Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 3

Part 3 - The First Day

(you can read Part 1 - Recruiting here, and Part 2 - Move-in here)


Pictured: Haverford's Dining Center, where students from all walks of life eat and  wax philosophic on what constitutes a hookup. Picture taken from haverford.edu


Homer spoke lovingly of dawn and "her rose-red fingers," though, we must assume, the blind man was orating based on someone else's good authority. I am not a morning person, but I agree in part with his assessment. It is a singular feeling to smell the dew and let the chilly air slough the drowsiness from your skin. One feels privy to secrets the world has denied its sleepier denizens. And rising before the sun does feels as though one has won a small cosmic race. Being awake in the early morning is invigorating. Becoming awake, if you'll pardon the ontological hair-splitting, sucks major ass.

Freshly re-named and nervous for the first practice, I slept fitfully on an unfamiliar mattress under unfamiliar sheets. I kept my windows open to combat the late summer heat, but letting in fresh air also admitted the continuous buzz of cicadas. I bolted out of bed in a frantic daze, certain I had overslept, to discover I was up ten minutes before I had meant to be - there is no more effective alarm clock than human pessimism. I shambled from my dorm room into one of the labyrinthine stairwells. With no internal campus map, I chose an exit at random and left Gummere, clutching my keycard and soccer bag. Dawn's rose-red fingers jabbed me in the eyeballs, Three-Stooges style. I'd left the wrong way and circled around the building toward the athletic center, grateful that I was the sole witness to this mistake.

I entered the locker room to find only one teammate, a junior. He nodded at me and we changed into our soccer clothes in silence. In later years, the program would standardize our practice outfits, but as of fall 2007, we were left to our own devices. I wore a tight shirt since the first practice of the day was just the 2-mile fitness test, thereby putting more thought into drag coefficients that morning than I had into my workout regimen over the summer. The rest of the team trickled in, and when we had all donned our apparel, the captains led us out to the field where Joe and Don were waiting. The former was short and surly, the latter tall and wide-eyed: the two might have made a fine vaudeville duo. Coach Joe instructed the captains to warm up for 11 minutes, and we set off jogging around the campus. This warmup time limit seemed to be a private game between them. Joe would give us a duration and read our time back to us each time we returned, but we were never punished for tardiness or cutting it short. It was an vague benchmark to which Joe paid inordinate attention.

During the jog, we paused to circle up and stretch. In these intermissions, the upperclassmen explained the other Rhinie obligations: first, the captains solicited jokes. I jumped, excited that my weekends scrolling through websites with names like laughfunny.geocities.com had provided an unexpected benefit. I stepped into the middle and delivered one of my favorites, about an Irishman and a bar and ordering three drinks. The boos echoed off the trees, shattering the serene quiet of the pinetum. One or two other freshman tried their hands to similar effect. The real joke, it seemed, was to watch the freshmen try.

We were also informed of "Superbar," a lurid tradition dating back to a short-lived Wendy's promotional offering of the same name. It was used as a verb and noun for "the first Rhinie to score on the field and the first Rhinie to score off it." Each morning we were quizzed about our non-soccer exploits, despite a practice schedule that left little room for anything beyond stretching, showering, and sleeping. In the past, the freshmen who achieved "Superbar" in either capacity were taken to Wendy's as a reward; now it was simply a euphemism.

The circle allowed me to get a better count of the team. In addition to the ten freshmen blinking sleep out of their eyes, the team consisted of four sophomores, seven juniors, and a single senior. The shortage in this last category, I learned later, was not coincidence. The senior captain had been the lone holdout among the players in his class, who had attempted to oust Joe as head coach the previous years. As is the case with most 6-signature petitions, the effort was unsuccessful, and the rebellious faction left the team in disgust. This kind of pyrrhic defeat could be seen as a distressing omen for the overall team mentality, but to me, it meant a couple fewer sharks in the tank. 

We returned to the field ("11:32," called Joe) and prepared for the 2-mile run: eight loops around the track encircling Walton Field. I steeled myself: in my best attempts I hadn't come close to the 12-minute cutoff, and was banking on adrenaline to make up the extra time. We crowded to the front and inside of the lanes, upperclassmen ordering freshmen to the back. One junior fumbled with his iPod as Joe counted down, cursing its battery life. "Wait," he cried to no avail - Joe may even have sped up. As our coach growled "Go" the junior heaved the iPod off the track in desperation and hustled to catch the departing crowd. I remember seeing the headphones trailing behind in full extension, a tiny white comet.

