My Soccer Comeback Update: Win or Lose, At 68, It’s Ugly
Apologies for not writing for so long — even though I’m not really sorry. Honestly, sitting and writing for just minutes makes my butt hurt. And among the many things I’ve discovered since making an inspired but perilous return to fußball, when I could be shopping online for rocking chairs, is that I’d rather be outside kicking a ball than inside wiggling my fingers, gazing into a screen, trying to make retirement sound thrilling.
It’s been a painfully long year since I documented the trivial musings of a newly-invisible senior citizen playing soccer again after almost getting killed in a game in 1980. But the end of any year seems right to update you, my anxious readers: not just because I’m sitting inside (on a pillow), drinking Tibetan tea, and watching the snows of Minnesota tickle the window pane, but because my experiences since then have been dramatic, unexpected, and — most important to any hungry audience— violent and horrifying.
When we left our hero (me) in early 2021, I was playing pickup in Salt Lake City with bored teenagers, fugitive fathers, Brazilian lesbians, and dubiously-employed, pandemic-weary misfits from a variety of ethnic, education, and economic strata. There were as many styles of play as personalities: dribblers, passers, standers, runners, players from every continent, maybe even Antarctica. Every match was like conducting a driver’s ed class.
After months of playing at ever-changing times and locales, often in 100-degree heat, I decided to stage my own games at a park near my apartment at cooler and more convenient times of day: Wednesday night and Sunday morning. I posted notices on Facebook groups (including homespun digital posters I Photoshopped like the one above), loaded my nets, flags, and other gear into my grocery cart and rolled it a half-mile to the park.
The games were an instant hit, but I hadn’t been careful what I wished for. I soon had to set up fields for two simultaneous games. I arrived earlier to trowel up the bountiful dog feces littering the pitches like squishy land mines. One day, I found my favorite field (which I’d once personally raked when park crews forgot to after mowing) had been rented by a youth league because, the coach told me, “it looked so nice”.
It finally dawned on me that, between assigning players to teams, managing equipment and facilities, I was spending more time organizing than playing. Something had to change. And it did — but not because of soccer. After a miserable summer of unprecedented desert heat and wind, parched grass due to drought, dangerous air pollution worsened by wildfires, it was climate change that persuaded me to relocate entirely. My partner got a job in her old hometown and we were off — to Duluth, Minnesota.
On the rocky shores of Lake Superior, Duluth is believed by many to be a five-star sanctuary for the climate-anxious. It’s cooler, cloudier, with more trees and water, fewer people, and cleaner air than just about any US city. That’s one reason we moved here. Another is that Duluth has a vibrant soccer community. With a semi-pro team, adult recreation leagues, and competitive high school and college programs, soccer is almost as popular as the local cold weather sports: hockey, curling, and ice fishing.
When we arrived in October, I posted on Facebook and elsewhere looking for soccer games. Right away, I found and joined a group of older men (OFFAL: Old Farts Football Alliance) who played for fun weekly, indoors and outdoors, all year. I also registered for a co-ed recreational league that does the same but competitively. It was good to play again so soon but there were downsides. First, the older group plays on Friday evenings (outdoors, weather permitting), or indoors on Sunday night at 9 p.m. That helps reduce my beer consumption but also disrupts my sleep routines. It’s difficult to fall asleep haunted by that easy shot I missed or wincing over a bruised ankle.
The second downside is safety. While the “fun group” is indeed fun, lack of practice and control often results in hilarious, oft-painful boo-boos. A teenager tried passing to a teammate through my skull. His belter struck me in my left eye socket. Stunned with amusement, I was only knocked off-balance for a moment. A teammate checked if I was OK and I resumed having fun. Earlier, a teammate (a doctor) caught a banger in the bollocks. He similarly shook it off and returned but suspiciously didn’t come to my aid when I was hit later. Reverse time warp karma? Now, we’re having fun.
The recreational league: not fun. When new teams were posted, I was the only member of mine with goalkeeper experience. So I would play my first league game in 40 years at the same position that nearly killed me. In 1980, I was goalkeeper when a ball was passed toward me. As my opponent charged toward the ball and me, I slid, he kicked, missed the ball and hit me. I got three broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a trip to the emergency room, and eight days in the hospital. I quit playing forever. Until 2020.
I made lots of mistakes, but giving up a goal was not among them. We won 4–0. More momentous, I wore the same shirt I’d worn that fateful day in 1980 (why it was in my closet and how it still fit are mysteries perhaps better addressed by Marie Kondo than Dr. Phil). Most significantly, I’d played a position I swore never to play again only to prove I could. While I’m glad I did, I can’t say I enjoyed it nor do I believe I will. But from what I’ve learned about time gaps on my comeback journey, perhaps I’ll feel differently when I’m 108.
Unfortunately, our next game took me right back to 1980. During warmups, a teammate fell, dislocated her knee, broke an arm, and was taken away by ambulance. During the game, an errant pass struck an opponent between the eyes. She crumpled, was helped off the pitch, and spent the rest of the game on her back. Any sport has its hazards. But at this level, the greatest is naivety. Like defensive driving, playing assertively while avoiding injury (and injuring others) is as challenging and important as being able to kick 40 meters.
As philosophical as I’m prone to get at the end of any story, I feel it’s more important to impart advice to those of you intending to resume your participation in sports, whatever your age.
- Don’t attempt to play a game unless you’re in good physical condition. After years of not playing, I trained for months before entering a match. The person who wrecked her leg and arm in warmups was not ready for competition, which introduces uncontrollable contact into the conditions. If you aren’t ready, you won’t play well, others will become wary, and you risk injuring yourself and others.
- Explain your personal goals to other players. If they understand your situation at the onset, they’ll be more forgiving, empathetic, and easier on you. But let them know when you’re past the introductory phase and ready for more vigorous play. Pushing yourself will make your experience more exciting, your teammates will notice and appreciate your efforts.
- Don’t quit. You’ll make crucial and embarrassing errors. You’ll get hurt. The tricky part is knowing what’s serious and what isn’t. Don’t play if you are limping. Don’t play on vicadin or after a few beers. I never missed a game due to injury, but if you do, don’t feel guilty. Guilt is less painful than a torn hamstring. Remember, you’re learning to play with a different body than you had back in the day and someone will always be better than you. Having fun and getting exercise is the goal, not the World Cup.
4. Don’t be a jerk. One of the big benefits of my experiences in both Salt Lake City and Duluth has been socializing with like-minded people and making new friends. You’ll eventually get fouled or kicked in the gut by one of them. But not deliberately. When I got hit in the face, I bit my tongue and said nothing to the other player. He apologized and we left it there. It could just as easily have been me hurting him.
5. When you hurt somebody, apologize immediately and promise to not do it again. You probably will do it again but it’s the thought that counts.