92. Pride.

I am, I fear, one of those fathers who has given his son a lot to live up to on the sports field. I was, you see, captain of my rugby team. Those are some big shoes to fill.

It should in no way diminish my achievement in your eyes if I tell you that I was captain of the seventh team. There were only seven teams. We would occasionally find ourselves playing against kids who were missing limbs, and there was this one guy who kept breaking down in tears when we got the ball away from him.

Seventh team rugby players prepare for another tough match.

Seventh team rugby players prepare for another tough match.

I remember rugby fondly. None of us could move fast enough to actually hurt each other, and the games were a leisurely affair; we kept having to pause to allow various players to use their asthma pumps.

I didn’t fare much better at other sports. I was banned from playing field hockey because during our first game ever, I broke my stick on someone’s leg, and then nearly decapitated the coach with a head-high shot that flew off my replacement stick at 45 degrees. I was less dangerous when it came to cricket. I remain the only person I know who has managed to fall asleep on the field while taking part in a match.

Sport is an invaluable tool for building character in young people.

Sport is an invaluable tool for building character in young people.

Why am I telling you this? I went to watch my son play soccer the other day. Let’s call him L. L is nine. He was taking part in what was called a mini-soccer round robin. There were six teams of five boys each, and each match lasted 10 minutes. Excellent! Competitive sports for people with short attention spans.

I had gone along just to be there, to remind the boy that there would always be someone in his corner, and that we cared about what he did, not to run up and down the side of the field screaming at him to focus and questioning both the ref’s interpretation of the rules and his parentage. When I was at varsity, I knew a guy who went to school in a dodgy seaside town. One of the other kid’s fathers would religiously attend cricket matches in order to stand at the edge of the field and shout “HIT THE FUCKEN BALL, MAN!” at his son’s team. I would have paid good money to watch that guy, but I wouldn’t want to be him.

Let another ball through and I will kick your ass, you little punk! And don't forget to have fun out there.

Let another ball through and I will kick your ass, you little punk! And don’t forget to have fun out there.

I needn’t have worried about my attention span. I was riveted. It was a beautiful to watch. Never before has a boy so faithfully replicated the achievements of his father! It was like watching poetry!

His team had two ringers in it. There was a blond haired, laser eyed kid who, at nine, already moved with the coiled grace of a natural sportsman, taking in the layout of the field at a glance and shimmering through most of the opposition as if they weren’t there, until he would be brought up short by one of the less talented opposition lying down in front of him. They did that a lot.

Then there was a black kid who appeared to be six foot tall, and should, by rights, have been sent off at half time to go and shave. Nobody lay down in front of him. They all just stood around shouting at each other to get in there and tackle him.

Nine-year-olds seem to have changed a little since I was a boy.

Nine-year-olds seem to have changed a little since I was a boy.

Then there was my boy. I knew from the moment his team took to the field that he was heir to my sporting prowess. The two ringers ran out onto the field like hunting wolves, faces set and bodies taught with tension as they took up their positions. L followed at a more leisurely pace, sandy blond hair sticking up like a haystack after a whirlwind, enormous shorts billowing around his pale, skinny legs like those WWll soldiers in North Africa. He paused briefly to argue with the other two non-ringers about who should go where.

And then it was on. For everyone except L. L suddenly bent double and clutched at the grass. I thought he was ill. I needn’t have worried. As laser eyes and Goliath made a stabbing attack down the centre of the field, he came strolling over to show me the R2 coin he had found. Then he hurled himself into the fray, shrieking and laughing and shouting things like “I’m open!” and “Here!” and “Get him!”

It is a tactic used at even the highest levels of the game.

It is a tactic used at even the highest levels of the game.

He even got the ball a couple of times, and ran haphazardly up the field, arms flailing like he was being swarmed by bees, or kicked it as hard as he could in a random direction. Whenever this happened, the coach/ref would shout “Go L!” and collapse with laughter. There was a worrying moment as laser eyes and Goliath fell back in a desperate attempt to hold off all five of the opposition as they thundered past L and his other two team mates, who appeared to be holding strategy meeting.

