For as long as he could remember, Doug hated organized sports. He hated watching them on TV. He hated playing them. And, for the most part, he hated the boys at school who did.
What Doug preferred, both to watch or participate in, were individual sports, such as swimming, riding his bike, and, especially, skateboarding. Though teams could (and were) formed around these activities, you could just as easily do them on your own. By definition, though, team sports were different. Good luck trying to play a game of football by yourself.
Doug was horrified, therefore, upon learning his father had signed him up for the local soccer league.
As is still the case in many American towns, the teams were sponsored by local business. The merchants would pay for equipment and bankroll practices, games, and whatever else might be required. In return, they got their local brand ironed on the backs of the uniforms worn by the players. Essentially, they got around a dozen or so mobile advertisements for minimal investment. Compared to the cost of running weekly and monthly ads in the Yellow Pages, papers, or billboards, it was one hell of a bargain. As a result, anyone with enough cash to afford the two dollar admission ticket might spend a sweltering Saturday afternoon on the bleachers witnessing heart-pounding displays of raw athletic talent from the likes of Thorsen’s Air Conditioning & Plumbing or Cassioli’s Delicatessen.
Doug ended up playing for what was, hands down, the worst team on the league: Norton’s Mortuary. In a way, though, it was strangely fitting, given the largely pointless protests he had made to his father that death itself was preferable to playing in some stupid soccer league.
But, join he did. His father, desiring his son to be like all the other boys his age, insisted upon it. As was the case with his earlier forced enrollment in the Boy Scouts, Doug’s objections fell on deaf ears.
The uniforms were baby blue and graced with the name of their kindly sponsor on the back. The large white iron-on letters began to crack and peel after just a couple runs through the wash but were supposed to be at least sturdy enough to last the duration of the season. Doug’s father had signed him up last minute, long after the gear and uniforms had already been assigned to all the other kids. His uniform, therefore, had to be pressed, printed, and ready to go in just two days, in time for the first practice.
For reasons he had never been able to ascertain, the liaison between the team and Norton’s Mortuary, the person responsible for procuring uniforms, never bothered to ask Doug what size he wore. When the blue shirt and black shorts arrived in the mail the day before practice, they were far too large, made for someone at least twice his size. The shirt hung like a sheet on his small frame, flapping around awkwardly just above his knees. The shorts were so baggy and loose that the crotch was located somewhere in the vicinity of his lower thighs. Lacking belt loops, Doug had to improvise a makeshift belt with two intertwined shoelaces and a couple safety pins just to keep his shorts from dropping to his ankles. He felt, and looked, like a clown.
Since the kids were all culled from different school districts, he saw only one or two familiar faces, and even these he knew only in passing and none by name. They, of course, didn’t know his name either. But that didn’t stop them from providing one for him. By the end of the first day, he was known as ‘Droopy Drawers.’
Doug hated every last one of them.
The game itself seemed simple enough. Regardless, he had no desire to excel at it. First of all, he was there against his will and, second, the jocks on the team were a bunch of assholes, as jocks tended to be. When the ball, nearly always by accident, rolled his way, Doug would kick it back the way it had come. That was about the extent of the effort he was willing to put into the game. He flatly refused to spend any energy under that unforgiving California sun running back and forth chasing the damned thing as it bounced and tumbled across the field.
Things went on like this for awhile until, on the third week, quite inexplicably, he was made goalie. Whether this was because of his refusal to move his legs faster than a brisk trot or just a futile effort on the part of the coach to give him a boost of team spirit, Doug never knew. Whatever the reason, the other players were not pleased. Goalie is arguably the most important position on the field, definitely so when it came to defense.
Though he was as surprised and horrified as his teammates at this promotion, Doug quickly got used to his new role. In fact, after a few practices, he discovered it wasn’t terribly difficult to block a goal. Anticipating when a player was going to feign left or right turned out to be rather easy for him. All that was left was to throw your body in front of the ball. Despite himself, he began to enjoy the game.
The enjoyment, though, didn’t stem from any sense of camaraderie. He still despised his teammates. They were the same bunch of jerkoffs they’d been since day one. No, what he enjoyed was infuriating them when they tried, and failed, to score against him. He, Doug, the same kid they had, only shortly before, unanimously hailed as the worst player on the team, was outperforming them. And this drove them absolutely nuts.
