by Shane Cashion
First, let me say that I’m a big fan of this blog and its writers, and that I’m excited and honored to be able to contribute. Okay, so by way of personal background, at this point in my life, outside of my family, my time is generally occupied with three things: work, where I'm rapidly burning out; writing, which I’m addicted to but ambivalent toward; and playing soccer; which I’ve done for almost thirty-five years and love unreservedly. Unfortunately, the latter is starting to betray me. For my first post, I thought I’d share what happened at my last game; although I promise to keep posts about soccer few and far between as I recognize most folks’ disdain for the sport. I’ll also be sure to make my future posts more visually appealing!
So, upon the invitation of a close friend, I recently played in my first over 40 game. I’m actually not 40 yet, but because I turn before the year’s over, I’m technically eligible. Our games are scheduled at obscene hours on Sunday mornings to accommodate the early risers. The over 30 games are played in the afternoons; the open league plays its games at night.
I arrived at the field twenty minutes early so that I’d have time to visit with my new teammates. As we made our introductions, I was instantly struck by their size. They weren’t taller than the guys I had played with in the other leagues, just considerably thicker, like soccer had been reorganized into weight classes and I was now playing in the heavyweight division. I was also surprised to see a couple of guys dressed in button down shirts, slacks, and loafers. At first I assumed that they were there to watch, until I saw that they had their uniforms on underneath their clothes. For years they had been tricking their families into believing they were going to church. Like the rest of the players, their jerseys concealed party balls instead of six packs for abs.
For shoes, everyone wore standard issue black. There were no white shoes, or orange, or red, or any of the neon colors that are so popular among the professionals and kids. These guys were still sporting the styles they’d been wearing for more than thirty years. To a spectator, there would have been no way to discern what decade we were playing in. Because they’d been abusing their bodies for years, they also wore a motley assortment of strange orthopedic devices: elaborate knee braces, ankle wraps of various complexities, and back braces to support their bulging discs. They looked more like retired rugby players than soccer guys. Personally, I don’t wear any braces or shin guards; I play in tennis socks, or what we call Footies. Throughout my thirty-five years of playing, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid even the slightest injury.
As the first whistle drew near, I trotted onto the field to begin my warm ups. Unfortunately, no one remembered to bring soccer balls. They did, however, remember to bring three barbecue pits, five varieties of meats, two containers of homemade rubs, and three enormous coolers filled with water, sodas, and every brand of lawnmower beer you can buy. Without balls to warm up with, most of us just jogged in place, or performed a few lazy stretches. A few guys used the opportunity for one last smoke, a pre-game ritual I hadn’t seen in my other leagues. The guy they called “Bones” turned over a bench and proceeded to kick it. The organizer of our team yelled, “Look. Bones is warming up.” Everyone laughed.
The play itself was better than I expected, just a bit slow, though the constant substitutions kept the game moving along at a decent clip. Soccer players don’t really lose their touch as much as their endurance. I, of course, was quicker than most thanks to my relative youth and the fact that I wasn’t encumbered with thirty pounds of medieval orthopedic devices. As the play progressed, I noticed that the guys who claimed to be at church were careful not to get dirty, avoiding slide tackles and other challenges that might leave revealing marks. Bones played like one of the Hanson brothers from Slapshot. The church guys steered clear of him for fear of collateral damage.
With less than ten minutes to go in a scoreless draw [insert soccer joke], I found myself equidistant from the ball and a meaty defender with shins as thick as a shop teacher. I caught myself in two minds and instead of going into the tackle hard, as you should always do, or avoiding it altogether, which works even better, I went in half way, dangling my foot in front of him like a limp noodle. I knew instantly that I’d made a mistake.
On the bench, writhing in pain, our solitary fan in the stands was kind enough to bring me a bag of ice. She related that she was recently married to one of the guys on our team, a midfielder at least fifteen years her senior, which explained her presence at our game. Wives with any history never attend. When the game ended she asked him, “Is that the end of the first quarter, honey?” “No. Why would you think that?” he responded, genuinely confused by her question. “Because it takes you four hours to get home. I just assumed that’s how long a game lasts. Four hours.” We all howled. The church guys toweled off and put their dress clothes back on. The rest of the guys fired up the grills and cracked open the first of many easy to consume beers. I limped to my car and gingerly drove home.
My doctor says that I’ll likely need knee surgery. I’m getting an MRI this week. When I asked her whether I’d be able to play again, she answered, “In time, with the proper rehabilitation; although you probably won’t be as fast as you once were, and you’ll have to wear a knee brace.” How perfectly appropriate. Next time I play, I think I’ll wear shin guards too, and bring a cooler of Coors Light, if they’ll have me.