Saturday, October 26, 2013

It was just a game

Updated: I recently shared this post with my high school soccer coach (Mr. P). We both couldn't believe that 20 years has passed since this game. He also couldn't believe how much I remembered! I guess it shows just how impactful of an experience it was for me. It's most difficult to look back on now as a father of 5, knowing that the families of the 7 kids that were killed in the accident have been without them for so long. Truly unfair for them. So today, my thoughts and prayers to go the families. Because really, it was just a game.. 
Coverage of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy can be seen, here.  

Today marks the 20 year anniversary of a day that I'll never forget, and probably was one of the most life changing events in my teenage life. It's taken me a long time to process how exactly the events of the day changed me. And in many ways, I feel this day has helped to define me as the husband, parent, and teacher that I am today.

Twenty, years ago I was a senior in high school. I'm pretty sure I was defined in life as a soccer player. That's what I was best at. I was on a path to play soccer in college, and I'm sure that there would be some (hi, Mom & Dad) that would argue that there was a path to even play pro-soccer. It was my life.

I was varsity Co-captain of the team that year. We were loaded with great talent, and our goal was the state championship. The path was clear, and our regular season showed that we were definitely contenders. As we entered the playoffs, our confidence was very high. We won a couple of games, and we were excited to be heading into the sectional championship game against a high school we knew we would roll over.

And then tragedy struck. The day before the game a bus load of students heading to our competitor's school stopped on some train tracks, and was hit by a train. I can't remember the numbers, but there was a death toll. It was overwhelming the emotions that I went through. There were friends and siblings of the soccer players on that bus. I remember talking with a few teammates about our hope that the game would be postponed... It wasn't.

The day of the game, school took forever. I'm pretty sure I didn't learn a thing that day. I was numb trying to mentally prepare. I don't remember the bus ride other than we all signed a soccer ball showing our sympathy to the school and the students. We tried warming up as normal, but the stadium was packed. Camera crews were there to cover the game, and none of us had experienced anything like that.

We presented the ball to the other team, stood silently through the National Anthem, and the game started. It was obvious that we were the better team. We controlled the game, but we couldn't seem to finish anything. The first half was highlighted by my header off of the post on a corner kick. We entered the second half tied at zero.

The second half was marred with more missed opportunities. And then one of our teammates knocked out one of theirs while challenging for a header. The sight of the player motionless on the ground with an Ambulance on the field sent chills through everyone. It didn't help that our teammate taunted them by something along the lines of, "that's right, we took another one out." .... yup, sums up how this was going to end for our team.

Play resumed, but stayed scoreless through regulation and overtime. The fate of the game was going to be determined by penalty kicks. Our coached asked who wanted to go... I raised my hand feeling that as captain I needed to... I was to kick 4th.

I have no idea who shot before me, but I do know that I needed to make my shot to give our team a chance. I placed the ball. Took my few steps back. I remember the silence. So many people. So quiet. The whistle blew, and I hit the ball in the same place as I had been practicing for weeks. CLANG... this time I hit it off the post. I don't remember crying at that point. No. It was after the next player made his penalty shot winning it for his team, that I fell to the ground. I was spent. I believed I had lost the game for my team. The tears flowed. I knew my teammates would blame me. I blamed me.

But in that moment, my coach came to my side. He picked me up and looked me in the eyes and said:

This is just a game. Kids died yesterday, and this is just a game.

He was right, so very right. I stood up and congratulated the other team. I remember trying to keep it together on the bus ride. I remember having to do some homework when I got home. I also remember, that my passion for soccer left me that day. It was a tough way to learn that lesson that there is so much more to life than silly games. But for me, I had been defined by that game for my whole life. I was "that soccer player-guy." I had nothing else. 

I didn't know how to manage the feelings I was going through, and I don't think anyone truly understood where I was at that point. After months of grappling with my emotions, I eventually left my comp team as I couldn't handle the constant push to always have to be at the complex working out even after practices and games. My drive was crushed after that 1 game. I chose to not play in college, but enjoyed playing intramural sports with my fraternity. Even those games got overwhelming for me at times. 

In the end, I know that this one event opened my eyes on how I wanted to live my life as a husband, father, and teacher. I approach each day loving the life that I have, and taking as much time to appreciate everyone around me. Does that mean that at times I choose laughing and playing in place of getting something done around the house or at work? Sure. And I know that in doing so, the people in my life are better for it.  I also know how single events in a child's life can stay with them and change them. And I spend more time paying attention to who my own kids are, and who my students are so that I can be there to help them when/if moments like this touch their lives. I want to be to them what my coach was for me in that moment: a role model.  

Thanks for reading this. Choose to have a great day, because you can. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

To play (sports), or not to play (sports)

I listen to ESPN radio in the mornings. I'm a dad. It's something that I simply have to do at this point in life. I can tell you the exact point I started listening too. I was flipping around AM radio back in
the summer of 2006 (shortly after my first was born) looking for anything about the World Cup that was currently being played in Germany. I finally get to ESPN radio, and this jerk, Colin Cowherd, is slamming American soccer saying that the absolute best American athletes play football or basketball and not soccer, so we'll never truly compete in the sport when the best athletes of other countries Do play soccer! I was furious! I'm a soccer player! I was a great athlete, and by the end of the show... I totally agreed with him, and I listen to the guy everyday.. Love the guy! (Excerpt of his show is below)

Colin talking about US beating Spain and his description of soccer players/fans. BTW: I'm 6'1" .. :) Classic! 