There are, I'm sure, numerous strategies runners employ to ward off the monotony and strain of their endeavors. Mine was to swear with each exhalation, my plodding accompanied by a rhythmic stream of quiet obscenities. The joking and ribbing from the warmup jog had dissipated as each man (boy? youth?) focused on his own progress. I threw myself across the finish line and heard my time called out - over the 12 minute cutoff. I allowed myself a few more panted curses. I figured they put this run first for the same reason DMVs start driving tests with parallel parking - to weed out the unfit as quickly as possible. But as I looked around, I noticed only around half the team had finished and was staggering around, hands on their hips like a flock of exhausted chickens. As the rest of the players finished, coach Don had us state our times so he could write them down, and I was elated to learn that only two members of the team had beaten the requisite mark. Such a show of unathletic solidarity was heartening: surely they couldn't cut all of us? Joe muttered some words of disapproval and disappointment and we trudged off toward the dining center, unaffected. I felt cautious optimism - these were not Olympic champions noisily hocking loogies next to me. I could hang.

The team ate a quick breakfast, where everything the freshmen put on their plates was subject to skepticism - "eggs? That'll make you puke." "Orange juice? You're gonna boot, Rhinie." I headed back to my dorm and realized that, while I had brought an iPod to campus, I had nothing with which to charge it. In retrospect, the smart move would have been to ask any one of my teammates, but at the time it did not even present itself as a possibility. Instead, I forced myself to ration my music intake, treating myself to a play of "Sweet Escape" once every few practices. I listened while stretching, then ran back to the locker room for the second training session of the day. At this point a light drizzle had picked up, and would continue in varying intensity for the next two weeks. A strict reprimand had been taped to the locker room doors about tracking in mud, and the time spent miserably thwacking our cleats against the ground further cut into our breaks between practices.

The second practice was much less encouraging than the first. Now that actual soccer skills were being called upon, I found the gap between myself and the other players widening. These were players who knew not only the names of exotic feints and tricks, but how to perform them. My instruction in such matters amounted to a brief lesson given me by a friend of the family, when I was 6, in the front hall of our house: he told me to kick the ball with the side of my foot rather than the toe, and that was it. To borrow the proud, unenlightened vocabulary of American football, I could most charitably be called a "blue-collar" soccer player, or, least charitably, "bad." We ran passing, dribbling, and trapping drills: these last were conducted by Don, and involved impossible combinations unseen in regulation play. "All right!" he barked, consulting a weathered clipboard. "You're gonna trap it with your chest, to your thigh, back to your chest, then head it back to your partner!" Balls rolled off in a dozen directions, pursued by frustrated Rhinies. "Ok! Go head, thigh, chest, other thigh, and then play it back with your foot - go!" We improvised and hoped Don wouldn't notice, stalling until his whistle mercy-killed the activity. At the end of these practices, we'd scour the surrounding foliage for miskicked balls until the tally matched what we'd lugged to the field. There was no reward for finding one, but in the manner of adolescent boys, it became a fierce competition.


Pictured: Haverford's Weight Room. Not pictured: me, trying futilely to remember the difference between "strength position" and power position." Picture taken from Performance Plus Camps webpage.



Our third commitment of the day was a weightlifting orientation. If the reader is noting the multitude of obligations, the reader is not alone. Through competing interests between the strength coach, Cory, and the soccer coaches, our preseason days often contained three practices and a lifting session. I spent the entirety of that fall massaging my hamstrings and hobbling between academic buildings. Cory was a new addition to Haverford's athletic staff. He was young and cheerfully no-nonsense about his work. He was no aged trainer living vicariously through his charges, and could be found working out in his down time with weight that caused the squat rack to rattle impressively. His credentials were impressive - he came to our college from a position with an NFL team - our team was not. We wobbled our way through the orientation, shooting each other incredulous looks at Cory's fixation on our "abdominal brace," which felt for all the world like a fancy term for flexing our abs. Cory distributed workout plans and one or two players bemoaned the lack of bicep exercises. Cory shook his head in disgust and walked back into his office.

