My soccer coach in junior high frequently made me angry and often made me feel like dirt. We started the season with two girls on the team, the rest of the team was made up of boys. Half these boys were on the coach's league team, the other half were just enthusiastic kids from the school. Only a few games into the season, the other girl unceremoniously quit the team and I was left as the only girl.
This soccer coach was popular enough with the boys, but he did not like having me on his team. This was my first experience playing organized soccer, though I'd been a huge fan of the Portland Timbers, and I wasn't very good. When we played games, he would put me into the game the minimum amount of time he could get away with. I was not a good player, obviously, but I was also not ever coached in any way to become better, either. I was very often told to run extra laps for being the worst dribbler, or pulled out of a game as soon as I'd completed one pass. I dared not ever take a shot on goal if I didn't want to be pulled out immediately. When we were assembled on the bus for away games, and the coach was calling the role, he didn't even refer to me by name. He'd ask, "Is the girl here?" and then move on.
This man tricked me on the day the school pictures of the soccer team were taken for the yearbook, so that I did not appear in the team picture. He'd told me the photographer was taking a picture of the boys from his league team, the Killer Bees, not for the school team. I recognized the picture when I saw it in the yearbook. I don't have that yearbook anymore, but it seems to me I wasn't even listed as "not pictured."
I came back to the team the next year. By that time, it was a point of pride for me. I was not going to let him win, not going to let him drive me off the team. I vowed to try harder, hard enough that I wouldn't be just a sub. I'd played on a girl's league team by then, and even though I still wasn't a very good player, I wanted to prove myself tough enough to continue. I played in games without shin guards, mostly because we were poor and I couldn't afford them, but I liked the "tough chick" reputation that went along with it.
I did the extra laps. I put up with the coach's constant disappointment with us. One day, a professional soccer player (who knew a couple of boys on the team) came to practice with us. The coach puffed up, put his arm around me, and introduced me to the player. "This is our girl," he said. Not that he thought any more of me that year, but I was a novelty item. He set me up to take a shot on goal, against our best goal-keeper. I ran forward, took a bumbling shot that was easily stopped by our goalie, and dejectedly returned to the end of the line while my coach began his usual "Noooo! What are you doing?!" ranting at me for my ineptitude. "Stop, come back," said the pro. "Let her do it again," he said to my coach, who stood there with mouth agape, stopped in mid-rant. Putting his arm around me, the pro set me up again. "Wait until your knee is over the ball this time. You're over-extending." This was unheard of, a second chance? Tips and pointers?! I was nearly as agape as the coach.
I took that second shot on goal, waited until my knee was over the ball, and curled a beautiful, solid shot right past our goalie and into the corner of the net. "That's it!" cheered my hero, and the guys on the team joined in appreciatively. I was on top of the world, one silly practice shot in the net later.
My perception of things changed completely in that moment. Before that, I was sticking it out on the team out of sheer stubbornness, from some general sense that the way things were being run was unjust and unfair to the girls at the school who wanted to play soccer. After that practice, I realized that I might be unskilled but I wasn't a lost cause, I wasn't a write-off, and that with a little genuine coaching
I could even succeed. The boys who had treated me indifferently the first year even came around and treated me as a friend and team mate. They used my name and supplied it to the coach when he called me "Girl."
When we all moved up to high school, there were enough girls interested in soccer to have their own girls-only team. I lost interest. I'd played with the boys for two years leading up to high school, only to be told that I wasn't going to be allowed to play with them anymore: boys on the boy's team and girls on the girl's team. I'd played with some of the girls on the league team, I knew them a little, but I grieved the loss of the hard-won camaraderie of my junior high team mates. I wasn't a strong enough player to make demands to play with the boys, and I wasn't part of the girls' world. I moved on to other activities, and eventually played soccer on other teams in other towns when I moved away but never knew my other team members the way I knew those Ackerman Colts. I often wonder what happened in their lives: Sean, Corey, Danny, Greg, Derek, Mike, Scott, Steve, Clint...I've lost touch with every one of them.