My Senior Citizen, COVID-Inspired Soccer Comeback
By Ken Schreiner
Chapter 1: Collision Course
It was January — and 2020 already stunk. Divorced a year, retired for three, alone and isolated, my local friends lost in court. Then things got worse. The specter of a full COVID-19 lockdown, combined with being in the age group most likely to catch it, was scary and depressing.
Winter in Utah is usually my favorite season. I downhill and cross-country ski, snowshoe, and do just about anything in snow. But coronavirus forced the ski resorts to close immediately. Cross-country skiing was restricted then everything melted. The basketball court I played at was closed and taped off. The workout room in my building was locked.
I went to the tavern around the corner for their final day before shutting down. It was the middle of the day (drinking early soon became a viable option). The day before global sports were halted entirely, the TV showed a live soccer match from Europe. The weather there was perfect but teams were playing in an empty stadium. In Salt Lake City, it was cold and raining and sad. But watching that last match while sipping the tavern’s last beer gave me what felt like perhaps my last idea. And like the rest of my life, it came from television.
The first World Cup soccer championship match shown on American TV was in 1966 between England and West Germany. I’d accidently found it turning the dial looking for cartoons. My life instantly changed. At age 12, I liked sports but was small and not talented at any of the standard Chicago suburban activities (I was last to be picked for kickball). I begged my mother to buy me a soccer ball. It took her a month to find one. I showed it to my siblings and friends who displayed zero interest. So I played alone in the back yard or the park, solemnly juggling the ball with my feet, kicking it off a wall, dribbling around for hours aimlessly. I rapidly excelled at the game because I was the only one I knew playing it.
Though I started playing when I was 12, I didn’t play with another actual person until I was 20 and in college. Relying only on my imagined skills and emerging bravado, I tried out for and made the team as a backup midfielder and goalkeeper. I felt lucky to be in the company of talented players from Iran, Colombia, Germany and other exotic locations, training with them, watching, learning, and improving. I was ecstatic to experience even limited action.
As TV had inspired my sporting life, it’d also influenced my professional life. After graduating in 1976, I got a job as TV reporter in a small western Illinois city. I also joined an amateur soccer club playing games every weekend. For the first time in my life, I got the chance to channel my idol, George Best, British soccer’s bad boy and best player: Scoring goals, running the field, wearing those now-shocking short shorts popular in the sexy ’70s, meeting women, having the time of my life. Then suddenly, it almost ended. Entirely.
The team needed a substitute goalie so, having experience, I obliged. In a 1980 game, the opposing team passed the ball through our defense, putting their attacking forward and me on a collision course. I slid to grab the ball. The attacker kicked and hit me full in the ribcage. I went to the ER where they cut a hole in my chest to put in a breathing tube. I saw the proverbial bright light at the end of the long hallway. But I survived. Three broken ribs. Collapsed lung. Hospital for eight days. It hurt to breathe, stand, move, do anything. My season was over. For 40 years.
After recovering, I moved for work to Denver. Then Minneapolis, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Vermont, lllinois again, and Salt Lake City. Everywhere I lived, I told myself I needed to get back into soccer. But I was still scared — and it just didn’t make sense anymore. Why risk my dream career to play a game? I learned to believe I didn’t care anymore. The memory of the accident, and the scar tissue strangling my still-aching ribs, had lived inside me like a tapeworm for 40 years. But on that grim, grey afternoon in the tavern on the cusp of the COVID-19 lockdown, I finally banished the doubt and self-pity, and found the determination, and suppressed remnants of reckless, youthful inspiration to propel me back to the pitch.
Chapter 2: You Can Do It (Well, Some of It)
Staying in shape, much less sports shape, is challenging for anyone. Add age (I’m 66) and the associated infirmities, isolation, bad habits, etc. and it doesn’t take long to become bigger and harder to move than the couch you’re melding with. But being retired during COVID-19 (though I occasionally work for my one-person video production company) gave me time, and the sudden lack of other recreation options provided the incentive I needed.
