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Confessions of a reluctant soccer mom.

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  This week, after two Saturdays of rain-outs, my son's soccer team finally played its last game. It wasn't a game at all, in point of fact. The opposing team didn't bother to show up, so the valiant "Purple Snakes," as my son and his teammates called themselves, played a scrimmage of jerseys versus skins. Only, at just over 40 degrees Fahrenheit last Saturday morning, there wasn't actually a "skins" team either; it was more like a match between the jerseys and the long underwears. The underwears won, 3 to 2.

We pulled into Edwin Warner Park just before 10 o'clock in the morning, when the mist hadn't yet completely burned off the desolate fields. We drove past trees almost wholly shed of their leaves and pulled up next to a few sport utility vehicles gathered at the end of the parking lot. Some of the team members were already warming up, kicking the ball around the brown grass. Most were not. Most were huddled inside their mothers' stadium coats, miserably waiting to be told what to do. Far away, many fields over, two teams in the older league were playing pretty spiritedly for a handful of fans, but otherwise the whole soccer complex was empty. It was a disheartening sight. Even our 5-year-old picked up on the cosmic ennui: "Gosh, where is everybody?" he wondered. "It's kind of like a graveyard out here."

I have to admit, the atmosphere suited my mood. The colorless sky, the naked gray trees, the dry grass covering hard-packed soil--they were all in perfect harmony with my feeling for organized sports in general: The whole idea of the thing depresses me.

It's not that I'm against the team mentality. God knows I'm no rugged individualist, striking out on my own, hang-gliding and mountain-biking my way to singular spiritual enlightenment. In fact, I rather like the team concept--people pulling together, using their wits and their stamina and their marvelous God-given bodies to achieve a single, ardent goal. It's just the reality of the goal that troubles me. How can so many people genuinely, passionately care about whether a ball makes it into a net or a goal or a little hole in the ground? After all, even if a person--or a team--happens to win a championship, they still have to play the same people again next year. For the life of me, I just don't get it.

I'm a sports agnostic. I don't absolutely assert that other people's burning belief in the meaning of triumph is unfounded; I simply don't have that belief myself. I was not born with the gift of faith in a god of victory. Like an unbeliever at a tent revival, I look around at all the flushed and earnest faces, I hear the collective moans and chants and screams of transcendent joy, I feel the surge of straining bodies pressed close to each other and moving in accord, and to me they all look a little silly--or downright dangerous, depending on my mood.

I was never meant to be a soccer mom, but I settled for being one because to me soccer seems less dangerous than football, and I fear being a football mom more. Being an agnostic soccer mom is more a matter of inconvenience: giving up Saturdays for an entire season, making sure the jersey is clean on game day, figuring out when to feed a kid whose practice starts at 6 p.m. but whose bedtime is 7:30. (Eat at 5 and watch your kid throw up on the field? Wait until 7:30 when the kid is starving and exhausted and uncooperative and primed to employ dawdling tactics that delay bedtime until nearly 10?)

But being a football mom is a matter of life and death. During my first week of college at a major SEC school, a freshman football player collapsed on the practice field and died. No one hit him in the head or kicked him in the kidney or piled up on him and broke his neck. He was 18 years old and strong. He just played so hard in the hot, muggy weather that he died. I made a vow: No son of mine would ever play football.

So I tried to generate at least a little enthusiasm for this new phase of our lives when my son learned from a friend that he was already old enough--and had been for at least a year--to play soccer. I knew for a fact that my boy was more interested in acquiring a jersey and a medal than he was in playing the game, but my husband assured me it was all going to turn out all right in the end. Our son would learn teamwork, he would learn sportsmanship, he would learn to handle the ball in such a way that other boys wouldn't laugh at him later in life. These, my husband insisted, were important skills that a child does not learn from collecting dead cicada skins in the backyard or watching a spider's egg-sac hatch in the bathroom windowsill.

I believed my husband in this matter, because unlike me he was born with the gift of athletic faith and played on every team that existed for youngsters back in our youth. But our experience with soccer didn't actually work out the way he imagined it would, perhaps because he'd forgotten that little kids take more than one season to grasp fully the nuances of sportsmanlike behavior: You should desperately want to win, but you can't throw a fit if you don't; despite a lifetime of being exhorted to share, you must never, never share the ball with the other team; you should scramble for the ball as hard as you can, but you mustn't hurt anybody else in the process; and if somebody hurts you, you can't get mad, because it was only an accident. On more than one occasion, our child's turn to play ended abruptly when he yelled from the middle of the field: "That's it; I quit!"

My husband would patiently explain, "Son, it's just not sportsmanlike to quit; you've got to get in there and just do the best you can."

Our son would patiently explain, "But Dad, they're whipping up on us and I don't like it!"

But he'd get back in the game eventually, hanging in there for the interminable eight-minute quarters, until he got tripped up by another kid who then landed on top of him. My husband would wipe the other kid's snot out of our son's hair, the other kid's dad would try to staunch the flow of blood pouring from his nose, and all the unrelated dads would stand around giving advice: "You need to tilt your head back, son," and, "No, lean forward and just keep pinching the bridge of your nose."

I was saved by the baby's naptime from attending a lot of this season's soccer games, but I knew I couldn't miss the final one. As we were walking back to the car through the gray air of impending winter, my son caught my hand in his. Smiling up at me with a smile that gleamed as brightly as the medal he wore around his neck, he said, "I love it when you come to my games, Mom. I hope you can come to all of them next spring."

In that moment, a lifetime of athletic agnosticism lifted, and the light of faith entered my heart. I looked down into his sparkling eyes and I knew: By God, I'll be there.

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