Originally published on The Special Ones
It’s hard to imagine the game was ever not a part of my life, coursing through my veins as a source of inspiration, motivation, and in so many ways as a microcosm for how I see the world.
My first exposure to this maddening, joyful, painful, and exhilarating way of life came in the playground area of Hillside Elementary School in Montclair, New Jersey. My friend, Kate, asked me to come watch her soccer game, so I showed up with my dad, oblivious to the fact that the meaningless gesture of friendship would completely transform my life. The experience itself was unremarkable. Kate’s team needed extra players and asked if I could fill in. “No way!” was my immediate reaction. I wanted nothing to do with this strange activity I knew nothing about.
20 years later, as I sit at my computer reflecting, I realize that the game I so staunchly avoided that day, is in many ways my soul mate—it understands and connects with me in every way and on every level, more than I can ever understand it in return. It is not merely about physical participation or intellectual understanding. I feel the game emotionally and spiritually as part of who I am.
I rushed into the house to tell my mom all about what I had seen that day watching Kate. “They had ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ and all these other positions on the field.” It was the first of several misconceptions. The next season my dad signed me up, and there we were at my first Orange Bullets recreational team practice session. The group had to dribble in and out of a line of cones and then was separated into ‘new players’ and ‘those who clearly had experience.’ I was thrown into the experienced group, which is still a mystery to me, considering that day, as a seven year old, was the first time I had ever dribbled a soccer ball in my life. And I certainly didn’t know it was called dribbling. Following the session, my dad asked the coach if I needed to get “spikes.” On the way home we stopped at the local sports store to buy them and some “shin protectors.” The big debate was how exactly to wear all of this with the pair of long orange socks I had been issued.
In my early years, soccer quickly became an obsession. A coach told me I should watch the game, so my dad and I would tune in to some random channel and watch teams we had never heard of from across the world, often to a symphony of Spanish commentary, which was equally as foreign. We were told I should practice juggling, so I stayed in the yard for hours until I got 10, then 50, then 100, then thousands. We went through VHS tapes and memorized what to practice, solicited private sessions from local English coaches, and embarked on a journey that surely I had no means of comprehending at the time. Soccer became my mission. My goal. I was obsessed with getting better, challenging myself to play on the best team, doing whatever it took to pursue my newly acquired dream of being a professional soccer player. I was driven, persistent, dedicated, disciplined, as I relentlessly chased this dream.
Throughout my youth career and even today, people have thought I was crazy, that I would burn out, that my obsession with this game was unhealthy. What they, and even I, could never understand is that it was true love. And the wonderful part about love is that it can be miraculously and infinitely energizing.
“Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” This quote comes from Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and is written in large letters in my journal.
I was 13 when I first noticed my relationship with the game changing. I joined a team coached by former NY Cosmos and Olympic team player, Kazbek “Kaz” Tambi. Kaz loves the game more than anyone I have ever met. He coaches out of an old armory in Teaneck, NJ, where they have laid down field turf and use nets to separate the area into small-sided fields. Kaz’s playing career was over by the time I met him, but soccer is his life. I never went to “the armory” when Kaz himself wasn’t there, jumping in to play with whatever group was on the field. The soccer community is his family, the sport his passion, and these feelings were tangible just from being around him. The armory is where I learned to love the game—my love stemmed from watching Kaz, from experiencing the completely addicting mastery that comes in fleeting moments on the field, and from the hours of mindless freedom of playing to the techno soundtrack that serenaded the facility.
And so the romance was officially born. Like any relationship, the game has allowed me some of the most wonderful memories, provided hope through tough times, brought me to tears on multiple occasions, and taught me more about myself than any book or class ever could. Today I am a professional soccer player. Like any career, there are ups and downs, frustrations, good days and bad. Soccer, though, has never been merely my job. It is the way I have bonded with my family, created some of the deepest friendships I have known, traveled the world, and met the love of my life. For every moment I have dedicated to the game, it has given back to me in ways unimaginable.
Soccer has taught me lessons about personal strength, integrity, and community. I have seen the sport bring people together and blur the lines of race, religion, and sexuality like nothing else in the world is able to do. Some people love a team or club and support it with all their heart. I have found that I am unable to do this because it is the game itself that I am in love with. I cannot possibly choose one entity of this beautiful sport to unconditionally support more than another. Instead, I support whatever teams, clubs, countries seem to be best paying homage to the game I love so much.
You may call it being a front-runner, passing the buck, or say I am missing out on the experience of being a true fan. Maybe so. But I am a true fan. I am a fan of anyone and everyone who makes the beautiful game most beautiful—whether it is a team fighting to win their domestic league, the World Cup, or a child playing barefoot in the street.
I don’t know if I would have discovered the game if it wasn’t for that day at Hillside Elementary School. Maybe it would have discovered me. All I know is that I can barely remember a time when my life wasn’t organized around training sessions, tournaments, or games to watch on TV. Soccer has taken over my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.