And then it was over. I don’t even know who won. That wasn’t what I was there for. Then it was time for the next game. L was in goal. Oh dear. But it all went well. Laser eyes and Goliath kept most of the action up at the other end of the field. L got bored and strolled up to take a look at what was going on.

Hey, guys. Watcha doing?

Hey, guys. Watcha doing?

And then the other team broke through. Ten little boys all swung around and chased the ball down an open field towards L’s open goal. But he was on top of it. He moved like the wind itself, pulling easily ahead of the other boys. “Wow!” I thought, as he reached the goal ahead of the thundering pack. “Who knew!”

“Oh”, I thought, as he carried on running, past the goal and onto the path behind the field.

“Where the hell are you going?” I shouted to the receding sandy blond haystack.

“I need to do a wee!” he shouted cheerfully over his shoulder.

And that’s about the long and the short of it. When it comes to sport, us 23thorns men do not have blood in our eyes. Winning simply doesn’t matter. We don’t have the fierce determination of laser eyes or the physical prowess of  Goliath. Don’t play Trivial Pursuit with me, though. That stuff’s not a joke.

Board games also help with that whole character-building thing.

Board games also help with that whole character-building thing.

But we have something else. I loved playing rugby for the seventh team. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever done. I loved breaking my hockey stick on that guy’s leg. I loved sending the coach diving for cover. There is a liberating joy in being bad at this stuff. You can stop worrying about winning and just run and fall and feel the wind in your hair and laugh, and laugh, and laugh at the madness of it all.

I didn’t really go there to watch L play soccer. But I’m glad I went, because I saw L doing something else. When the game was over, both laser eyes and Goliath sought him out and gave him high fives. One of the other kids ran up and asked me if I knew that L “Was the third best player in their team?”

I sat back and watched as he formed the centre of a happy little group all shouting out their tales of derring-do “Did you check when I shiboboed Gary?” “Did you see how far I kicked that one shot?” “You guys don’t even know how much it hurt when Luniko kicked me in the shin!”

Did you guys see how I almost stopped that one guy?

Did you guys see how I almost stopped that one guy?

And that coach/ref who was laughing at my little boy? It made my heart swell. You see, it wasn’t that kind of laughter. There was nothing even vaguely mean-spirited about it. He was laughing with shared joy, as you do when you see a puppy bounding down a hill, body moving too fast for its legs. I saw it and knew that this man enjoyed coaching my son, that spending time in his company made him happy.

I never went to watch my son play soccer. I went to watch him hold the world in the palm of his hand. I never saw him score a goal. I saw him slide effortlessly into the centre of the group around him. I saw that he will never be left sitting off alone on one side of things, that he has a gift far greater than being able to kick a ball. I saw that he was accepted, and liked, and enjoyed by his peers.

Does anyone know who this guy is? He just turned up once the game was over.

Does anyone know who this guy is? He just turned up once the game was over.

I saw my son being happy. And I couldn’t be more proud.

44 thoughts on “92. Pride.

  1. narf77 says:

    Ahhh soccer. My youngest daughter B. played soccer. She was quite good at it. Not that it mattered. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for girl soccer players to be taken seriously these days. I think the most animated Steve and I got watching her was when we decided to debate what soccer was actually called and ended up wrestling on the sidelines to the amusement of all (or perhaps it was the embarassment…not quite sure. The memories are all starting to blur together in a haze). B’s career as a soccer professional never quite took off. Today she wakes up at 12 lunchtime, she spends her afternoons leisurely drawing cartoons for her sister M. and watches dvd’s late into the evening. I fear my days of watching from the sidelines are well and truly over but it would seem yours have just begun Mr 23Thorns. Enjoy them while you can 🙂

  2. In tears of laughter and shared memories. I played int he netball 4ths as goal keeper. I was tall enough to be of some use even though I was and still am completely useless at any and all sports. If it requires co-ordination then I’m stuffed. But in 1990 the netball 4ths won their grandfinal! I actually won something! 😀
    As for the haystack needing a wee, I swear you described my son!
    BRILLIANT post. Thanks for the laugh.

