Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 1

Part 1 - Recruiting


The word hung in the air like a bad fart, and the three of us considered its implications. My dad, dressed in a lawyer's approximation of casual attire, pursed his lips: "no" ran contrary to his line of questioning. Beside him, I saw "no" as a conversational offramp and veered toward it, twitching my feet in anticipation of our goodbyes. Though it would be a rare occurrence in the future, the coach seemed to agree with me. This meeting had caught him off-guard. The school's athletic department boasted an open-door policy, but the implicit purpose was to encourage communication between current athletes and staff; it was therefore a surprise to see the offer so cheerfully taken up by an alumni and his prospective student son, now plunked in side-by-side chairs. "No" was the coach's best bet at curtailing this intrusion.

Said intrusion had been a surprise to me, as well. Knowing both my interest in soccer and aversion to even the hint of impositions, my dad had taken charge. We'd finished our tour of the college and it was at his suggestion that we revisited the athletic center. Pushing through the sleek glass doors, he asked the administrative assistant to point us toward the soccer coach's office. I trailed behind him, mortified in the faint way introverts are around more gregarious family members. From the little I knew, recruiting was handled the other way - the school reaching out to the athlete. By traipsing in and presenting myself unannounced, we were upsetting the natural order. We entered the room and introduced ourselves to Joe, the coach- I called him "sir" both as a formality and to avoid tripping over his last name, which I've omitted for a modicum of anonymity.

Joe was startled, but his long tenure in chatting with prospects allowed him to clamber back into courtesy. He recounted the highlights of the team's history - the first intercollegiate soccer program in the country, the fastest to 700 wins, a perennial Division III contender for stretches in the 60's and 70's. I took in the office. There were photos and scarves mounted on a bookshelf behind me, but the room as a whole felt sterile and clinical. Joe did little to ease that feeling. He had a gravelly, dour voice that, as I would learn, stayed static for the entirety of his emotional spectrum, unless he was angry, in which case it increased noticeably in volume. He recited the facts like an encyclopedia entry. My dad recalled his own experience as a fencer for Haverford, hoping to spark some cordiality, but to no avail. Joe accepted his anecdote like a kid opening an elderly aunt's Christmas present: his disinterest strained mightily at the thin membrane of social etiquette.

Not wanting to waste time on collegiality, Coach Joe handed over a pamphlet and asked me about my experience. This was what I was dreading. My high school was no powerhouse: it was a tiny, ultra-progressive place that has produced more successful cartoonists than professional athletes. Team cuts would have been greeted with aggrieved PTA meetings and an editorial in the student paper. This was a school that had once put up a sign advertising prestigious colleges its alumni had gone on to attend, only to take it down following an uproar from the student body, who worried that those who had enrolled in less-illustrious universities would feel left out. My coaches had grimaced but were powerless to stop me from running out on practice for an a cappella concert or play rehearsal.

It was a very small pond in which I had grown, and yet I was no big fish. I had clawed my way onto varsity for my junior and senior years, heedless of the coach's advice that I would see more time on JV. I was never a starter, and was relegated to backing up a more talented sophomore. My career stat line consisted of two goals and a handful of wayward shots. Our team had lost on penalty kicks in the playoffs my senior year, and the team's disappointment was cut with excitement at how far we had advanced. This was in the "B" conference (between "A" and "C") of small private schools, so our competition was not headed for Division I programs, either. I was a middle-of-the-pack player in a middle-of-the-pack program in a middle-of-the-pack conference in a middle-of-the-pack state. Beyond that, I had no club soccer experience. I had participated in a rec league organized by the neighborhood dads, but at that age I was equally interested in the end-of-season doughnut party.

When asked which position I played, I faltered; unlike youth baseball and its right field, soccer lacks a quarantine position for unskilled players, so I had been shuffled around by coaches desperate to mitigate the damage caused by an excitable stringbean with minimal coordination. I said that I played midfield, but without conviction. The more I talked, the more I realized the futility of this weird bid for a spot on a college team. Joe was unsure how to respond - it was bad enough to be confronted in his office by a hopeful prospect, let alone one with such a singularly meager resume. Scrolling through the college website today, I notice they've implemented a recruiting questionnaire. I don't want to take credit for that, but it may be to ward off cases like myself. My dad, sensing trouble, interceded. As he saw it, I could spend my first years on the JV squad before possibly making a run at varsity. Haverford still had a JV team, right?


Haverford did not field a junior varsity soccer team. Joe acknowledged that yes, they had offered one in the 70's, my dad's era, but the demand on practice space and a waning crop of interested players made it an impossibility. Since my potential college soccer career hinged on the existence of a lower-talent roster in which I could hone my skills, "no" seemed to neatly squash my chances of becoming Division III Rudy.


I gave the bland smile of the defeated and we traded pleasantries. We left the air-conditioned athletic center and stood blinking in the sun. My dad groused about coach Joe's taciturn refusal and I excused myself to poke around the bookstore. I wandered around black and red apparel and thought about my impending graduation. We had a two hour drive back home where I could offer noncommittal answers to questions about what I liked and disliked during our tour. I exited without purchasing anything and met back up with my dad, who looked excited.

"Brother Mick," he said. It remains his preferred nickname for me. "I ran into that coach. He says it's fine if you want to come to tryouts. I don't know why he was acting so cagey before."

It is only in writing this now that I wonder whether this run-in had occurred back in the coach's office, or if my dad had hectored him on my behalf. In the moment, I didn't care. I was in. I'd like to think I hugged my dad or pumped my fist, but given my age and Irish sensibilities, I probably said "oh cool" and left it at that. Inside, I roiled. I had a shot.

My freshman year, I played college soccer. It was a rush of surreal, intoxicating frustration. Despite a wonderful undergraduate experience and a wealth of fulfilling extracurriculars and academic pursuits, it is my abortive soccer career on which I am hopelessly fixated. Certain smells invariably carry me back to the practice field, or the trainer's room, or the apartment basements that hosted team parties. Maybe it is the unresolved competitiveness, or the addictive surge of being part of a team - especially one with no incentive beyond pure enjoyment. Whatever the cause, I hope to exorcise some of that restlessness by sharing my experience.

This is not a story about overcoming odds or ascending the depth chart or scoring a game-winning goal and disappearing in a pile of cheering teammates. As I would learn later, my chance to tryout arose only because the team was in a historical nadir. I spent four years associated with Haverford's Men's Soccer Team in various capacities and totaled two minutes of meaningful play. I left no legacy, inspired no one with my tenacity, nor did I help to right the ship. I was a body in a uniform, and later, out of one. My only qualm with calling myself "the worst college athlete" stems from feeling unworthy of any superlative. My time playing soccer was, by any metric, a resounding failure. I loved it.

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