I started playing soccer as a six-year-old first grader. My team, as part of the Regent Soccer League and made up of 12 or so little girls, went by the name "Regent Rainbows"; unfortunately for us, the league determined we would wear light blue polyester jerseys and not the sparkly rainbow tank tops we so desperately desired.
For seven years my dad coached the Regent Rainbows. Having never before played soccer himself, he learned all he could about the game and then passed that knowledge on to us. More importantly, however, he taught "his" little girls - at least a hundred of them throughout the years and between my teams and my sister's teams - about the importance of physical fitness, hard work, commitment, teamwork, and sportsmanship.
Thanks to my dad's coaching, as a seventh grader I was asked to try out for a local soccer club's premiere team. Youth soccer in our community was organized into three tiers: recreational, classic, and premiere. I had played six years of recreational and just one year of classic, so I considered the invitation to tryout for a premiere-level team the greatest honor of my life up until that point. When I made the team, I went from one practice and one game a week during the spring and fall to two or three practices a week year round, one or two league games a week during the spring and fall, tournaments every other weekend in the summer, and three indoor games a week during the winter. Once just "something I did", soccer became "something I was".
I can think of very little that defined me as a middle school student. I wasn't beautiful. I wasn't funny. I wasn't popular. I wasn't brilliant. My mom thought I was pretty, I had a handful of solid friends, and I did well academically, but there wasn't anything about me that would have made you stop and take notice…I blended into the woodwork and was easily overlooked.
But when I made and joined that club soccer team my life - and I - began to change. The improvements I made with regard to my speed, strength, stamina, and ball-handling skills earned me a spot on my high school's varsity team as a sophomore. And as far as high school soccer teams went, we were good. Very good. "State Tournament" good. "More students attended the women's soccer game against our rival school than attended the men's football game against our rival school" good. I was no superstar, but I was good enough to matter. Back then, when the most important thing in the world was to "be somebody", soccer defined me. Soccer put me on the map. Soccer, and our success as a team, guaranteed that when I walked across the stage on graduation day, my fellow classmates didn't turn to one another and ask, "who is that?"
More likely, they might have turned to one another and asked, "what's up with that soccer player's hair?"
I chose to step away from competitive soccer after high school. I had offers from a few smaller colleges, but I wanted to attend a larger university and knew that I couldn't cut it at the Division 1 level. I have never regretted that decision, but occasionally I miss how it felt to be defined by athletic strength, sacrifice, and success. Thankfully, victories like the one the US Women's over Japan in last Sunday night's World Cup final (and watching my kids celebrate their own victories on the soccer field) allow me to feel it all again.
Just as I was about to click "publish", Will walked up and started reading this post and looking at its pictures over my shoulder. He asked, "are those pictures of you as a soccer player?" When I answered in the affirmative, he replied, "wow. You look like you were really good." Good enough, my boy. Good enough.