Monday, May 24, 2010

He Is The Champion, My Friends, And He'll Keep On Fighting, Till The End

That's Eli 8.9 on Saturday afternoon.

Eli's soccer coach was out of town this weekend, so I volunteered to replace him for the Saturday game. In the world of 8-10 YMCA soccer, this week's match was Manchester United vs. Arsenal--two undefeated teams, playing for the entirely mythical league championship.

Hawks vs. Eagles: the battle by the cattle.

These times had played twice before, and both games ended in ties. And the second best kid in the league (Eli is considered the best, even by people who aren't his father) played on the Eagles. He was a terrific player and tremendously fast with the ball. He was older than Eli, both a little heavier and a little taller, and he played very, very hard.

In both of the first two games, the Hawks (Eli's team) took the lead, but in the second half, the star kid went on long runs and scored. 

"I don't know how we're going to stop that kid," Eli 8.9 said on Wednesday.

"Well, do you want to mark him?" I asked.

"What's that?"

"Everyone else is responsible for area, but you're responsible for him," I said. "It's man-to-man. Mano-a-mano."

"I can do that?" he asked, practically jumping out of his chair.

"I'm the coach on Saturday," I said. "Heck, yes, you can do that." Hell, I wanted  him to mark that kid, because I loved watching both of them play, and it would be a terrific challenge. Eli was averaging two goals a game, but we have other kids who can score.

The Eagles, though, didn't. That kid was their star, and everything happened through him.

Real world check here. You may be wondering why I cared about doing this in a scrub soccer league game. Well, it's because I remember what I was like as a kid, and how much I loved sports. I watched teams win championships on t.v., and I wanted nothing more than to feel that kind of thrill.

I did, a couple of times, and I still remember what it felt like. It was epic, and only people who win championships know what it feels like.

Because of that, I didn't want to downplay what he was feeling. Once I realized he wanted it to be his championship game, I helped him frame it that way.

I did try to temper his desire to win by telling him that he didn't necessarily have control of the outcome of the game, but he did control the level of his effort, and championship effort was special. Other than that, though, I wanted him to be as excited as he wanted to be.

Game on.

At gametime, it was hot--over 90--and muggy. Usually, when the weather is this hot, both teams play at 3/4 speed. Eli, in particular, is really sensitive to the heat, and he usually doesn't play nearly as hard when it's hot, because he just gets worn out.

Not on this day.
He was everywhere. It was like he had a jet-pack on, going full speed every second, and he kept bursting out of nowhere to make plays. Eli 8.9 was gravity, and everything that was happening in the game was drawn toward him.

The star of the Eagles? He never went more than five yards with the ball before Eli took it away. 

Eli scored the first goal, and we added a second before halftime.

In the second half, he shook loose near the goal, faked out two defenders, and put a perfect shot into the top left corner of the net. 3-0.

I felt this little swell of pride, knowing that for him, he was winning the World Cup. It was his game.

Final score: 3-0. The star for the Eagles didn't take a single shot. The whistle blew and Eli raised both arms, a big smile on his face.His cheeks were like peppermint, red from the heat with white streaks of sunscreen.

Our boy, a champion.

Here's the funny part. I barely had time to congratulate him, because his ice hockey skills class had been moved to the afternoon, and it started in fifteen minutes. So he grabbed a Gatorade and sprinted toward the car, Gloria running behind him, so he wouldn't miss his class.

Hey, winning the World Cup is one thing, but this was hockey class.

After all the kids left, I drove over to the ice rink, and there he was, grinding away through puck-handling drills. He's learned how to get good air on his slapshot, and the last shot he took for the day settled into the net just under the crossbar. It was almost exactly the same spot where he'd scored his last goal during the soccer game.

When we got home, he put on his goalie pads (he's taking a goalie class, too, but it's on a different day). I went to get some lunch, and when I came home, Gloria met me at the door.

"He's sound asleep on the couch," she said, smiling.

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