  3. Sorry, but you lost me after you posted that photo of the mostly naked 9 year old. I would never have thought myself a pedophile, but if kids look like that nowadays, I may have to rethink my position… 😉

    As always, awesome post!

  4. mariekeates says:

    He sounds good enough to have a spot on my favourite team, most of our players are more or less like that, one of them even ran off the pitch to go to the loo (although, apparently, it was not a wee) last season, and this was premiership football!

  5. Spy Garden says:

    Great post! My son plays little league (he is 7) and on a wonderfully fun and funny team where the coaches (one being my husband) laugh with the puppy-shared-joy and all that as you describe. However last year (age SIX) he was on a cut-throat team bent on world domination. We made up some funny slogans (and unfortunately kept them mostly to ourselves) for this team, lets call them the Sprawlings Ligers. Here are some of them: “Spending more money will make your child better at baseball. Sprawlings Ligers.” “Little League is the only thing that matters in life. Sprawlings Ligers”…”Playing catch shouldn’t be free. Sprawlings Ligers” “90 days of spring. 45 little league games.” “Spending more money will make your child better at baseball.” “Fun is our #8 priority.” and the piece de resistance “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women. Sprawlings Ligers” HAhahaha

    • 23thorns says:

      yep. We’ve got something over here called bulletjie rugby, where parents can set about preparing their kids for eventual entry into the national side.
      Fun isn’t part of the program…

  6. Happiness coming naturally, and from a child no less, what a concept 😉

  7. Really lovely. Enjoyed reading it thanks for sharing.

  8. Beautiful! I would’ve loved to hear your son say that!
    Nicely written, thanks for sharing.

  9. Jocelyn Hers says:

    Brilliant! I’m confirmed in my opinion, your son is going to be a great man.

  10. I see you quite determinedly ignored the results of the poll and wrote about your children instead. Perhaps your son has learnt a gift from you…to be yourself, and trust that it will be ok.

  11. kokkieh says:

    This made me think of my one attempt at playing rugby. It was in standard 1 (third grade). I was in the C-team. We had two back lines that switched at half time. In three matches I played five different positions but never touched the ball (as far as I remember). At the end of each match both teams celebrated the fact that they won.

    That’s what sport should be, not like it was at my high school where parents would rush onto the field to assault opposition players, each other, or the ref because they don’t like what’s happening in the game. Over here that’s even starting with the primary schools nowadays.

  12. There always does seem to be a coupla kids who should be playing with much bigger kids… I always think a birth certificate check is in order. 😀

  13. Lyn says:

    That is as it should be! Kids (AND their parents) are supposed to have F.U.N. while playing sports. One thing though…I thought your son’s name was “B.” According to your post “Grappling-Hook Baby” you have two children – “V” and “B” and one grandchild. “V” loves shopping, and “B” pilots a plane and occasionally leaps out of it mid flight with 20-metre ski ropes tied to his ankle (that post was one of my absolute favourites)

    • 23thorns says:

      Don’t worry, it’s the same guy. I’m too lazy to check back over old posts to see what I called them last time, so when i write about the kids I just assign them random numbers.

  14. ksbeth says:

    great post, hey sometimes the ones playing a sport are the most surprised they are involved in any way )

  15. Judy says:

    Me too on the cry thing….loved this post…..what a great relationship…and seeing life is full of mirth…always….the best!!

  16. sisteranan says:

    Truly he is a man among men… congrats for teaching your son the true meaning of sport.
    I love rugby too… i used to be the hooker on my province’s first womens’ rugby team. The only people we could play were the boys’ team, who had been banned from play for a year for killing somebody. After one match, they refused to play with us because we were too mean.

  17. Ashana M says:

    I almost cried. Bravo.

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