Which brings me to the now. This past week, Uncle Colin (as he refers to himself) was explaining why his kids won't play travel or comp sports. His feeling is that the time that would go to playing on a comp team would pull away from family time, and he wants the time with his kids to be spent traveling and experiencing things with them as a family. I totally get that. But I'm going to come at it from a different perspective.

Yup.. that's me! Maybe 13 or 14 years old.
I played travel soccer since maybe the 4th or 5th grade. By the time I was in middle school, the commitment was extreme. Not only time wise, but also financially on my parents. Now, as a kid I was pretty shy, and confidence wasn't a friend. I worked hard, and listened to my coaches, and I became a pretty good soccer player. My team won the state comp tournament several times. We traveled to some of the best tournaments in the country, and by the time I was in high school, my entire team and coach became part of a club in the Chicago area that became one of the best in the country (Sockers F.C.).

And through it all, I was wiped. The intensity that came with being a comp athlete is difficult, and doesn't always bring with it the down time I feel kids should have. At one point in high school, I was playing 5 days a week (practicing three and games two). Throw on that my commitment to my school work, and a desire to fit in with some semblance of a social life and I simply felt exhausted and trapped. The fun of playing my favorite sport was gone, and shortly after my 18th birthday, I walked away.

So, now as a parent, I use the experience I had as the basis for my thoughts on youth sports. First off, my kids aren't playing organized sports before the age of 5. And when they do, it'll be limited. Part of the problem that I see with youth soccer, for example, is that we get kids wrapped up into structured play so early that the creativity and fun is pulled. At the elementary ages, games are to be fun and youthful, and not at a level that brings stress to those involved (including parents). This is the age we have to build the love and enjoyment of the game.

Second, my kids will play comp sports (or sports in general) when THEY want to, not because I want them to. This is not a slam against my own parents. They knew I was a good athlete, so they wanted me to compete at a level they knew was best. But, the decision wasn't alway mine. I will forever thank them for the opportunities they provided, because I'm a better person from them. But when I see 6 year olds in full pads on the football field I have to wonder if that is the kid wanting that or the parent? For me, I don't see a need for comp sports before middle school. I'm all for a fun Rec. experience for these kiddos, but when the target becomes WIN at ALL costs for an 8 year old, maybe the wrong message is being sent?

And third, I'll be all for the comp experience when my kids show they're ready personality wise. Those that thrive in the comp atmosphere do so because of the attitude that they bring each day. The love of the game drives them to a determination to succeed that makes every training and game not work, but life. When they show a love for it that goes beyond just hanging out with buddies, but to a desire to create an opportunity for themselves in college and beyond then I'm in. And I'll go to the corners of the world to make it happen. But as soon as it become a chore for us all to "make" the kid even go to practice, then it's time to scale back and rethink the commitment.

In the end, I truly hope that one of my four kids builds a love and passion for a sport that draws them in to wanting a comp experience. I, to this day, love soccer. I dream about getting back on the field. About heading a corner into the back of the net again. It was a huge, defining part of my life, but it became something that drained me to the core and in a way left me broken. So, while I'd love to have a kiddo play, I will never push it on them. I want their childhood to be about them, and their dreams. And if that means sports doesn't become a part of it, then I'm ok with it. And that's that.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

I found my peeps! And they're digital!

The other day while I was out and about, I ran into a gentleman who stopped to admire my family. This happens a lot. There is something remarkable about a dad shopping with his four kids that just makes people want to stop us and chat. Anyway, he mentioned that he was a retired teacher and had moved up here to be closer to his grandkids. When I mentioned that I was a teacher, he simply shook his head, and said, "I could never teach now-a-days. All of the fuss over teachers and evaluations. All of the tests the kids have to take. No way I'd take that!"

I have to admit, I didn't know much what to say to him. Thankfully, my kids made a turn toward squirelly-ville and I walked away reflecting on his statement. The truth is, I connected to what he said. I've spent the last 2 summers working hard to leave teaching to find an opportunity to get back into the business world. I've interviewed for positions in finance, real estate, and marketing.

But, for me, it wasn't trying to leave because of the current demands on teachers, like this gentleman was describing. No, that stuff I don't mind. If you're good at what you do, you'll meet the demands with passion and energy. Instead, my reasons were due to the complete and total isolation I felt as a teacher. As a man in my young 30s with 4 kids teaching the way that I do ("Info-Taining" - credit @Kevin Honeycutt) I looked around my building and the district and I didn't see anyone like me. Maybe they're out there, but the time to collaborate and gain inspiration from other teachers was not available. I was drifting, and I began to realize that I needed to find some connections, and inspiration.

Then late in this past summer a fraternity brother, and fellow teacher jumped onto Twitter. We started following each other, and I began to see his feed fill with members of his teacher community. I started following a few of them myself, and I realized that maybe there were more out there like me than I realized. I began connecting with some of the bigger names in the field and drawing inspiration from what they were doing and saying about education. These connections began to fill me up, and get my creative energies working again. I have the energy inside to meet what the new Common Core based state standards are expecting of me and my students.

What I've learned over the last 6 weeks has been that regardless of your profession, you need to have a community of support. For me, I found that my community of peeps are digital, and I'm alright with that! :)