I saw a harried young dad the other day, scrolling and talking on his phone and pacing the sidelines of a Fuller Park soccer game whose 6-year-old participants looked more concerned with running around and not running into each other than winning or losing. Meanwhile, dad looked like a caged rat.
I’d stopped with my dog to sit on the bench and take in the sight of the young families and their kids tearing up the Fuller turf, just like my family and thousands of others have done in Tangletown since the Fuller Park Soccer Club launched in 1985 with four teams (the Wave, the Bouncers, the Lightening and the Zaggers) that has now grown to a league of 22 teams and 250 kids annually.
Luckily, I didn’t see much of myself in the dude. I can’t say I was 100-percent present all those spring and fall mornings, but 16 years after I first found myself standing on the sidelines of my kids’ soccer games, and now that it’s coming to a (gulp, sigh) close, I’m wishing I could get it all back and hold it tight. So, here I am, the weird old guy on the park bench reminding distracted dads and moms everywhere to be present and to volunteer, coach, bring treats, learn the game, get to know your neighbors and, more than anything, savor it while you can, because it’s as sweet as life gets.
Of course, “you never stop standing on the sidelines,” as one former soccer-mom-turned-college-student-mom put it to me when I was lamenting this graduation to the next phase of parent-kid love the other day. That is, you never stop rooting for your kids or trying to keep them safe and healthy and active, but the ritual of carting them around, talking about games and meeting their friends and friends’ families happens in a rare and relatively short moment; one that’s not to be tolerated, but cherished.
Our family knew nothing about soccer when we signed up for Fuller and then Lynnhurst soccer when our son Henry was five years old. Little league baseball, football and hockey dominated my youth, but like much of America over the past two decades, in short order we came to learn and love the game and its global reach. These days the Fuller Park Soccer Club acts as a pipeline to Southwest, South, De La Salle, Holy Angels and many other high school programs, especially Washburn, which hosts the annual Fuller Soccer Jamboree, an all-day bash in which veteran high school players mentor the up-and-comers.
More than anything, we came to learn that soccer has been a natural, if largely unacknowledged, community builder for South Minneapolis, right up with schools, churches, bars and libraries. There is a 30-year tradition in this neighborhood of standing or sitting on the sidelines with neighbors, acquaintances and complete strangers and of getting to know them and their kids a little bit and, in turn, making big bad Minneapolis feel a lot like a small town.
It’s a wave you get caught up in naturally, and the truth is I’m feeling extremely wistful about my last sideline-standing duties on these last first days of October as Helen concludes four wonderful years of playing soccer for Washburn. We’ve got a couple more games left, then it’s on to the end-of-season banquet and the fall fundraiser Oct. 15 at the Whiskey Junction starring Helen’s uncle’s band, the Belfast Cowboys (email me at the address below if you want to buy a ticket, as my soccer dad duties still include hawking for the cause), and then it’s a wrap.
Hard to believe.
Over the years, every once in a while, one of our kids would ask me why I rearranged my work schedule and drove and biked all over hill and dale to catch their games. My answer was always the same, and simple: “I love watching you play.”
I always will. I love watching Henry play pick-up basketball, and I love watching Helen play soccer and hearing her sing, because I’ve always known that the act of play is a testament to the human spirit itself and to ongoing budding growth, and in a world where too much adult focus is on competition and achievement, I’ve heeded the words of George Bernard Shaw (“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”), Diane Ackerman (“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning”) and Carl Jung (“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct”).
Sure, true “play” doesn’t come with coaches and parents helicoptering over every move and juice box, but I know from repeated experience that there is absolutely nothing like seeing your kid fly up and down a field or court. We want our kids to be eternally free and to soar along in life, and even if that is an impossible request of them and the universe, I have felt my heart leap time and again at the sight of my child churning across the horizon and, while I’m grateful for every last delicious memory, I know in my bones that I will miss it profoundly.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org