Of course, their collective insecurity only ratcheted up the abuse they heaped on him by an order of magnitude. The names they called him became increasingly vile and inventive. He would frequently find personal items missing from his locker and rumors regarding his sexuality began to make the rounds.
Doug didn’t really care, though, because, by this point, a seed of revenge had found fertile soil in his disaffected mind and was beginning to grow. Before long, the seed had taken root and what had begun as a vague notion of vengeance had blossomed into an actual plan, one that would require a little bit of luck and one hell of a lot of patience.
After seven or eight practices the first game of the season was upon them. All the kids seemed both excited that their hard work would finally be witnessed by hundreds of people and also nervous that they would all get their asses handed to them by the opposing team in front of said hundreds of people. They were up against Turlock Health Foods, a little hippie shop on the west side of town whose entire schtick was peddling herbs and vitamins claiming to cure everything from gout to cancer. From talk around the locker room, Doug gathered the majority of players in both teams were about evenly matched, with one exception; Turlock Health Foods had a valuable asset in Garret McDermott, a kid from his own school who excelled at any sport involving the kicking, tossing, or catching of balls. Regardless, spirits remained high because, though the Nortons players would never admit it, they possessed, in Doug, a star player of their own.
The bleachers were packed to the gills and, after a brief speech by some self-important official from town hall or somewhere, the game commenced. During the first half Norton’s held their own, but not without a level of effort far exceeding that of any practice. The temperature was well into the triple digits and every last kid was drenched with sweat and there was a lot of scowling and cursing on both sides. Doug found himself working his defense game much harder than he was accustomed to, particularly when it was Garret coming at him. Still, by the end of the first half, the two teams were tied. What Turlock Health Foods lacked in defense (at times it seemed their goalie couldn’t block a beachball) they made up for in offense, by way of Garret. The opposite was true of Norton’s Mortuary.
The second half proceeded much like the first. Both teams were neck in neck, and as the clock wound down, the game seemed destined to go into overtime. A tied score, though nerve-racking for everyone else, was perfect for what Doug had in mind.
When possible, he stole glances at the scoreboard with the big and red blocky digital countdown clicking steadily toward zero. With the two teams still stuck in a stalemate and less than a minute remaining in the game, the watching crowd was either perched on the edge of their seats with expectation or slumped back in bored resignation to the very real possibility the game might drag on for another thirty minutes or so into overtime.
When the clock was down to ten seconds, Doug was finally ready to execute his plan. Garret was leading the charge, as usual, barreling down the field in his direction, easily outmaneuvering Norton’s clumsy attempts to take back the ball. He didn’t even bother passing it back and forth to his teammates. It was evident he was determined to take all the glory of breaking this stalemate on his own, without assistance, just before the clock ran out. It was such a predictably Garret thing to do. Kids like him weren’t content with simply winning. They had to win big.
As Garret closed in, Doug hopped back and forth like a panicked crab, his oversized jersey billowing about him like a dress. His scrawny arms were stretched wide in an attempt to make his body as wide an obstacle as possible. Norton’s pursuing players, hopelessly left in the dust, slowed to a crawl, panting with exertion and pinning all remaining hope on the one player they despised.
This was it, the defining moment both teams had worked toward during all those grueling weeks of practice. The two teams would either remain tied and be forced into overtime or Norton’s would be defeated.
Garret feigned left, right, left….and kicked for the winning point.
And Doug promptly dropped his arms, calmly stepped aside, and let the ball sail past him and thump into the net.
For several moments there was only silence, both on the field and in the stands. It was as if everyone was trying to work out what had just happened. Then, a moment later, they apparently figured it out. A chorus of boos erupted from the bleachers. Doug smiled. In a sense, he had achieved a double victory. He had secured a loss for his own team and robbed the other of a real victory. Turlock Health Foods had won, it was true, but only because he had allowed them to.
That Saturday afternoon was his last game of soccer. After that performance, his father finally let him quit. In that respect, Doug felt he had actually achieved, not a double victory, but a triple one.
But, as with all victories, this one came at a cost. Doug’s father never really got over it. He had been in the stands that day, cheering on his kid, right along with all the other parents. Then, quite suddenly, he had found himself in the unenviable position of being the father of the boy who had just ruined the entire experience for everyone.
And it was for this reason alone that Doug was afterwards a little bit sad and ashamed of what he had done that Saturday afternoon.
But only a little bit.