The final practice of the day was given over largely to a scrimmage. Guys limped up and down the field, listlessly playing the ball to the closest teammate to avoid expending any unnecessary energy. A 0-0 tie left no one happy and we flopped down in a cooldown circle. Upperclassmen tossed chunks of cleat dirt at Rhinies, but without any force or malice. A few tried to wheedle their way onto the trainer's golf cart to ride back to the locker rooms, but were rebuffed. Dinner was reserved - some upperclassmen told the freshmen to add them on Facebook, while others told us they would never accept our friend requests. I made a soggy walk back to Gummere, where a few other freshmen were housed on different halls, but I was too tired and too socially anxious to make small talk. Back into the unfamiliar bed, under the unfamiliar sheets. Having exhausted my quota of iPod plays, I opted instead for sleep. Dusk, with his fingers probably in some shade of grey, wandered over the horizon, but I wasn't awake to meet him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 2

Part 2 - Move-In

(you can read Part 1 - Recruiting here

[NB: though I'd love to include pictures of this year in each installment, precious few such photos exist of me, or the team in general. Whether this speaks to my unpopularity or the futility of the season is up for debate. Regardless, I have attempted to fill in the gaps with generic photos of Haverford's picturesque campus.]


Walton Field. The grandstand's capacity is listed at 1,000,
a preposterously unsafe number that was thankfully circumvented by moribund attendance.
Photo comes from Haverford Athletics website.
Every day of the summer between high school and college was identical: campers screamed up and down the hall outside my makeshift camp office, counselors tried to corral them into their activities, and I sat on a chair designed for a third grader and refreshed my browser. This was in 2007, before Google had fully wrapped its benevolent tentacles around the internet, so Haverford used an archaic client called Squirrelmail. A username and login instructions had arrived in the mail that spring and by the end of the summer, my monitor had the dull gray and red color scheme burned onto its screen. It was clunky but exhilarating, since any new email meant tidings from college. My excitement at having access to college email before setting foot on campus provides a neat, photo-negative comparison to the present day, where I'm constantly annoyed that Haverford has my contact information long after I've departed. In particular, the soccer team had already begun communicating. The coach sent out information about preseason practices, and the captains sent out reminders to keep up our conditioning. The tone of these emails was dry and diplomatic: with the administration cc'ed, the players corresponded with all the gravitas teenagers can muster to the written word. Notices often began with "Gentlemen," and ended with "Best," formalities that, I would learn, belied the personalities sending them. Nevertheless, I hung on tenterhooks for each new message, desperate to glean some insight into the upcoming fall.

My friend Scott paid a lot of visits to my office after dropping his campers at the gym to throw things at each other. He'd gone to my high school and was a rising senior at Haverford. He was unfailingly positive about the place, with none of the cynicism lodged in many upperclassmen, who wander through an academic Xanadu full of friends and opportunities and loudly declare it to be bullshit. When I told him I was attending his college, he transformed into a font of tidbits and advice about campus life. He told me which professors taught the easy courses and which thought A's and F's should be distributed in equal proportions and with equal alacrity. A housing survey arrived, and Scott offered pointers on how to answer it so I'd be placed in a good dorm. Barclay, he said, was the nicest option for freshmen. The apartments were a good second choice. "You don't want to end up in Gummere," he warned. "It's awful." Later, he looked over my shoulder as I opened my housing assignment. "it's fine," he said, putting a consoling hand on my shoulder. "Gummere's fine."

He also passed along his knowledge of the soccer team. Without faces to refer to, I retained the information only as a series of general affirmations. They were all, in Scott's opinion, good guys. This was comforting in the abstract, but in a more concrete sense, they were competition. Whether the coach had said how many men he intended to keep on the roster, or I had extrapolated from the size of my high school team, I counted the addresses on our group email chain and did the math in my head. Where some might dream of starting or being named captain, I calculated the minimum number of players I'd need to surpass and clung to that number like campers did to our necks during free swim.

