A FATHER’S ODE TO HIS SON’S FINAL GAME
By Eric Champnella
Even if we’re not friends on social media, you know me. I’m the dad who’d post the occasional video of my son scoring a goal or making a great play, the goal or great play usually going in and out of frame as my excitement for the unfolding events on the soccer field overtook my ability to keep my iPhone steady. Or maybe it was a photo of him and his teammates celebrating a tournament win in INSERT DISTANT FIELD HERE, my son holding up the medal that would find its way to the others draped around his bedpost. Or perhaps it was just a picture of me and my son, my arm around his shoulder after a game, each of us smiling (at least until his teen years when both smiling in pictures and taking them with parents became uncool).
Like I said, even if we’re not connected via social media, you know me. Because we’re connected as parents. And we’re probably a lot alike when it comes to our kids and their sports.
But this isn’t one of those proud dad posts, not in the usual way. Instead, I’m feeling blue: yesterday, my son, Derek played his final soccer game. And watching him walk off the field in his uniform for the last time really got me. Because soccer wasn’t just his passion, it had become part of the fabric of our family.
Derek started playing when he was five years old after the recreational team being formed among some of kindergarteners at his school needed one more player. At the time, I don’t think I’d ever watched a soccer match from start to finish. Growing up in the Midwest when not many kids played, back before the formation of Major League Soccer and the success of the U.S. Women’s National Team, I have to be honest in saying I didn’t even like soccer. If you’d asked me then, I would’ve told you that any sport with a 50-50 chance of ending in a 0-0 tie was not a sport.
As that first season progressed, it turned out that not only did my son love the game but he was quite good for his age. So when the season ended and Derek’s coach was going off to coach his son in a different sport for the spring – and my son wanted to keep playing – I volunteered to coach. Due to my above-mentioned lack of soccer knowledge, I watched every YouTube coaching video and read every article I could find. I found the perfect post-game snacks to give out to the team, win or lose. Most importantly, I loved watching my son play. His joy became mine.
After a couple of seasons on the rec team, it became obvious my son needed a more challenging soccer environment (and better coaching), so he tried out for and made a nearby club team. And with that – a child playing club sports – my wife and I became the parents we used to make fun of before we had children ourselves. “Who the hell are these people driving all over God’s green acres and spending each weekend watching their kids play sports?! That will never be us.”
Yet here we were.
And we wouldn’t have had it any other way. As this sport, I once dismissed provided countless cherished memories for our family.
Sure, the mileage allowance on our cars became a white knuckle thriller at the end of each lease from traveling to tournaments and games (I’m pretty sure I’ve been to every Coffee Bean in California from Santa Barbara to San Diego). And while I sometimes cursed the early weekend morning drives to INSERT DISTANT FIELD HERE, Cindy and I met just as many friends among the parents as our son did among the players. Most shocking of all, if you had told me before kids that I’d be just as nervous and excited about watching a youth soccer match as I am watching a college football game played by my beloved alma mater, I’d have said you were crazy. But I happily missed many a Michigan game the last couple years to drive to INSERT DISTANT FIELD HERE to cheer on my son, my heart soaring with pride for each good play, and of course, breaking for him with each devastating loss. But those highs and lows would usually even out, for both of us, by the time we stopped for a bite to eat on the way home. The cycle to repeat the following weekend, and again the weekend after that. Seemingly with no end.
Then, just over a year ago, Derek had a really bad ankle injury that sidelined him for many months and required PRP to finally heal. Yet during his recovery, Cin and I both noticed his passion for the game starting to flicker. He played for his school this season but decided about halfway through that this, his junior year, would be his last.
So, yesterday, that chapter of his life — and mine with him — closed. And unlike the movies I sometimes write, it wasn’t after a winning goal or following the state championship. Like so many “big” moments in life, it came without fanfare. He was subbed out with about 10 minutes left in the final regular-season game against a team whose name already escapes me. In the stands, I sat watching, clapping, and taking pictures — thankfully behind sunglass — fighting the lump in my throat as this moment, this adventure, these memories, came to a close.
Now, as I sit and type these words, I realize that my sadness isn’t just about soccer ending, rather it’s about passing another signpost in the rapidly closing window of my son’s time under my roof. Because yesterday wasn’t just about Derek hanging up his cleats, it was another reminder that my once-little boy is growing up. And I’m feeling that with each milestone, both the joyous and the bittersweet.
Because there is no turning back. Unlike a soccer match, we can’t add extra time.
So to you younger parents with smaller children who might just be starting down the youth sports path, if I may offer you a bit of advice: don’t agonize and stress so much about it. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that sometimes. Because sooner than you think, you’ll be watching your son or daughter walking off the pitch or field or rink or court for the last time. And you won’t be thinking about games won or lost, nor minutes or position played. Worries about being on this team or that won’t cross your mind. Instead, you will be thinking about your boy or girl becoming a young man or woman, and the precious little amount of time we get to spend with them on that journey.
Eric is a writer and director whose credits include the sports movies ALEX & ME and THUNDERSTRUCK among others. He and his wife, Cindy, live in Southern California with their two children.