When I was a kid, I played soccer. Only, this was back in the early 80's when there really wasn't girls soccer, at least not in the small town where I grew up, but when you're eight years old who really notices. At first I was horrible. My coaches were very patient as they tried to find a position for me. I got better over time, and if nothing else, I was tenacious and protective. That's probably how I ended up on defense. It brought out my protective nature, and I took it personally.
When I was in middle school, I had a coach who finally turned the light on for me. He spoke to my inner nerd with his more academic approach to the game. He showed me the geometry of defending the goal and taught me to use statistical advantages. At this point, we were all hitting puberty head on, and while the boys were all sprouting muscles, I was growing boobs! If I was going to keep up, I was going to play smarter and want it more than the boys.
I was fearless on the field, and by the time I was playing in the oldest rec league division, the boys were starting to complain that I was too rough. Ha! "Oh, no, they've got that girl on their team." I played within the rules, but there is no rule against a hip check in soccer, and I'd gotten a full set of hips along with the boobs. When we were eight, no one cared that a girl was playing on the boys' team. There were a couple of us actually. By the time we were teenagers, I was the only girl in the entire league. A girls' league had started, but the girls were so far behind me as a player because I'd been at it for so long. Luckily, there was a coach in the boys' league willing to take me.
I'm not sure the league could have refused to let me play on a boys' team legally, but I was keenly aware that I was an exception and made up my mind to act more as a guest. I would stay in the league as long as a coach would willingly take me and the players didn't mind. The moment I wasn't wanted or became a liability, I would quit. My coach knew this, as did my teammates.
It was at a practice when one of the guys got pissed at me and shouted that I should go back where I belonged. That was it. I called Coach that night and told him I was quitting. Even though that one guy didn't speak for them all (and he was a bit of a schmuck), I'd made a promise that I intended to keep. Coach told me not to come to the next practice and he would call me after it. He wanted to make sure the guys knew what I was doing and why before I really quit.
At the next practice, some of the guys asked where I was. I never missed practice. Coach calmly told them that given the comment made at the last practice that I'd kept my word and quit. He called me that night to tell me the team wanted me back on Saturday for the game. The guy that made the comment didn't think I'd take him seriously. I didn't want to go back because I thought the guys just felt guilty or that coach talked them into it, but Saturday, they showed me I was part of the team.
You have to keep in mind that soccer is not a high-scoring game, and we all know how teenage boys feel about scoring. (Couldn't find a way to write that sentence without implying something, so I just went with it.) Anyway, a free kick came up during the game, which is an almost-guaranteed goal. Again, I played defense, so scoring wasn't ever going to be my thing, but without anyone saying a word to each other, they guys all turned around to look at me. They were offering me the kick, the goal. Offering turned to insisting, and I jogged my way to the other end of the field to take the kick. Thank God I didn't screw it up!
After playing soccer for 12 years, that is still the only goal I ever scored.
Being one of the guys was like watching an animal in it's natural habitat instead of at the zoo. Other girls didn't want to do what I did, but man, were they curious. To them, I was the perfect spy. I wouldn't betray the guys' trust though. I had earned their respect on the field, and that meant more to me than all the gossiping with the girls in the world.
My last two years in rec league, it really grew. We started having away games and playing kids from other towns. They were all boys, and often they didn't understand my team having a girl. Some saw me as the weakest link. (Nothing gave me more pleasure than putting those on their asses!) There were a few times when I knew I'd never get the ball from another player, but I'd hang with them until I forced them out of bounds or I got some help. I think that was the most frustrating to my opponents.
If the girls gets the ball from you, that can just be dumb luck, right? If you can't get past the girl after running in circles for five minutes, it's more embarrassing. It wasn't unusual for frustration and embarrassment to lead to a guy pushing me or saying something nasty, but I took pride in holding my own. One occasion I remember like it was yesterday.
I had been frustrating the same guy every game we played each other for a couple of seasons. It wasn't that I was better than him -- he was amazing -- but he'd gotten in his own head, I think, because he could not get past me to save his life. This day was getting particularly heated, and he started running his mouth. Perhaps it's the female genes that kept me cool and unflustered on the field compared to my male counterparts, but I wasn't talking trash or making fun of this guy. I'm pretty sure my teammates were starting to take jabs though.
The rougher we played the more everyone was paying attention to our little rivalry. At one point, his mother, who happened to be sitting next to mine, yelled at him to "stop pushing that girl!" My mom's comment was somewhere between, "Rachel can take care of herself," and "I'm going to kick your son's ass." In the final minutes of the game, he got desperate because they were losing, and reared back to take a swing at me. That moment is frozen in time for me.
How so many people got around us so fast defies physics, but in a heartbeat, my goalie, the two other fullbacks and a midfielder were standing at my side, looking threateningly at my opponent as if to dare him to touch me. One of his teammates grabbed his arm and another was pulling him back from me. I just stood there stock still. I refused to back down, but I wasn't going to egg the situation on either. Refs and coaches came running and broke everything up. My team was going to defend me, and no one wanted a teenage boy melee on the field, including me.
The image above reminds me of that moment. My team protecting me when someone else threatened, even though I was different. We were a team in the truest sense. It's not often in my life I've felt so accepted and included as I did playing soccer. I went on to play on the high school boys' varsity team. On game day the guys wore ties to school, and I said I'd wear one, too, since coach was clearly confused as to how to handle that one. My wearing a tie got a lot of attention, and more students came to our games and cheered us on because of it. It helped raise awareness of a sport that back then was not mainstream like football, basketball and baseball, especially in the south.
My mom had worried at every game that I was going to get hurt. She really wanted me to switch over to the girls' league. I did get hurt a few times, some worse than others, but I refused to let my mom see it because I was afraid she'd make me stop playing. (I was probably right.) Ironically, it wasn't until I played on my high school's first girls' soccer team that I got really hurt. I'd only agreed to play to help my coach who'd so graciously let me play on the boys' team. (Technically he had to let me on the team because of Title 9, but I made sure I earned the spot.)
Boys may be rough, but I'll tell you one thing --- girls are vicious.
I got tag-teamed by a couple of redneck girls and separated my shoulder. I came out of the game for a few minutes but went back in. I spent the night in the ER screaming in pain. I couldn't play for six weeks, and a few years later, I had to have surgery on that shoulder. It still hurts sometimes, along with several other joints. I wasn't kind to my body as a kid.
Yes, I carry some aches and pains from those days, but I also carry some of the most precious memories of my young life. Those guys and my coach still hold a special place in my heart. I'm not sure that in another place and time I would have had the same experience. Another group of guys might have rejected having a girl on their team. Another coach might have just let me quit. But that's not my story.
In my story, I won the respect of my teammates, played my heart out and scored exactly one goal.