Last Saturday morning I played soccer for 2 ½ hours in the rain.
Sounds like a miserable way to spend a morning – except here’s the thing: I loved it – in fact I can’t wait to do it again.
Up until two years ago I played a lot of soccer. Back then I was living in Turlock, out in the valley, and I was playing for an indoor team at the soccer arena in town. It wasn’t the greatest situation – that team had played together since they’d graduated college. And since they were pretty close to my age, that meant they’d known each other a very long time. They knew exactly how each other played, they knew each other’s wives and kids, and they shared tons of inside jokes with each other – you know, the kind where one guy would say something that made absolutely no sense, and then all the other guys would bust up laughing. I was an outsider on that team, but hey, I was playing soccer – and in my life that means a lot.
Probably more than I understood.
I went along playing for that team about a year when I landed a job that would take me out of town a lot. Try as I might to balance soccer and work I just couldn’t pull it off – I was gone too much to make all the games, and making the occasional game wasn’t fair to the team.
So I stopped playing.
And that was weird – mainly because I’d been playing soccer pretty steady since about 2000. I started playing that year when I moved in next to a neighbor who invited me to join his indoor team. And that was kind of perfect because they were the nicest bunch of sad sacks you’d ever want to meet. In fact, during my first game, it turned out when I had lungs like a tuberculoid asthmatic, all they did was pat me on the back – as I gulped desperately for air – and give me words of encouragement. And that was at five minutes in. I was so out of shape that by the second half my eyesight had begun collapsing down to tunnel vision. But since most of the other guys could barely play well enough for what they were doing to be mistaken for an organized sport, I had cover to get in shape and get better without attracting much attention.
The fact that everyone else on the team sucked bought me time enough to take the incremental steps to get in shape and keep playing. And I was thankful for that, because things had really changed since the days I played as a kid, and again in the Air Force. Back then I could always keep up – even if I wasn’t really in shape. But the days where I was in shape even when I was out of shape were gone – and getting onto a soccer team helped me reclaim the health and strength and speed I knew as a younger man.
It’s sort of funny isn’t it? As adults we can jog a couple of miles three mornings a week – or ride our bike to the coffee shop on occasion, and think that, cardiovascularly, we’re good. In shape and A OK. In our head we use that little bit of activity to tell ourselves that we’ve got a body that is working as it was designed to – that’s it’s ready to deal with whatever the day brings us. I guess because in the modern era all the day ever really brings us is a staircase or two – and maybe lifting some bags of groceries. So whatever low level of physical shape we’re in, we get by.
When I look back now at pictures of myself from when I joined my neighbor’s indoor team I was a butterball – and yet at the time I didn’t see it. I used to jog almost every morning back then. But now when I think about it – jogging was really just sort of shuffling my feet along as I leisurely took in the sites of the early morning neighborhood. Back then I used to tell people I ran, but my jogging was about as close to running as drizzle is to a downpour – in fact if my jogging were weather, the weatherman would probably just motion at his green board and yawn.
It was that first day on my neighbor’s team that clued me into the fact that, physically, I was in denial. And I think that happens a lot. We remember ourselves as kids, back when we could run and run, and somehow we assume that is still who we are. It’s like that phenomenon where you look in the mirror and don’t see who you really are, but rather the image of you at 20 or 25. When we’re adults we go along on autopilot – living off assumptions that matured to inaccuracies years ago.
And here’s the weird thing: It’s not the being in shape part of soccer that I crave – being in shape is only an extra benefit. It’s the actual soccer part – and by that I don’t mean the aerobic activity or even the practicing of good soccer skills. I mean the running around and kicking and running into other people part.
You know, we’ve come a long way in modern society – we’re civil and culturally developed and we have higher education and all those other things that make us modern, enlightened human beings. But I think what we get away from sometimes – what we forget as a species – is that we came to be the way we are through physical activity.
We are the product of a lot of running and fighting and hunting and being very physically strong and agile. I think that is our nature and, when we’re not paying attention, we can lose track of it. And when we do we start to feel a mild malaise – a sort of uneasiness – and we’re not sure where it comes from, or even if it’s a real thing. We figure maybe its anxiety – or depression – or anxiety about getting depression. Whatever it is, it gets us down and it slows us down – it separates us from who we used to be and what we’re supposed to be – and we just sort of figure “Oh well, I guess this is how life is now”.
That’s where I was the first day I stepped onto the field with my neighbor’s soccer team. But as soon as I ran hard after the ball and slammed into some guy and we both fell over, and then got up and shook it off and took off after the ball again something was different.
Or, maybe, something was once again the same.