The local news can’t stop reporting about El Nino, an alleged, rare, extreme weather pattern that is supposedly responsible for three straight weeks of storms in Northern California.
My soccer team is preparing for our first visit to the association cup championship, the highest level of tournament play in our league. All season, we are unstoppable. Undefeated. No one can touch us.
But heading into the most anticipated, high-stakes weekend of competition in any of our young athletic careers, everyone is worried.
The fields are hopelessly muddy and every night, the forecast is for more and more rain. The altered terrain changes the movement of the ball and the speed of play. The bitter cold and relentless drops of water, in our eyes, and on our backs, make us more vulnerable to mistakes, and aggravates the plague of fatigue.
We are an unconventional powerhouse.
We are not exceptionally fast, or big, or otherwise spectacularly talented. Less than five percent of us will go on to play in college. Most of us maintain straight A’s and juggle a host of other extra-curricular activities. We are swimmers and volleyball players and school and community leaders. As grown-ups, we are career-minded professionals, with high-paying jobs and impressive degrees.
We joke about not having matching warm-up suits or fancy, embroidered bags.
We are full of heart and determination and because our coach believes in our greatness, we work incredibly hard in practice, and never let up during games.
Our chemistry and team work is like nothing I’d ever experienced, and nothing I’ve been a part of since.
When the morning of our first game arrives, it’s still raining. Our parents, who have only ever had to endure an entire weekend of soccer games through November, are faithfully huddled on the sidelines, after the first of the year. They are clad in REI ponchos and squeezed together under four or five umbrellas. Looking on through a blurry sheet of rain, they can barely tell us apart.
Before halftime, we are caked, head-to-toe in mud. It’s the kind of cold outside that makes your fingers tingle and your skin sting. The intense sensation seeps into your bones, lingers, then unexpectedly evaporates as your whole body goes numb. Our legs are burning, constantly. With each stride our feet sink into the deep, unforgiving muck. The ball is sticky, our shoes are sticky, everything is a sticky, wet, mess.
Each moment is a battle, each play is a battle, each game feels like another war we barely survived.
In the end, we win the whole, damn, thing. The final whistle blows and we are, suddenly, light on our feet. We sprint towards the center line and triumphantly dive, head-first, through a gigantic mud puddle, four games in the making.
We hug and holler and celebrate. We are giddy, and teary-eyed and so, so, proud.
My coach is beaming.
The moment is instantly an eternal memory in my mind
During eight years on the River City Magic, I learned more lessons than, maybe, the rest of my life, combined. I learned about leadership and work ethic. Straight talk and disappointment. I learn to stand up for myself, stand behind my teammates, and stand back, eventually, when I got out of line.
Where I lacked natural talent, I learned to struggle, and persist, and succeed.
My greatest lesson, though, is in the miracle of our collective achievements. Our three year winning record. Two state championships. More trophies than my parents could find space to store in my childhood bedroom. All of it came in the brilliance of how we operated, together. I used to think someone like John Wooden should write a book about us called “Teamwork over talent.” We were, as they say, so much greater than the sum of our parts.
It’s a mild winter and my adult soccer team is undefeated, for the first time. These days, I play with less fear and more muscle. I play defense, not midfield, now, and do my best to channel my inner Heather Hall. We called her, “the animal.” She was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood and on our team, was the only person we could say that about. She could have easily felt out of place and totally alone and quit after just one season of it.
But she didn’t.
She played every season, and started every game. She shared in our hugs and sleepovers and trips to Hometown buffet.
Because who we were and where we came from never mattered.
All of us, were a lot of things, without each other.
But together, we were Magic.