Thursday, April 12, 2012


I think I've mentioned this before, but Eli's school soccer team combines fifth and sixth graders. There are two teams, and his team is all sixth graders except for him and one other boy.

He's used to being the star, but because he's younger, the coach has given him a complementary role. He's a midfielder, and only rarely gets a turn at forward.

It's been good for him.

His team is undefeated, and today they had their fourth game. The team they were playing was solid, but not scary, and the score at halftime was 1-0.

It was the worst half of soccer I've ever seen Eli play.

He's been playing soccer for six years--60+ games--and he had never played like this. He wasn't running, he wasn't challenging, and he won almost none of the 50/50 balls.

Before the second half, I walked over to him.

"Hey, are you feeling sick?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Why?"

"I've never seen you play like that," I said. "You were just standing there."

"I'm just so tired," he said. "I didn't sleep well last night."

I laughed. "When the whistle blows, do you know how many people care that you didn't sleep well last night?"

He laughed. "Zero?" he asked.

"Including you," I said. "You're the fastest kid on the field, but if you don't run, it doesn't matter. You have to compete."

The horn went off to signal that the second half was starting, and he jogged back onto the field.

For the first 10 minutes, he was much better. He attacked, he won the 50/50 balls, and he controlled the midfield. He was still tentative at times, but he was a different player.

With 15 minutes left, the coach switched him to forward.

For the first three minutes, his team never even got the ball to midfield. Without him to control the midfield, they couldn't get the ball. The other team scored and now the lead was only 2-1 (his team had scored again early in the second half).

A minute later, there was a loose ball near the sideline, the sideline near the coach (and us). Eli ran toward the ball, but not at full speed, and the other team got it, then the ball wound up out of bounds. "Eli, I need more out of you than that!" the coach shouted.

Eli looked like he had been scalded. He really likes his coach.

The next time there was a loose ball near him, Eli sprinted and took possession. He was further up the field than the rest of his team, and there were four defenders between him and the goal. He slalomed through all of them in a tight, precise path, then finished with his left foot.

The crowd was silent for a second, disbelieving, then they exploded.

It was breathtaking.

He high-fived a teammate, but there was no real celebration on his part. He just ran back to his position for the kickoff with a little smile on his face.

In the next five minutes, he set up two teammates perfectly for easy goals, but they shanked both the shots. They dominated the rest of the game, though, and won 3-1.

"That was some game," I said when we got to the car. "Least effective player on your team in the first half, most effective in the second half."

"That was a nice goal, huh?" he asked.

"It was," I said. "That wasn't why you were so good in the second half, though. You totally dominated the midfield, and you made a play every time you touched the ball as a forward. You worked hard. I'm very proud of your effort.

"I like playing forward," he said.

"I'm pretty sure you'll be playing more of it now," I said, laughing. "Tennis tomorrow?"

"Of course!" he said, smiling. "Why would you even ask?"

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