The Age Monster

It gets everyone eventually. We can train, we can eat right, we can think positive thoughts, but every year that passes, the opponents get younger, the pains get sharper, and the effort gets more strenuous.

Yeah, we had our first soccer practice of the year last night.

It actually went surprisingly well, mostly because I’ve been running 40 minutes twice a week over the offseason in preparation for a season at right wing. My side played a man down in the scrimmage, but I was arguably, (no, definitely), the worst player on my side and I was able to shut down the best player on the other side. This is a decided advantage.

I mostly hung back, with occasional sprints forward when the other team wasn’t looking and managed to score our first goal that way. More importantly, it took the new guy, who was, in the immortal words of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 3, “a handful”, a while to learn to respect the lingering remnants of my speed, so he kept trying to blow past me to no avail. And when he switched to trying to use his vastly superior ball skills to fake me out, I simply refused to commit, thereby forcing him to finally pass off after my teammates were already back on defense.

So old age and experience really can overcome youth and skill. And a little treachery combined with upper body strength doesn’t hurt either. After practice was over, the new guy came over and introduced himself. He looked a little surprised to discover that he was 20 years younger. It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, to be sure, but these days, I’ll take it. It’s certainly better than the alternative.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to win a regular starting position again this year or not, but the initial omens appear to be good. We crushed the other half of the squad despite playing a man down the whole time, so that should help. I know that in our captain’s eyes, reliability tends to trump talent.

Battling the new guy to a draw reminded me of our indoor tournament the week before, which was the most fun I’ve ever had at a soccer tournament. 12 teams were invited, good teams, including all three of our primary rivals. We figured we would probably finish fourth of six in our group, with the possibility of a shot at third. The tournament went until after midnight, with copious beer flowing throughout the course of the evening.

The first game was easy. We won 3-1, but it should have been 6-1. I got the third goal when S picked me out and rifled a pass right to the corner of the goal; I just had to stick out my foot and deflect it in. The second game was my best; it was against the team that has been my personal bete noire, but I got two goals and we put them away 3-1 as well. Then we played our derby game, which was incredibly annoying because despite dominating the ball, we somehow managed to lose 3-2.

So, it looked like third-place group finish was in the cards, and that’s when things got exciting. We destroyed the fourth team 6-0, then watched as they played our neighbors without much hope of them scoring an upset. But their best player was the coach of our first team squad, and he ripped off an early goal from 25 meters that briefly would have put us in second place. Then our neighbors came back and took the 2-1 lead that they held until the last minute. The other team got a goal to tie it with 50 seconds left, but a tie didn’t do us any good since we knew we probably couldn’t beat our arch rivals, who have supplanted us as the league’s dominant team, in the final game.

However, with 11 seconds left, the ball was passed back to the coach, who was nearly the entire length of the indoor field from the goal. He pushed it forward a step, picked his spot, and put it right in the upper corner for the win with three seconds left. Phenomenal shot. The entire gymnasium went nuts. The upset meant that we were guaranteed second place in the group, and first if we could beat our rivals.

Unfortunately, we lost 3-1. But it was a good, hard-fought game, and there was a funny moment after the young Serie B ref, who is a friendly acquaintance of mine, told me before the game that I couldn’t stop him. About halfway through, he had the ball on the left side I was defending, and I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, there was zero chance he was going to pass the ball. Despite my best efforts, he did manage to turn on me, but I kept just enough shoulder on him to force his shot wide of the goal. He laughed, offered a high-five, and decided we could call it a draw as his teammates shouted at him for not passing the ball.

That is precisely what I will miss most about competitive sports when the time finally comes to hang up my soccer boots for the last time. The competition. The physical testing. The going head-to-head to find out who is better. And the mutual respect that so often results from the process. Whether one wins or one loses, it is the battle, not the result, from which the pleasure is derived. I’ve won league and conference championships. I’ve coached a team that never won a single game. But the teams I remember most fondly aren’t necessarily the championship teams, they are the teams that never stopped competing until the final whistle blew, no matter what the score.

The Age Monster will get me in the end. I know that. I accept that. The time will come when the young guys will blow right past me, when their speed and power will be simply too much to handle. But I am going to keep that bastard at bay as long as I can, and I will keep playing as long as I can help my team win.