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Forget for a moment all that you’ve heard about the student athlete. Forget about the dedication and determination one needs to compete on a top-level team. Forget about the teamwork, the almost insidious way an athlete learns the value of unselfishness. Forget too about how all the grace notes of being a top high school athlete often transfer into the academic side, creating an organized student who won’t back down from a challenge. For just one moment, put aside the paragon of skill and good character, because just briefly I want to introduce you to another character.
Here I am, right where I’ve been most of my life, in Port Townsend, a small town on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. If I walk a few blocks from my house, I can climb the Fort Worden bluff and look across the Straits of Juan De Fuca to Canada. The wind will no doubt be blowing; the cold Northwest rain misting. It’s no place to be a soccer player. And yet there I am, day after day, on a field at Fort Worden. I am six, then seven, eight, nine. The grass is sopping wet, and I think that sliding in the mud is almost as fun as scoring a goal. Ten, eleven…I’m playing now on another field, this one surrounded by a ten-foot blackberry bramble that snatches wayward balls and will only give them back after imparting a few good scratches on me. This is the field where my dribbling and shooting skills begin to improve, thanks to the neighborhood deer who graze in front of the goals, refusing to give way to soccer players. Twelve, thirteen…I try out for a premier level soccer team and don’t make it. My parents try to soothe me with stories of how they had to overcome obstacles in their lives, how those obstacles made them stronger. I don’t want to hear their stories. Instead, I construct a few cardboard opponents in my garage. I am relentless against them. I spend hours juggling and practicing moves in my paved driveway. Then I go on long runs through the woods, following the curves and twists of a dozen hiking trails until I can barely stand. Fourteen…Again, I try out for a premier level soccer team. This time I make it, and I enter a whole new world.
When you live in a small town out on the edge of the country, a town with only one road going in and out, and a single ferry that shuts down at 8 p.m., you can easily reconcile yourself to the idea of limits. Once I began playing premier soccer, however, such a notion became alien to me. My new team practiced an hour away from home. Every weekend, too, we had games, most of them a half-day’s journey for me and my parents. Even as I gave up the ease of “free” weekends, I learned to stretch my boundaries in all possible ways. I did my homework on the road, using my dad’s headlamp as I crunched numbers for AP Calculus. I had teammates quiz me on my vocabulary list. And, on the field, too, I found myself learning new ways of being. I learned the weird contradiction of being a team player, how sometimes letting go of individual goals leads to success as a team. I learned too that competitiveness didn’t always mean winning a game. For example, I would get excited at every chance to guard Nik Besagno, the No.1 pick overall in the Major League Soccer draft. I would make it my goal to shut him down by playing him tight and giving him a few opportunities to advance the ball.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when a routine becomes a habit and when that habit becomes a part of you. Remember that athlete in the first paragraph, the one dripping with admirable qualities. Sure, he is a cliché, but clichés are widely used because they are often true, and this too is the truth: Somewhere in the process of learning to be a better soccer player, somewhere between being that gawky six-year-old, sliding on the muddy field, and becoming the first soccer player to make the All-State team from Port Townsend, my character was developed. Regardless of whether I play another game of soccer once I graduate from high school, I know now that the lessons I learned from the game are a part of me now. I might not always win, but I know well how to work toward my goals: Practice, Set Up, Deliver.
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