the storybook part fell out. They put tremendous pressure on the other team, but couldn't score a third goal, and in the last thirty seconds, a long ball into their end wound up in the winning goal for the other team.
The coach gathered the team around as they walked off the field. "Now will SOMEONE tell me why you guys played so much better in the second half?" she asked.
"Eli's speech," said Samuel, one of his teammates. The other kids nodded.
"His SPEECH? What did he SAY?" she asked.
"He said that we needed to communicate better and pass the ball more," Samuel said.
She laughed. She has a big, booming laugh, and she cut loose. "Well, he was RIGHT," she said. "THANK YOU, Eli," she said.
When she was done talking, he walked over to where I was sitting. We were going to walk a lap around the park together (about 1/2 mile) as part of my knee rehab. "Ready to go?" he asked.
"I am," I said.
We walked in silence for a while, then started talking about the game. I like to do this--ask him what he saw in the game, and then tell him what I saw. We both learn something.
"I know you didn't win, but I'm really proud of you," I said. "You didn't just play harder in the second half--you also inspired your teammates to play harder."
"I know," he said. "It just wasn't our day."
"Actually," I said, "it kind of was. That's the best you guys have ever played, by far."
"I didn't think about it like that," he said.
"Sometimes winning is less special than rising up," I said. "Today, you rose up."
"Thanks, Dad," he said.
I know that I told him to go lead, but that wasn't what was important, not at all.
Even though he's still only 9.8, he knew what to say.