Winners

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Somehow, every soccer season, one way or another, I get roped into helping my husband coach one of the kids’ team.

Typically, he gets stuck at work and calls me in a panic. “Can you please just get practice started?” and a list of drills arrive via email.

Now we all know how much soccer experience I have, but because I love my husband and our children, I always agree to help.

This year has been no exception.

On the first Saturday – game day, I arrived just a few minutes before start time, a fresh cup of coffee in one hand, my collapsible sideline chair in the other.

For the first few minutes of the game, I sat back and watched my daughter and her teammates run up and down the field.

Shortly there after, however, I began watching my husband running up and down the sidelines, trying to line up subs, organize drills for the kids waiting to get in the game, and tend to an injured elbow.

“Where’s his assistant?” I asked out loud.

I tried to catch Lee’s eye, but he was too busy managing life on his side of the field.

I attempted to watch the game, but eventually set down my hot coffee and made the long walk around to the other side of the field.

“Hey, Babe.  Where’s your assistant?” I asked, breaking up a water fight between two of the players (one being our daughter).

Never taking his eyes of the field, he called over his shoulder, “Turns out he has to work on Saturdays.”

Don’t say it. I warned myself.

But I had to.

“Do you want some help?”

The words had barely left my mouth when I found a clipboard in my hands.

Here we go again, I thought.

Every season, no exceptions.

But it turns out this year is an exception.

The team we’re coaching is a U12 team, meaning the kids are under 12 and over 10 and typically have a number of years of soccer experience under their belts.

But this year there is one child on the team with absolutely no soccer experience at all.

It turns out that during the years her teammates were practicing dribbling, passing and shooting, this child was relearning to walk and talk after a brain surgery left her without the ability to do either.

The first few practices were hard.

Lee tried to encourage his new player to participate, but at the same time, not scare her off.  She mostly stared at the ground, muttered a few words, stood by her mother’s side and refused to participate.

“She can do all of this,” her Mom told Lee.

And slowly but surely she began to.

She started running around the field with the team, even though it usually took her twice as long to finish.

She began passing the ball back and forth with a few of her teammates.

And most importantly, she showed up at every practice with a big smile on her face and a greeting of, “Hi Coach,” for Lee.

Last week, as usual, I arrived moments before the game was to begin.  As I came running across the field, I saw a whole group of young women clustered behind the typical smattering of parents.  I noticed they all had neon signs – pink, green and yellow, tucked by their sides.

“What’s going on?” I asked our new player’s Aunt.  (An experienced player, she’d come to a couple of practices to support her niece and was soon enough recruited as Lee’s assistant, leaving me, Assistant-to-the Assistant!)

Auntie came to my side and explained that the women’s hockey team from the local college had “adopted” her niece during her surgery and the recovery that followed.

I looked across the field at the 25 or so college girls ready to erupt in cheers.

“Oh,” I said through a tight throat.

Lee caught my eye.  His nostrils were flared which always happens when he’s trying not to cry.  I pulled my sunglasses out from my pocket and was glad I felt some tissues in there.

Lee called in the team.

“Looks like we’ve got to thank someone for bringing her fan club, guys,” he said and everyone high-fived the Star of the Day.

She was chosen as captain and when she went out for the coin toss, the opposite sideline erupted in cheers, signs waiving in the air.

Lee put her in as Center Forward and every time she started things off, there was another eruption of joy.

Midway through the game, I sidled up next to Auntie and confessed that Lee and I were working hard to hold back our tears.

“I know,” she said.  “She has come so far.”

In between subbing in players and retrieving stray balls, we talked about how their family has tried so hard not to baby her, or make her think there’s anything she can’t do.

“We know about keeping expectations high,” I said, and told her a bit of Andie’s story.

“We’re lucky she ended up with a coach like Lee,” she said.  “It’s great that he puts her in the game and doesn’t care about winning.”

I almost laughed in her face.  Lee, not care about winning?  He tops the list of Most Competitive People I Know.

Later I told Lee what Auntie had said.  He didn’t laugh and instead thought for a moment before saying, “I make sure that every kids gets an equal opportunity to play, and I do everything I can to put them in a position to win.”

The team didn’t win that day.  The final score was 4-2, but as the entire team ran across the field to high-five the largest fan club to ever turn out at a U12 game, they all ran back with enormous smiles across their faces.

Winners, every one of them.

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