I played my first soccer game in the outfield of a baseball diamond in a small neighborhood park in the late '80s. There were only about 22 kids on the pitch, just enough for two teams. The blue team and the red team both wore thick cotton shirts from Burger King. We played the same team—that is, each other—every week in the outfield, between church-league softball games.
I grew up with this group of guys, playing soccer together for more than 10 years, almost daily. They became my best friends. Ours were the first soccer teams in Lumberton, a small North Carolina town of 30,000. We formed a traveling team, too, and lost a State Games match 16-1. But we had fun learning a sport that, while the most popular in the world, was a new adventure for these small-town boys.
Soccer became a way of life, an avenue of exploration: I went to school in the morning and played soccer for the rest of the day. I had tennis in the offseason, but I quit to concentrate on soccer for my last two years of high school. I refereed games on weekends for young kids and learned about music and other culture from my teammates.
When I moved to Charlotte and London, I continued to search out soccer fields. To be honest, I've played it as much for the exercise as for the social interactions and stress relief it provides. In Raleigh, I've built a large group of friends around it. Soccer is a slow, building sport, a departure from a modern lifestyle that's unwaveringly fast.
Stacy and I have always discussed sports for our young son, Oliver, who has been battling cancer. We never wanted him to play a contact sport, but we both love soccer and tennis. We spent a good bit of time watching the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 together, and he's a natural at kicking, as most toddlers probably are. But kicking a soccer ball has remained a favorite activity, while cars turned to rockets and Yo Gabba Gabba and Wallace & Gromit become Godzilla and Spiderman.
During stays at home between chemo treatments or on the cancer floor, with IV pole in tow, he'd bump the ball forward. Chasing a 3-year-old, an IV pole and a soccer ball down a cancer hallway was a challenge, but it certainly relieved stress. Again, soccer was as much exercise as it was an escape from this hectic reality.
More than a year ago, when Oliver was diagnosed, or a month ago after his latest surgery, I couldn't have imagined we would now be signing him up for informal soccer lessons. But an email from a friend kick-started the idea, so Oliver and I soon found ourselves hunting down some soccer shoes in shopping centers. His first "soccer game" will be at XL Soccer, an indoor space in Raleigh.
He may not become the next Ronaldo. I'm just happy Oliver will be able to step out on the field, have fun and make friends while not kicking a soccer ball into a random patient's room. Then again, a Golden Boot would look good on the mantel ...