Growing up, I used to watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports with my father as he drank beer on the couch. We especially enjoyed the show’s introduction with the horrible ski jump crash and the famous line, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” To my father and me, these words conveyed a deep poetic truth. Like the stuff of Homer and Ovid, they said something about heroism, what it meant to suffer and to be a man.
Vinko Bogataj was the name of the helmeted figure who helicoptered uncontrollably into the crowd after sliding down the gigantic ramp. By some miracle, the Yugoslavian athlete wasn’t severely injured. Perhaps feeling guilty about exploiting Vinko’s misfortune for so long, ABC honored him in 1981 at the show’s twentieth anniversary ceremony where Muhammad Ali solicited his autograph. In his later years, Vinko wisely traded in his skis and took up landscape painting. As a boy, I never tired of watching the worst moment in this man’s life, a scene now immortalized on YouTube. It was horrifying, but also very funny. I suspect that millions of other Americans felt exactly the same way. Sports, I learned, weren’t entirely about winning. An essential component in the drama of competition was the joy derived from another person’s humiliation.
Last Saturday, my eight-year-old son experienced the agony of defeat at this season’s first soccer game. My son is very similar to the other boys on his team. Raised with a minimum of discipline and well nourished, he has never been deprived of anything. Over the years every effort has been made by my wife and me to bolster his self-esteem. Watching the neighborhood’s children, I sometimes wonder how our own perfectionism might somehow be a model for their brattiness.
I feel like a cultural anthropologist at the soccer practices. There are so many aspects of their behavior, like armpit farts, that time has obliterated from my memory of childhood. In between drills, the boys huddle, they hug, they chest bump and roll on the ground giggling. The age range for the team is six to eight. My son is tall, one of the big boys now. I’m proud to say he hangs with the cool kids. He no longer lags at the back as they run around the field. He doesn’t fall as much as he used to, and finally, he can kick the ball with some kind of force! This would be the year, I told myself, when he was going to score some goals.
Like so many other mailman fathers, I had to work the Saturday of the big game. I got the text from my wife that afternoon: “Green team lost by a lot. Miles got hit in the chest with the ball and sat out second half.” Damn. They played a team of Hispanic children who were much smaller in stature, but far more skilled. In the midst of the six to one drubbing, a green team boy wailed angrily, “what idiot signed me up for soccer anyway?!”
When he tried to leave the game, his father screamed, “I paid money for you to have fun and you’re going to have fun! This is mandatory, not optional!”
At bedtime, I cautiously broached the subject with Miles.
“They kept kicking the ball into the air,” he whimpered, as if this constituted some form of cheating. “I’m never playing that team again.”
“We learn more from our defeats than our victories,” I told him sagely before turning off the light.
But it sure feels good to win.
It was the final practice of the season and dusk had settled over Longfellow Park. The both of us wearing stocking caps, my youngest son sat on my lap under a blanket. He was impatient to leave and had nearly exhausted the supply of snacks I had brought along to placate him.
“It’s almost over,” I assured him. “We’ll go home soon.”
The coach called for a water break. Breathing heavily, Miles sucked down the last of his fruit-punch flavored Gatorade that always stains the area above his lip for two days. God knows what it does to his innards, but at least he stays hydrated.
“All right!” declared the coach. He tossed the ball into air and spun it on his finger with the waist-high children assembled around him. “We’re going to play a scrimmage. It’s going to be grownups versus kids!” The boys babbled excitedly in disbelief. “So get out here parents!”
I begged Theo to let me play.
“No,” he snapped, crossing his arms and shaking his head vociferously. His brow was furrowed and he stuck his lips out in a face he had learned from his brother.
He started whining and threatening to cry, so I stayed with him. Feeling left out, I watched the boys mob their coach. He sauntered about, kicking the ball free of the tangle of legs before booting it ahead to someone’s mother. It was bedlam and everyone was laughing. Overtaken by melancholy, I sensed the inevitable approach of winter and Theo’s lack of independence made me feel like a failed dad. My only remedy was to blame it all on my wife for working late. Instead of enjoying the game, I stewed uncomfortably in my own emotional shit with a pouting three-year-old on my lap.
The coach and I had hardly ever spoken. A former collegiate wrestler with a swagger and vitality I found enviable, he didn’t appear to be much past thirty. I pleaded some more with Theo to let me in the game, but he wasn’t having it. I didn’t see it happen, but at some point, Miles went down hard and injured his knee. He came to me bawling. I calmed him down as best I could while play continued without him. His leg looked ok, perhaps only slightly swollen. The parents were kicking kid-butt with the coach scoring the majority of the goals. When Miles appeared recovered, I offered to get in the game with him but he seemed reluctant.
“You can just watch,” I pushed. “Come on! It will be fun. Walk it off!”
As I strode onto the field, the coach and I waved to each other. Miles looked pissed but at least he followed me. We started playing. Feeling a bit sheepish and not wanting to look like I was trying too hard, I kept my hands in the pockets of my black hoodie.
Theo called from the lawn chair, “Why is Dad out there? Dad’s not supposed to play.” But he wasn’t crying or upset. I just seemed to have crossed some boundary of his worldview.
Sensing my infirmity, a boy tried to drive the ball around me. I swung my leg and intentionally missed. He darted toward the net and punted the ball past our goalie. All the kids raised their hands and cheered. Even Miles was starting to get back into the spirit. The other father scooped the ball out of the net and rolled it out to me. I dribbled nervously up the field. When two boys moved to steal the ball, I kicked it out to a parent near midfield. He passed it back and I started with it up the sideline. Kids ran at me but I juked them, sending the ball ahead and catching up with it. The boys had me pinned at their end of the field without an angle for a shot. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the coach positioned in front of the net, a frenzied blur of at least a dozen legs between us. The whole team converged on me. Without looking, I side-swiped the ball as hard as I could to the coach. Somehow the ball made it through all the traffic and he booted it sharply over the pint-sized goalie’s head. The arms of all the kids fell to their sides as they rolled their eyes and groaned. The coach pointed at me, acknowledging the assist. I raised my arms in victory and he gave me a high-five.
“That,” he said, “was a thing of beauty.”
I looked over to Miles who mustered a limp smile. Theo bobbed his head excitedly like a Muppet. “You’re not supposed to be out there!”
The parents let the kids score the final goal to end the game. We packed up the car and drove home, each boy in the backseat. I relived the moment as I guided the car down the tree-lined street with the neat bungalows shrouded in darkness. It was, like Michael Jordan’s game-winning dish to Steve Kerr in game six of the 1997 NBA Finals, a thing of beauty.