As incentive to keep us in shape, the captains began soliciting and compiling logs of our workouts, which they posted each week. I took meticulous notes of my exercise and sent them in, only to discover that everyone else's summaries read like water-cooler pleasantries. "Ran on mon wed fri," and "lifted and ran this week" buttressed my wall of text: "Monday, shoulder press 10 reps at 75 lbs., 10 reps at 80 lbs...." In the following weeks, I was more guarded but no less competitive. I stacked up my exercise next to my future teammates' descriptions, wondering if I was doing enough. Coach Joe announced that we'd each need to run 2 miles under 12 minutes in order to be considered for the team. With neither a workout guide nor common sense, I eschewed running and playing soccer in favor of upper-body weightlifting, perhaps hoping to flex my way around the track when the time came.

As camp wound down, I began pulling my dorm room necessities together. This was not difficult; I avoided decoration for most of my life, perhaps out of some fear of being mocked for it. Thus, my packing amounted to stuffing the contents of my dresser into a large duffel bag, and tossing a few amenities into a preposterously heavy metal crate. We ordered a laptop through the school's catalog, but a back-order meant it arrived at my parents' house in late October. It may interest the reader to learn Dell is no longer a publicly-traded company. I mowed the lawn and walked the dog and listened to Gwen Stefani on my iPod. My friends and I held the manic, funerary parties typical of high school graduates; we knew deep down fall would stretch us apart like an old sweater, the threads unbroken but loose. If anyone had tried that metaphor on us at the time, however, we would have taken turns making fart noises until they left the room.

On August 19th, my mom, dad, and I piled into our Corolla and, to use another my dad's favorite phrases, "shoved off." I chose what I figured to be my least embarrassing outfit. The novelty T-shirts I wore throughout high school remained stowed in my duffel or back in my closet in Baltimore. Instead, I opted for my one polo shirt, cargo shorts (least embarrassing), and black sneakers. The ride up was pleasant and contemplative, spanning highways that I'd come to regard fondly over the next four years.

Brochures love to say the campus is "nestled" in whatever borough or city, but Haverford just sort of sits on the main drag of a Pennsylvania township with the same name. The street's businesses - coffee house, clothing store, brunch place - simply drop off where the boundaries of the college start. The campus itself is beautiful and serene, with no through-ways for non-college traffic. We pulled into the entryway past a guard booth manned only by a leaning stop sign. In four years, I never saw anyone occupy the booth, or even a change in the sign's position. We eased over precipitous speed bumps, and the alarm clock and lamp in my crate jostled loudly on each landing. 


Gummere Hall, my freshman year dorm. I also spent sophomore and junior year here, completing an achievement known at Haverford as a "bad decision." Photo by Jack English.

We parked and I retrieved my key and ID card from a woman in the lobby of the athletic center, who pointed me towards my dorm. Gummere stands in defiant opposition to the otherwise stately architecture of the campus. Built in the 70's, it consists of three 3-story sections, each set at slightly different heights, so that traveling between them involves ascending or descending half a flight of stairs. There are exits on either side and little to distinguish the 9 hallways. A popular campus rumor intimated that it was constructed to be riotproof, but the truth is far more mundane: Haverford simply lacked the funds to level the ground during construction, so it was built on the natural incline of the terrain.

I deposited my belongings in a trapezoidal room and my mom helped make my bed, a last mom gesture that I deeply appreciated. We returned to the athletic center, where the soccer team's introductory meeting was meant to take place, and stood awkwardly for a moment. I hugged them both goodbye, but seeing other student-athletes milling about, I detached quicker than normal. As they departed, I looked around. My neuroses, seeing me unattended, jumped in to point out how much more relaxed and at home everyone else seemed. I sat on a bench and watched a few upperclassman reunite, kicking a ball back and forth. One boy, tall and imposing, was going around introducing himself. His handshake was confident: I was surprised and disheartened to learn he was a freshman as well.

After a few minutes, we were herded into a conference room that the women's soccer team had just vacated. I passed a freshman who had come from my high school and saw her laughing with her new teammates. We filed in and the upperclassmen instructed the "Rhinies" to sit in the back. "Rhinies" was the derisive term for freshmen, a word perfect in its phonetic capacity to carry bile. The upperclassmen and Coach Joe used it with relish, and, in the tradition of all fraternal hierarchies, the freshmen endured, knowing we'd be flinging it at younger teammates soon enough. Coach Joe ran through the expectations of the team and the preseason schedule before introducing other members of the staff: Don, the assistant coach, who spoke nervously unless talking about our rival school, Swarthmore; Curt and Melissa, the medical trainers; Cory, the strength and conditioning coach, who was a new addition to the staff; and Wendy, the school's athletic director. The presentation was rife with strange abbreviations that form the secondary language of college campuses - GIAC, INSC, CPs. I took notes until I saw no one else was, then, not wanting to abandon my attentive appearance, contented myself by staring toward the front of the room as intently as I could. My resting expression is best described as "serial killer at sentencing hearing," so my laser focus amidst a sea of glazed eyes must have unnerved the presenters.



