This Father’s Day I want to sing the praises of soccer dads. I am one. My daughter, Sophie, started playing youth soccer 14 years ago, when she was 4 years old and roughly the same height as the more mature dandelions on the field. Back then my primary responsibility as a soccer dad was to stand on the sideline with the other parents and shout “Sophie, kick the ball!” several hundred times per game.
Not that it helped. Sophie went two solid years without ever kicking the ball. You think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. Sophie has always been a cautious, meticulous person; she hates to do the wrong thing. Even at age 4, she was afraid that, if she kicked the ball, she might kick it in the wrong direction (not that there really is a “wrong direction” in 4-year-old soccer). Sophie’s strategy back then was to hover near the ball, frowning at it with concern, but to leave the actual, physical kicking of the ball up to the other players.
As years passed, Sophie’s soccer skills greatly improved, and my role shifted from shouting “Kick the ball!” to shouting “Offside!” Offside is a rules infraction in soccer that nobody truly understands. We parents like to shout it from time to time to indicate to the referee that we are on top of things.
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Our team’s parents shout quite a bit during games. Perhaps at times we shout too much. We cannot help ourselves: We are a Miami team, mostly Hispanic, and it is in not in our nature to be quiet. Two Miami people can make more noise greeting each other in an elevator than the entire city of Des Moines makes on New Year’s Eve.
So, yes, we parents are loud on the sidelines. I will go so far as to say that sometimes we might sound obnoxious, especially if you’re a parent from the opposing team. But I love us anyway. We’ve been through a lot together: We’ve driven countless miles to games and tournaments, and we’ve spent many nights in hotels with questionable hygiene standards, where, if you listen carefully, lying in your room in the dark, you’d swear you can hear, over the rattle of the ancient air conditioner, the sound of mold growing. We’ve watched a million games from our folding chairs on the sideline. We’ve been rained on more than a Vietnamese rubber plantation. We’ve cheered our girls when they won, and we’ve hugged them when they lost (while assuring them that the only reason they lost was that the other team was offside).
And along the way, we parents have bonded. I am not ashamed to say I love these people. I love our parent-coaches, Motor and Deano. That’s right: we have a coach called “Motor.” His actual name is Antonio Paz, but everybody calls him “Motor” because he’s always running. Our other coach is Deano Nunez. We call him “Deano” because that is his name.
Motor is an optimistic extrovert; Deano is a pessimistic introvert. Motor could talk the bark off a tree; Deano would stand around saying nothing until the tree became uncomfortable and started talking just to break the ice.
Motor and Deano have starkly contrasting coaching styles. If a player does something wrong, Motor will yell something encouraging, like “Good try! I like the idea!” Whereas on the same play Deano will turn away and grab his head with both hands, silently expressing the concept of “NOOOOOO.”
But they’re both great coaches, and I love them. I also love the moms on our team — strong, beautiful, passionate Hispanic women, all of them warm and caring and nurturing, unless they think you are a threat to their children, in which case you will die.
But it’s my fellow dads I want to talk about here. We may not be as sensitive or thoughtful as the moms, but we have one quality that every soccer team needs: a willingness to try, against all odds, to erect the team tent.
A soccer tent is a canopy-style structure that is designed and engineered so that, if properly cared for, it will give you as many as four or five uninterrupted minutes of trouble-free service before it begins to deteriorate into a useless wad of bent metal and torn fabric. Pretty much every soccer tent I have ever dealt with, no matter how new, was in its death throes.
Traditionally it is the role of the team dads to grapple with the tent before and after each game, despite the very real risk of pinched fingers. If you wanted to design a statue honoring soccer dads, it could be based loosely on the famous Iwo Jima statue, except instead of courageous young Marines struggling to raise a flagpole, it would be middle-aged men wrestling with what appears to be a huge mutant bat.
Over the years I have fought many a tent with the dads on our team. I’ve also enjoyed many a road-trip meal with our team parents, and hoisted many a postgame beverage in the hotel bar. I’ve loved all of it, and I’m truly sorry that, after 14 years, it’s coming to an end. I’m writing these words shortly before Sophie and her teammates will play their last soccer game. After that — this is my idea, anyway — we will ceremonially shoot the tent.
And then soccer will be over. Next year our daughters will be in college, and we’ll have our weekends back.
Except I don’t want my weekends back. I want to keep spending them on the sidelines with my fellow soccer parents, watching our daughters play a truly great game.
A word about that: If you’ve never watched girls, especially older girls, play organized soccer, you might think that they play a less-intense version of the sport than boys do. Wrong. Granted, the boys are bigger, faster and stronger, and the pace of their game reflects that. But the boys also tend to be much more likely to whine about fouls, to dive, to flagrantly overact in hopes of getting a call, to preen and strut when they score a goal, like the pro soccer players they worship. It may be counterintuitive, but it’s true: On the soccer field, boys tend to be dramatic.
Girls do not. During the game, they’re all business — their faces impassive, their demeanor stoic. But they are just as passionate as the boys, just as aggressive, just as physical, just as tough and — yes — just as dirty. They shove and get shoved, elbow and get elbowed, knock people down and get knocked down. Sometimes they exchange words, and sometimes, when they’re not too close to the parents’ sideline, one of them may drop an f-bomb. They are not fragile flowers out there, not after all these years in the sport. They are warriors.
When the game is over, win or lose, our girls shake hands with their opponents. Then they gather by their bench for some postgame analysis and words of encouragement from Coach Motor, and possibly even a grunt of approval from Coach Deano.
Then they walk, or in some cases limp, across the field to where we parents are waiting. That’s my favorite moment: to see my daughter, who was once too scared to kick the ball, now a confident young woman, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with her teammates, her fellow warriors, all of them hot and sweaty, grass-stained and grimy, battered and bruised but happy to be together, laughing about something that happened in the game, rejoicing in the special bond they have.
At that moment I think they are the most beautiful girls in the world. And I am the luckiest dad.