The first thing I did was start running. Soccer is a game of constant movement including sprinting, leaping, and sliding. A player can run 7–10 miles in a game. I hadn’t run for exercise in decades. So I started with one lap around the park, about a half-hour. I shifted from timed running to distance, reaching a comfortable workout of 5 miles. I’d do this every other day so it would become a routine without getting boring.
I checked out two nearby parks as practice areas. There were goal posts but no nets. No walls to kick a ball at and return it. Dog excrement made many open spaces minefields. I needed something to help me practice kicking, shooting, heading, and passing again without running 50 yards after every ball. So I bought a new, portable, easy-to-assemble 12-by-6 ft. net for $70 on eBay (being retired means I’m painfully thrifty). It was so light and compact, I could walk with it to the park.
My first practices were physically challenging. It hurt to kick (I’d forgotten how hard the ball is). After the first few strikes I thought I’d broken my feet. I gave my legs a rest and tried hitting the ball with my head. Oddly, that didn’t hurt as much as I thought — until I hit it off my face which forced me to stop until I regained eyesight. When I got home, what hadn’t hurt earlier did now. My sides and abdomen were inflamed from twisting on long kicks. My quads screamed for relief. My left big toe swelled and was so painful I couldn’t play, sleep, or even walk for a few days. I tried on a splint I’d used to cure plantar fasciitis a few years ago. I was shocked and relieved when it actually worked.
I’d read numerous articles about how senior citizens should moderate their workouts to avoid overexertion and injury — not forgetting heart attacks, strokes, and other traumatic failures. But I felt good enough to add weights to my workout to make better throw-ins and improve the range of motion of my arms to provide better balance when kicking and avoiding opponents while dribbling.
Even though these and other articles (there’s no shortage of information on senior fitness) said it’s difficult for us to build muscle mass, my forearms and biceps, even my abdomen, soon showed the work was paying off.
After two weeks of workouts, I started looking for a club to join. I found the Cottonwood Co-ed Adult League and registered. But because of COVID-19-related orders, no games or practices were happening. The good news is the delay gave me another six weeks to prepare.
Finally, on the weekend of May 16, Utah lowered their coronavirus response allowing organized outdoor team sports to resume with social distancing. Cottonwood held its first games of the year. I was there and ready — but nervous. There were only enough players for two eight-person teams, including four women. In this format, I couldn’t hide or stand back. I had to play for real.
I ran slowly onto the pitch and, as a newcomer, positioned myself in a back corner of the field to allow the veterans to assume their favorite spots — usually up front in goal-scoring position. This also gave me a chance to observe who I was playing with and against. It’s a bit of soccer knowledge I hadn’t considered since I was 26: Be aware of both your own abilities and others’.
Chapter 3: Discoveries, Rediscoveries, and Re-Finding the Fun
My first edgy moments in the thick, wet grass of this carelessly-mowed, unlined field led to an relentless stream of revelations I list here as perhaps the essential value of this whole experience:
- This is for fun. For your health, your life. You’re not playing in the World Cup.
- Stop trying to tackle people. You’re giving them an excuse to kill you.
- Heading a speeding soccer ball feels strange and self-abusive, but with weirdly pleasant side effects. Like watching an episode of “Breaking Bad”.
- When you’re new and unknown, people don’t pass to you. They’re looking for others they’re familiar with. So I run continuously looking for open spaces with an unobstructed corridor to the ball carrier to tempt him. Running as training pays off big here. At the end of this 90-minute game, my Fitbit shows 18,620 steps, 8.39 miles (global average 7–10 miles).
- I enjoy passing more than dribbling. First, you cover more ground faster by passing. Dribbling requires running and wears you out faster. I learned that by watching European footballers who can cover the 120-meter length of the field in seconds just by passing accurately, saving precious time and energy. Second, I enjoy getting others involved because if you pass to them, they’ll pass to you. Third, I get more satisfaction from a well-conceived and executed pass than an easy goal. In the “fun” concept, goal-scoring is nebulous because no one keeps score. The cumulative effect of continuous passing and engaging your teammates bears far greater benefits.