Coach Joe adjourned the meeting with a reminder to be out on the practice field by 7:30 - "if you're on time, you're late," was one of his favorite mantras - and left us to the upperclassmen's devices. The captains announced it was time for an extra, unscheduled meeting, and marched us down to the apartments. The Rhinies passed a nervous unspoken energy between ourselves. We understood the significance of leaving administrative supervision, if not the particulars. One upperclassman, a junior, laughed like Spongebob as we trooped down a wooded path that formed the campus' only connection with the Haverford College Apartments ("HCAs," I'd write down in my notebook later).

The freshmen were left outside the building as the upperclassmen went upstairs to "prepare," a verb infinitely more ominous when the preparations are a mystery. I counted 10 boys regarding one another in silence - a recruiting class that nearly outnumbered the other three years combined. This realization was a relief - surely other freshmen would be easier to beat out for spots than upperclassmen? "Which club did you say you played for again?" one guy asked another, cutting through my newfound optimism like piss through fresh snow.

The older guys began calling us inside, three at a time. I couldn't discern any method to their selections, but this did nothing to calm my imagination as I found myself left with the last group. A sophomore poked his head out and we remaining Rhinies bunched inside the sweltering apartment where the rest of the team sat waiting: Haverford does not air condition its dorms, and even the most spacious of its living rooms does not fit 22 athletes comfortably. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors were arrayed in chairs, while the freshmen found room on the floor.

The captains called out a name, and one of my companions raised his hand. He was made to stand on a footrest in the middle of the room, and the visual effect was that of a sweaty bro tribunal, a post-pubescent Lord of the Flies. The upperclassmen began to pepper the Rhinie with questions, chiding him for any physical tics: "don't cross your arms!" one yelled. "Don't look at the ceiling while you're thinking," another instructed. They asked for his full name, whether he had a "hometown honey," for her full name, for his favorite pickup line. I studied the questions and rehearsed my answers, determined to avoid the mistakes my predecessor was making. When the new recruit had been sufficiently cross-examined, the captains asked for nickname suggestions. A different freshman offered a possibility and was upbraided for his audacity - this was a privilege reserved for the veterans. An agreeable name was put forth and the captains echoed it, completing the process: "Mugsy!" Mugsy was allowed to step down and join the other Rhinies.

"John McCauley," called the captains, and I stepped forward and up. I always vacillate between using my legal name and my nickname when introducing myself, and saw no reason to draw criticism by correcting the captain. I stood with my hands stiff at my sides to keep from fidgeting - "relax!" demanded a junior. I gave my name, my high school girlfriend's name, my academic interests, my extracurricular interests. A dozen other pieces of trivia were presented and received without comment. Something felt amiss. The veterans were having trouble coming up with a nickname. They asked me if I already had one ("Mickey, but everyone calls me that, even my parents") and dismissed it. There was silence.

One of the captains noticed my attire. "Pull those up all the way, Rhinie," he barked, and I cursed myself for not wearing pants. I bent down and tugged my white calf socks up as high as they would go. Amid the laughter, a sophomore shouted that I looked like "that basketball player, the real awkward one!" "Keith Van Horn!" another agreed, and with that, the matter was settled. I was Keith Van Horn.

When all 10 Rhinies had completed the questioning, we did a roll call. The names revealed the character of the upperclassmen: jocks, yes, but with an unusual affinity for nerdier elements of society. Among the newly-christened freshmen were Charmander, Waldo, Ginny Weasely (a red-head), Crabbe and Goyle (one person), and Petri (named after a pterodactyl from a children's movie franchise). Steven Seagal was named for a physical resemblance. Sharkus was given the same nickname as a recent alumnus of the team. Mugsy, Seal, and Keith Van Horn rounded out the class. The upperclassmen told us their names and what their freshmen nicknames had been, with past monikers like "Missile Tits" serving to show how benevolently we had been treated. 

