With Number One’s high school graduation drawing nigh, we’re going through a season of Last Things: last prom, last high school term paper due, last final exam and, most bittersweet, the last soccer match.
We had played the moment in our fast-forward minds many times. We would be gathered round the Lads in Orange on Saturday, May 12th, 2007 as they hoisted the Alabama 6A High School soccer trophy high above their sweaty heads, champions of the state on an expansive pitch of freshly-trimmed grass in front of an undulating sea of hometown orange and black.
But it did not end this way. Instead, our campaign closed on a more cruel note, on a fast, unfamiliar and unforgiving artificial turf in front of a large, hostile crowd in the quarterfinals of the state tournament Friday night. The 1-0 loss to Vestavia Hills High School was not a major upset (they have an exceptional squad whom we beat 1-0 in the finals of the preseason state tournament in February), but for our Grissom High Tigers, who were ranked number one in the state and 19th in the nation, it was not the ending we had hoped for.
It was a tight tussle which remained scoreless 10 minutes into the second half before a Vestavia forward broke through our back line and launched an unexpected strike from just past the center circle–a good 30 yards out–that caught our keeper just a step too far off his line and arched just over his finger tips for what would prove to be the game winner.
We attacked furiously after that, wave after wave, but the Vestavia back line stood stout and firm. Our last best chance came with less than five minutes to play, a laser of a cross from our right wing that caught our striker in full stride at the six for the potential equalizer. But the resultant collision of boot and ball sailed a mere inch over the cross bar and the head of a greatly relieved Vestavia keeper. In the final moments we pulled our keeper who kept launching one desperate heave after another into the massive mix gathered inside their 18, but Vestavia’s thick wall of defenders turned back our every attempt.
It’s always easy to do post-mortems and find the reasons for failure. Our unfamiliarity with artificial turf gave Vestavia an unusually large home field advantage (our passes, normally weighed in just the right proportions for perfectly timed and immaculately placed through balls, were always just a few feet too long that night). The large expectations which weighed especially heavily on the shoulders of our eleven seniors played a factor too, and Number One noted that in warm-ups, everyone seemed unusually tight and nervous. A poke to the eye of our right back which resulted in his leaving the field at a critical moment was one among many small things which, when added up over the course of a match, matter greatly in final outcomes.
But in the end, it came down to one man making the shot of his life–one that he will replay over and over even while rocking on the porch at the old folks’ home–and our many close chances that we failed to finish. Soccer, more than any other sport, turns on such razor thin margins.
After our first round playoff win on Tuesday night, Number One told me, “That was my Last Game.” He’s a reserve midfielder who played a good many minutes that night and had two assists, one of them a dandy of a one-touch chip which looped over the opposing back line and found the foot of our striker who tucked it away neatly just inside the right post.
He didn’t mean that he expected his team to lose, only that the margins would be so tight that Coach wouldn’t go as deeply into the bench. But I was in full denial and didn’t want to believe him. Surely, in the Alabama heat that so often characterizes our state Final Four, our outside runners would need some relief and Number One would come into the game for some quality minutes, perhaps serving up another fine assist or, if the situation presented itself, finding the back of the net. Maybe we would be up and in control of the final, and Number One would enter the championship game as his family and legions of friends cheered him on.
But the old boy was right. Number One didn’t see any action under the Friday night lights, and in the closing moments of the game, he stood near the bench, warm-up jacket still on, urging on his teammates, soaking in the final moments of a long and memory-filled career. As the final whistle tolled three times, his drained teammates limped toward the bench, many with tears in their eyes, warriors who left the last full measure on an unfriendly battleground in a far away place. Seeing that some were too distraught to make the trip back out to meet their opponents in the traditional post-game greet, Number One made his way onto the pitch and proceeded to shake the hand of every Vestavia player and coach.
Everyone has a role to play.
We waited for him at the end of the stadium near the parking lot. Soon he arrived, clad in his black and orange kit, the click-clack of his boots resounding against the concrete sidewalk.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He nodded and smiled thinly, walking past us and dealing with it in his own way. In olden days–win or lose–there would have been orange slices and little boxes of juice, a romp on the playground, and maybe later, a trip to McDonald’s.
But here, at this poorly-marked intersection of things past and things future, there was for Number One only a regular roast beef sandwich from an Arby’s on Highway 31 in Birmingham and a long, quiet ride home in the darkness of the Alabama night, his iPod filling his ears with a dirge of his own choosing.