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.