The captains then explained the rhinie preseason rules. There would be a mustache contest, so we were forbidden from shaving above the upper lip and commanded to shave below it. We would have a swimming test. There would be a song-and-dance performance in which we'd be required to wear women's underwear over our clothes. This last task doubled as a chance to brush up on our social skills, as those who had not brought their own women's underwear in anticipation would need to borrow it from one of the female athletes on campus. The younger captain, a junior, concluded this list by reminding the Rhinies that this was all voluntary, and that Haverford was not in the business of hazing. As we made our way back into the dusk to return to our dorms, he issued one last instruction - we were not to damage the team's reputation with any bad behavior. After all, he said, the soccer team "was sort of the nice guys on campus. Now go to bed, Rhinie bitches."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Water Conservation Tips Issued Directly To Me

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
Consumer Outreach Division
3020 Murtaugh Street
Los Angeles, CA 90912

Dear citizen,

As the drought continues, water conservation becomes more and more important. It is only through the diligence and forbearance of people such as yourself that we may persevere. Therefore, with the aid of rigorous government surveillance, we have provided a list of easy water-saving tips tailored specifically to your daily behavior. We hope you find them instructive.

Regards,

The L.A.D.W.P.



1. When attempting to remove a hair from the shower wall, consider using a piece of toilet paper, rather than 28 errant handfuls of water.

2. Drinking from a wide-mouth water bottle? Avoid cocking your head back confidently and losing most of the water down your shirt.

3. Washing your hands for longer than 45 seconds provides no additional hygienic benefit, no matter how gross that squishy banana felt.

4. While showering, time equals water! Consider eliminating one or two of the less popular tracks rather than rapping the entirety of the Beastie Boys' seminal 1986 album, License to Ill.

5. Though hiding in the handicap stall may provide more privacy and solitude during social outings, using the urinal is more environmentally friendly.

6. Do not use the kitchen faucet as a percussive backbeat to your rendition of "Hot in Here."

7. Try to remember when you've put a pot on to boil rather than playing iPhone games in the other room for 40 minutes, as this wastes a lot of water through evaporation (this tip also found in your individualized Household Safety Reminders).

8. It saves both time and water to retrieve a stray pinto bean from the sink by hand, and not by chasing it  with the spray nozzle for 4 minutes.

9. Refrain from running the faucet over your freshly-clipped fingernails: while the water saved is minimal, we simply consider this to be an extremely creepy habit.

10. Lastly, while coming up with ideas for humor pieces, remember that you can save some brainstorming for after the shower.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Pickup Lines For Bullies


Did it hurt? When you wouldn't stop hitting yourself?

Are your legs tired? Well they will be once I chase you around the playground and rub your face in some woodchips.

Those books look nice on you. I bet they'd look better on the floor, bitch.

Hey kid, was your father a baker? Because my dad's in the Marines and he'll beat the hell out of your lame baker dad

If I told you you had a great body, I'd be lying. Haha ugly ass nerd.

I lost my phone number, can I borrow yours? And while I'm at it, fork over the lunch money, homeboy.

you must be from Tennessee, because that's a stupid accent you moron.

You know, Hershey's makes millions of kisses every day...Yeah, I bet you knew that because you eat them all. You eat a million chocolates every day and you're fat because of it.

If I could rearrange the alphabet, I'd put "U" inside "L" "O" "C" "K" "E" and "R"

Hey is that a mirror in your pocket? Make with the mirror punk. I want that pocket mirror you got.

Let me see your shirt tag. Yup, just as I suspected. You were made in the Loser Idiot Factory.

Is your dad a thief? I bet he is and your whole family is poor and he's in jail for a million years

Do you know how much a polar bear weighs? Not as much as your fat mom

Wow. Someone better tell God he's missing an angel. But I'll send him a new one, when I kill you. I'm gonna kill you fool.

I wish my foot was a derivative, so I could lay it tangent to the curve of your ass cheeks. Thanks for helping me with calc II by the way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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


Part 1 - Recruiting

"No."

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?

"No."

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.

Well.

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.