Shots at Immortality

    The ball squirted through, having slipped between two colliding bodies. It now scampered along the ground towards the penalty box. My opponent had the angle.  But I would get there first. 

     I was faster. Purely a genetic thing, mind you. An unfair advantage when you think about it. I was simply born with far more “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. Others had to work for hours at certain skills or nuances to succeed in a sport. I, with the investment of no real effort or time in practice, could drop into almost any competition in almost any sport and hold my own. For I possessed the one quality that couldn’t be coached, but was deadly throughout the world of sport: speed. 

    As I look back, it was probably this same quality that was my eventual athletic downfall. Sprinters tend to have in-turned feet—or so an orthopedic surgeon friend of mine tells me. This creates less joint stress during the toe strike throughout the leg and torso. My feet, on the other hand, turn outwards. Thus, when sprinting excess torque is applied to my knees with every step. Over the years this wore away the cartilage. Even in my twenties the knees were painful during competition, and worse the following evening. By my thirties, they hurt for days after a match. By my forties they were in their death throws, swelling after every game, begging for ice and giving out with the slightest miss-step. Nonetheless, the speed remained.

     Through the years I often toyed with opponents. I would chase a ball matching their run and then, at a critical moment, explode into warp speed. It had to be infuriating.

     Fast yes, but I wasn’t necessarily a physical player. In high school I was slight, and I eschewed heavy contact. Then in college, as a lark, I tried some rugby. I lifted weights, put on some bulk, and learned an aggressiveness that had been missing from my athletic endeavors. It certainly raised my soccer to a whole new level but, as a consequence, resulted in coaches and teammates pushing me further and further back into their defensive structures. Thus, the opportunity for goals became more and more scarce.

     Not that I ever was a scoring machine. A hitch somewhere in my neuronal network would interject every time I pulled back my thigh to shoot. A fleeting moment of self-doubt, a suggestion from my inner demons that I wouldn’t want to mess up the shot for fear of looking like a fool, and suddenly, the firing solution would be altered, and strength and precision would be robbed from my swinging leg. More often than not then, the ensuing shot would float harmlessly to the keeper or worse yet, flutter like a wounded grouse over the goal.

    Mind you I did have my share of triumphant scores. It was my goal that lifted my high school team into the state tournament for the first time in its history. Like Maradona in the 1986 World Cup game against England, I broke through a tackle at the center circle and then bobbed and weaved my way past defender after defender, all the way to the goal box. There, the goalie sprang at the ball. I juked, leaving the guy grasping at air, and literally walked the ball into the goal—no shot necessary. The whole thing was probably inspired by the fact that my brand new girlfriend was on the sidelines in her cheerleader miniskirt. Come to think of it, essentially every one of my athletic (and indeed lifetime) achievements can probably be tied in one way or another to my unending desire to impress the opposite sex. 

      On another occasion, during my college years, in summer league play in a then hot bed of American soccer, New Jersey, I presaged David Beckham’s cosmic shot from midfield that catapulted him into stardom by spotting a badly out of position goalie and launching a towering ball from the center circle that cleared the entire defense and the goalie’s back-peddling frame, and dropped neatly into the goal. My then sweetheart squealed with delight on the sidelines. 

    But those were anomalies. Miracles really. The rest of the time, I just didn’t have it in me. Whenever put 20 yards out from goal in an ideal shooting position, I turned into a sniveling coward. The concept of relinquishing control of the ball and allowing the cruel gods of embarrassment and ridicule to play their hands was just too much of a risk for my fragile ego. I therefore would invariably give up the shot and pass to a teammate. But, as I noted, this became less of a concern as the years passed and I moved closer and closer to a permanent sweeper position. Heck, I rarely had to enter the opposition’s half.

    So, here I was in my mid-forties still running around a field in ill-fitting shorts. I still had a few years left before Astroturf would rob me of what was left of the cartilage in my knees. And, I was still faster than most of the guys on the pitch, even the ones in their twenties. In this particular game we were in pitched battle with a bunch of off-the-boat Italians from New York. True to form they were divers, but they knew the game, and despite having clearly downed too much pasta over the decades, they were picking us apart. You see, all the speed in the world can’t make up for pinpoint passing. You can never outrun a well-struck pass, believe me. And they were passing around and through us at will—practically without moving.

    Anyway, the ball squirted through. When I broke, I must have been at least ten yards behind my opponent. So, I shifted into overdrive and, like the roadrunner in the old cartoon, sped downfield in a cloud of dust. In a flash, I was shouldering my opponent off course and had a bead on the careening ball. But this set both teams on high alert. The whole world seemed to be converging on the spot and I knew I had better hit the ball fast. Too much pressure and hurry to let the demons out of their cage—no thinking necessary—just let the decades of soccer reflexes takeover. I drew my thigh back and let the strike rip.

     Like hitting a homerun in baseball or an ace in tennis, you know when the foot hits the sweet spot of a soccer ball. It exploded off my foot. Like Geoff Hurst’s unstoppable shot for England in the 66 World Cup, the ball knuckled in a line drive and scorched past the hapless goalie into the upper right corner, almost ripping the net.

    Absolutely the hardest, best hit shot I had ever seen, let alone personally sent towards goal. And it was a creation of my own athletic brilliance. Mine, all mine. An experience that I could savor even on my death bed.

     Only…it wasn’t a shot. 

      It was supposed to be a clearing ball.

      I was on defense not attack.

      I was a defender not a striker.

      I had chased down the Italian bastard, beat him and the others to the ball, and struck  it simply to get it out of harm’s way. Give up a corner, a throw-in, who cares.  If I didn’t make the effort it would be an Italian goal for sure—wouldn’t it? 

    Instead of the ball clearing the goal by ten or twenty yards, however, it proceeded, with malice, past my own goalie (who was until then a good friend) and smashed into the back of my team’s goal. Yes, the best shot I have ever taken, happened to end up in my own goal. A point for the Italians.

    Forget the result though. Philosophically, at least in retrospect, I won’t hang my head in shame. After all, it was a glorious shot. The experience was ethereal. It was one of those rare and transcendent moments where time stood still. A brilliant epoch in my life. I had exorcised my demons and let off a shot that would rival the best of Scholes, Ronaldo, and even Messi. I suppose this is the essence of existentialism isn’t it? The result was meaningless. The shot was what mattered; the moment, the sensations, the experience. It was transcendent. It was life-affirming. The fact that it wasn’t really a shot ,and that it resulted in a point for the opposition, should never diminish the moment. 

     And my friends, and teammates, who couldn’t stay standing or remain continent for fits of convulsive laughter, had a story they could regale in my presence until my dying days. 

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