Where I Learned to Love the Game

From the outside it looks like a big warehouse. When you walk in, it smells of rubber, perspiration and shinguards. It’s noisy. The walkways and bleachers are old, cold and gray. But on the turf, magic happens.

Soccer balls are flying everywhere. There are colorful lights flashing. Techno music is often blasted over the speakers. Youngsters who can barely walk are playing their first game, while men well into their 60s are warming up to go onto the field next.

My iPod is loaded with songs that remind me of this place. My arsenal of soccer skills is full of techniques I learned and practiced there. My mind and heart are full of fond memories of this facility.

This is where I learned to love the game.

When I first stepped into the Armory in Teaneck, N.J., I was 13 years old. I was already serious about soccer, with the same lofty goals that still drive me today. But 12 winters ago I found the place that transformed this sport for me forever. What I experienced in the Armory made soccer so much more than simply a physical and mental exercise. I want to play at the highest level and I want to do so for as long as I am able. But because of my time at the Armory, I can safely say that I love the game as something beyond my career and my goals at this point.

“Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.” — Donald Miller from “Blue Like Jazz.”

Kazbek Tambi (Kaz as he is known), a member of the 1984 Olympic team and New York Cosmos, was the person who introduced me to the Armory and was my coach at the time. Every session there would be girls and guys of all ages and backgrounds. I learned nuances of the game, experienced how it feels when it “clicks,” and watched Kaz play and love the sport as if he were in the prime of his career. Before I met Kaz, I loved soccer as a pursuit and measure of personal achievement. He showed me how to love the game itself — the competition, the intrigue of learning to solve problems on the field and the camaraderie of what has become my soccer family.

There were winters when I’d be at the Armory every night of the week and then all day Saturday for a tournament. And Kaz would be there well before I arrived and would still be there after I left. He created the environment for us, but also for himself. The guys who would come to play with our high school-aged girls’ team weren’t getting paid to do so or training for anything in particular, although they are some of the best players I have ever played with and against. They just loved to play, and so when they got a call from Kaz, they would show up.

One night last week I got that call from Kaz. Some of the high school girls had training and he offered for me to jump in. It was not an opportunity for me to get fitter or sharper technically or to be challenged on the field. It was just a chance to play. As I opened the door to the Armory, the lights and noise and pure joy of soccer greeted me. This is where I learned to love the game.