I cringed with empathetic pain while reading the sports page recently. Executives and coaches adjusted their final rosters to determine who made the team and who got cut. Inevitably, NFL teams crushed the dreams of many aspiring football players when telling them somehow that they were being "let go." Most of those being cut fall into two groups: 1) the unproven rookie who didn't impress enough; or 2) the expensive veteran with deteriorating skills.
Despite my hulking physique, you may be astonished to learn that I was never an aspiring professional football player. As a kid with an August birthday, I barely squeaked into my grade based on age. In other words, when other guys were shaving and experimenting with facial hair, I still sounded like Peter Brady during his "sha-na-na-na-na" solo. Similarly, I was always undersized compared to the rest of my class. My mom thought soccer was a better fit, which was true in retrospect. Next thing you know, she and my dad are reffing, coaching, or hanging nets on goal posts along with other parents while 22 kids move like an amoeba encircled around the ball.
I played many sports through junior high, but soccer emerged as my best sport in high school. My coach was an unorthodox, passionate, crazy, master motivator called "Crash." We never won the big one, but we had some great wins and amazing moments together. (My first foray into writing was actually a manuscript I hashed together in college about that experience. It sits hidden in a drawer in my desk at work because I'm embarassed at its naivity whenever I get the nerve to take a look again.) Anyway, my point is that soccer's importance to me as a seventeen year-old ranked somewhere just below eating and breathing.
In the summer before college began, I trained and practiced my ass off. I was going to walk on the varsity team of a Division One school with players from foreign countries and American kids who played on traveling teams. With the exception of a disastrous high school freshman basketball tryout (I became the manager, which deserves a blog entry all on its own), I was not accustomed to athletic failure.
Once I arrived at the University of Vermont, I discovered a disturbingly serious problem: I wasn't that good compared to everyone else. In the fall, I played on the B-team with other dreamers still hanging on to the possibility of a call up. The audition continued through practices and scrimmages in the winter and spring.
Before my freshman year ended, everyone met individually with the head coach. I wasn't invited to the summer preseason. I was welcome to try out again but only with other walk-ons. I read between the lines. He didn't think I was good enough. I was crushed even though my financial livelihood was unaffected, which is the case for most of the guys whose names I read under the "Release" heading of the above-mentioned sports page this weekend.
Making the cut is a rite of passage in virtually all sports at every level. For the rejected, the cut system is a brilliant test of character, cajones, intestinal fortitude, etc. They have two options: accept their fate and move on elsewhere, or get better and keep trying. It's a brutally honest and cold but necessary process. It's a lesson that overlaps with any pursuit for that matter: job applications, dating, auditioning for the Jersey Shore, you name it.
As for me, I did what many other hasbeen athletes do - I traded in my jersey for a whistle. I had the pleasure of coaching the Hunt Middle School boys' soccer team of Burlington, Vermont for three years and fell in love with the sport again. I just wasn't ready to let go of my connection to the sport. That opportunity was the perfect transition. Nowadays, I'd probably pull my hammy getting off the couch just to turn the channel to a soccer game.
Assuming that Greta and Gus are interested in sports (or other activities with "cuts"), I'm not so secretly hoping to don a whistle again. Make no mistake, though, it will be all about them. I have no interest in being that annoying coach who plays their kid every minute of every game, or pressures them to succeed a la Emilio Estevez's detention for administering wedgies.
Whatever interest my babies pursue, I pray that they make the teams they try out for a whole lot more than the alternative. But in the event they don't "make it" on a team some day, I will be there with a sympathetic ear. Hopefully, my war stories won't sound too boring for them then...