- Warm up correctly and thoroughly! Stretch those 66-year-old leg muscles before every game: quads, calves, feet, abdomen. An early quad cramp hobbled me nearly my whole second game. Adjusting for the bum quad, I twisted my midsection and strained both sides of my torso. Both of these could have been mitigated or avoided by stretching those areas sufficiently before playing. Instead, I popped beers and Advil just to get to sleep that night.
- Communicating verbally and visually with other players is a huge source of fun, even if they don’t speak English. I think I understood when someone from a Middle Eastern country commented on something I’d just done. Then again, they might have been making fun of my Australian national team jersey featuring images of a kangaroo and a cassowary. Either way, it was amusing. I laughed and moved on.
- There were two other old guys playing but I think I was the oldest. I tried not to compare myself or be better than them or anyone on the pitch. It was actually comforting to see them there (their stories are perhaps similar to mine). I generally don’t identify with any age, ethnicity, belief, or economic class. Only rogues, renegades, skeptics, amateur philosophers, and Godzilla/nuclear fear film lovers.
- It’s as important to look good as play well! My collection of jerseys ranges from the Icelandic national team to a 1980 polyester from an employer’s softball team (which, thanks to my recent workout regimen, actually fits). I use different colored stockings and shorts to create numerous fashion combinations. Playing soccer for me is an event like going to the theater or a funeral for which one should dress accordingly. Think of the elderly widower who wears a jacket and tie to Prime Rib Tuesday at Sizzler.
- I must be both aware of my age and able to forget about it to maximize my match experience. I try to remember that I’m not there to win, vanquish my adversary, or prove how cool I am for an old guy. I don’t recover as quickly from injury or the previous day’s tilt and have lost a step in my downfield speed. Aside from that, I play much the same as when I was 26.
- I hate goalkeeping. Maybe it’s the fear still talking. But in our eight-against-eight games, everyone rotates in goal. I refuse to use my hands though. I play it like a full back to make it interesting and visually emphasize how I much I hate goalkeeping.
- That said, variety is the spice of life. I’ll play any position. The experience and knowledge I get from going outside my comfort zone makes me a better person and player. And that’s really the whole idea.
- Leg cramps can be caused by a Vitamin B deficiency. This surprised me in that I like Vegemite, the oft-derided Australian sandwich spread dripping with Vitamin B. I guess I’m not eating enough. But Vegemite is like sex: I enjoy it but there’s only so much I can handle.
- Speaking of food, my new dietary and physical demands resulted in me losing weight and keeping it off. Back in my 1970s playing days, I weighed around 170. When I started my comeback in March 2020, I weighed 185. One year later, I’m at 170 again. More important, the regular exercise combined with regular meals has kept my weight steady.
- My diet has always been carb-heavy: Bread and pasta are essential substances. I added protein: Eggs, fish, cheese, nuts. But I did not increase my fat intake. I’ve never been a fan of fast or fried foods, burgers and the like. I prepare nearly everything I eat. This part was easy because it’s worked for me for decades. But cutting fat out of most people’s diets might be the hardest thing they have to do when embarking on a campaign like this.
- Curb your enthusiasm! When I started playing with Cottonwood, I played three games in four days. By the third, I was sore, tired, and making mistakes that almost caused injuries to myself and others. I’m cutting back to twice a week with 3–4 days between matches.
- Don’t run out of ibuprofen. You may not make it to the drug store ever again.
Epilogue: Old Bones, New Joys
This all began as a mission/adventure/experiment. My 66-year-old mind, body, and spirit needed to escape the real and imagined boundaries of age as well as the unexpected, devastating obstacles caused by COVID-19. I also needed to exhume and confront the long-suppressed fears left by a violent and near-fatal encounter which abruptly and involuntarily ended my relationship with an unfailing and constant childhood companion.
Update: As of January 2021, I play pickup once a week (weather permitting) while maintaining my regimen of solo practice in the park, running, weights, and other exercise (I still have the net which has survived a year of abuse). I also cross-country ski stronger thanks to the soccer training. I have yet to suffer any serious injuries but I’ve come close. As life with COVID-19 slowly returns to normal, I celebrate every day of this sad but extraordinary time for reawakening my vitality. It also hopefully proves that if an old dog cannot learn new tricks, he can at least dig up his old bones to enjoy again.