It will shock much of the autowriting and autowritingreading worlds (I made that second one up but I like it) to know that my brother and I are not terribly similar people. For example, our writing voices can be similar, at times, but I tend to use simpler language and fewer words to communicate my points. Politically, I’m very much a traditional conservative, whereas I think he might have voted for Bernie, if the DNC had given him the chance.
This difference manifests itself in many other ways, as well, but as we are no longer spring chickens and have both transferred much of our attention to our kids, the most obvious is in the way we parent our children.
I had a much more traditional sort of suburban youth than Jack did—I was the same age as my classmates, and I was merely smart enough to be in the LEAP-style programs. I was social in the ways that most kids are, and much of my social interaction came from team sports. I was on my school’s football, basketball, and track and field teams, I played summer league baseball, and I traveled around the midwest doing AAU-style and 3-on-3 basketball tournaments as well. I also played recreational youth soccer from age 6 to age 12. I did the BMX thing, too, but by the time I was 14 I had pretty much left it behind in favor of more traditional team sports.
I can say without any sort of bragging (because who brags about things they did 20+ years ago) that I won multiple championships in every sport I every played—some just of the travel team tournament variety (soccer, baseball), some of the more intramural variety (Ohio State 3-on-3 basketball and flag football) or informal type (Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball), some sanctioned state titles (football, track and field), and even an international competition or two. I was never a star player (with the exception of baseball), not by any means, but I was a always a more-than-competent cog of some exceptional team efforts.
Therefore, I am more than slightly irked when my brother says to his son, as he did in his post today, “The sports at your school, soccer and basketball — they’re easy.”
No. They’re not. Not even close.
I know that it’s easy to say that whatever you’re doing is harder or better than whatever somebody else is doing, especially when soccer in this country is mostly played by privileged white kids whose parents are dropping a couple grand a year on select team fees, private coaching, hundred-dollar goalkeeper gloves and cleats that won’t last half the season, and travel. I’m not sure if it’s a pro or a con that karting, which most people would probably consider to be a somewhat blue-collar endeavor, costs much, much more, but it doesn’t jibe with our constructs.
Over here, we have Brayden and Cody, the soccer kids from the suburbs playing on perfectly manicured fields, and over here, we have the dirty, hot, greasy pits of the karting track and the kids who are racing around a banked track. Which kids are tougher? Which kids are more privileged? Which kids are working harder? Which kids are playing the easy sport?
Who gives a shit?
Given the choice between trying to run a 80 minute endurance racecar stint or trying to make it through a two-hour high school football practice, I know which one I’d pick every time. If you haven’t done it, you don’t know. You don’t know that every single day of practice is a chance to quit—because your coaches and your teammates are sure as hell going to try to make you. In team sports, your teammates are really only your teammates on gameday—the rest of the time, they’re your competition. Every drill is a chance for you to win or lose your spot. Every sprint, every dropped pass, every missed shot is a complete mindfuck. I knew dozens of kids who had more athletic talent than I did. Yet I started a state championship football game at wide receiver, and they bought tickets. And let me tell you, none of it was easy.
I have watched as children ran until they vomited, ran some more, vomited some more, and then collapsed in 100+ degree heat. I’ve watched as kid after kid turned in their pads and helmets, quitting the team because they couldn’t take the phsycial and mental punishment. I have had a 6’5″, 280 pound grown man scream in my face, daring me to cry, because I blocked somebody in the back and took the winning touchdown off the scoreboard. I have taken off my football helmet to see a bone poking out of my forearm, and then played another three plays, only to be forcibly removed from practice by my training staff because I knew we had no chance of beating our rival without me that week, and then I had to watch my teammates lose that game as I stood helpless on the sidelines with my arm in a cast. Not particularly easy.
I’ve been the kid the coaches picked on, making my teammates line up again and again for extra sprints because “Baruth didn’t run all the way to the fucking line, so now he’s going to watch as you guys show him how to do it.” As a freshman, I waited until all the seniors and bigger kids left the locker room to shower, because I was so scrawny I didn’t want them to make fun of me.
I have had multiple concussions in one practice session, lining up as a 5’6″, 135 lb sophomore scout-team tailback against the number one defense in the state every day for 13 straight weeks, taking 25 or more hits a day. I’ve watched as one of my best friends struggles to remember the first steps or words of his daughter, the victim of countless head injuries throughout a college and professional football career.
I’ve sat in film sessions and had my mistakes reviewed, rewound and played over and over and over, as my peers laughed at me. I did 15 stadiums (running up and down each set of stairs in the stadium) in sweltering heat, one for each piece of my uniform that I accidentally left out in the hallway of our athletic complex after a heartbreaking loss. I went from 152 pounds to 139 in the span of three hours in the first of three of that day’s practices, only to be sent out to do it again in the afternoon.
Sure, it looks like it’s easy when the captain of the football team gets voted as homecoming king, or gets to skip class to go watch film, or dates the prom queen. But like most things, that privilege is a result of working harder than everybody else. And the older you get, as the pyramid gets smaller, you’ll find that everybody is talented. It’s hard work that makes the difference between the star player from your school who’s bagging groceries now and the kid who gets drafted in the first round. And there’s nothing easy about it.
As a parent, it doesn’t get any easier. I’ve watched as my star goalkeeper son gave up five goals in a single half of soccer, crying his eyes out with successive failure, but refusing to leave his spot, waving off a substitute. He was eight, playing against ten-yar-olds, kids twice his size who rocketed shots directly at his face. Yet he stood in there. Does that sound easy?
I’ve watched him take a ball to the face more times than I can count, blood pouring from his nose. He’s had soccer-ball sized contusions on his chest and stomach, and has a scar on his chin. You think that’s easy?
I’ve watched as over 100 nine-year-olds tried out for a soccer team that only ten of them would make, and I’ve wrestled with the emotions of hoping my son would make it while subconsciously cheering every time another kid made a mistake.
This past Saturday, I watched him wear the captain’s armband in his second soccer match of the season as he ran over six miles in sixty minutes this past weekend with the thermometer reading a cool 91 degrees, and then I watched as his number was called to drill home a penalty kick that would ultimately decide the match.
After the game, I asked him, “What were you thinking when you took that penalty shot?” All of his teammates were watching. All of the parents of both teams were watching. He was hot and exhausted, and his once gray shirt was soaked with sweat.
He said, “I was thinking that I needed to get the ball to a spot where the keeper couldn’t get to it. I figured he wouldn’t be used to a left-footed kick, so I used my left foot and tried to curl it into the top right corner of the goal. I didn’t want him to have a chance at it.” And that’s exactly what he did. Buried it in the back of the net. Game over.
He never thought, “I hope I make it,” or, “I hope I don’t miss.” He only thought about what would be required to win.
Is kicking a soccer ball as scary as driving a go kart? Of course not. My son won’t go near a go kart, at least not yet. But is driving a go kart as mentally challenging as having a hundred sets of eyes on you as you go mano a mano against a top-level goalkeeper? I don’t know. I’m not super interested in comparing the acts of children. I know it’s not easy. But I also know that nothing about competing against the best you can is easy, regardless if it’s on a racetrack, a soccer field, a basketball court, or even a math competition.
I’m proud of my nephew. I’m proud of my son. They’re taking two different paths to mental and physical toughness, but I wouldn’t bet against either one of them making it.