Confessions of a Token Sportster

Sports were always important to my life. They were as important to me as music and art and other pursuits  which people pursue with passion and energy through their whole lives. Sports are as important to me now, as I slow way down, as they were in my youth…maybe more so. I think I know why. It was never winning or losing – though I won a few and lost a lot, to be sure. And it was never how you play the game, as the poetic sportswriter Grantland Rice consoled. It was instead, the thrill of acceleration.

When you move your body from its usual slow, lumbering entropy, and feel it move rapidly through space, that to me is one of the essential thrills of life. Go to the park on a sunny afternoon, and watch the five-year-olds. Life seems to wash over them, and they take off running at breakneck speed. They don’t have to be chasing a friend or a ball. They just accelerate because so much life built up in them they had to let it go. To my mind, that is what sport should be, all through your life. The competition is just our convenient excuse to go dashing around like five year olds.

Trying to play sports in school, with mediocre success, and succeeding a little better in college, I came to love sport for its own sake rather than as a measure of dominance which school, and later casual, athletes, thought was a way of keeping the ultimate score. Perhaps I would have upped my stakes had I been so gifted. But I had to really work at any sport, and seize my few opportunities, unlike the naturally gifted who cruised so easily through youth on that dominance. Later, as they grew fatter and slower I outpaced them, but by then they did not care…a shallow victory (– but I will still take shallow over none).

Of course it didn’t help that I contracted something approaching polio during the late 40s in Minnesota. In the hot summer, families had to keep their kids from swimming in the lakes due to that year’s polio epidemic. The doctors then (– who knew little about polio… and guessed a lot,) said I was sick with some kind of pre-polio. I stayed in bed and for many years before high school I was quite slow and pathetically un-athletic. Here my ability to read helped substitute for the real thing. I read in boy’s magazines about Jim Ryan who had burns on his legs but worked hard and became a four minute miler. And Richmond Flowers, whose legs had to have braces in much of the time he was young, and went on to be national high hurdles champion and an All-American halfback for Tennessee. Those were two of many who dragged their hopeless bodies finally into contention in sports, and finally into excellence.

Thus inspired by reading, I started running out on the roads of the neighborhood, ploddingly at first, but soon I could run four and five miles at a time, still quite haltingly. I went out for the freshman football team and was ground into the mud most days. In football I hit hard at anything within my reach, and but I very much fit the epitaph: “He wasn’t very big, but he was slow.” I then joined the cross-country team at my high school (which took all comers) and ran more, though I was always quite a distance behind the real runners. Later, I was allowed on the track team in my Junior year, and as a Senior ran a 2 minute 2 second half mile. This is laughably slow if you ask any track person. But I got third a few times and a junior varsity letter. However, I learned to loathe working out for the sake of working out. For fun, I did play basketball and baseball on various community and church leagues, and in time was able to muster acceptable speed for those activities, at least.

As important were the many hundreds of miles I put in hiking with a pack on my back, and climbing in the Seattle Area. Being in the Explorer Mountain Search and Rescue unit, we went for long distances through the mountains off-road and often off-trail. Sometimes we alternated carrying hikers on stretchers. This all really built up my legs and endurance, which have been useful all my life.

In college, I discovered Soccer. It was not something we Americans knew much about in the early 60s. I really did fall in love with the sport, long before much of it was played in the U.S. I was the right size, not too gangly or muscle-bound, and my endurance allowed me to defend by trying and failing to stop someone, but doubling around to catch them again, and again, until I wore them out with doggedness and finally stuck my foot (or my head) in the right place. I could only practice with the University of Washington team in my first two years, but I played a lot on industrial league teams, which on a Sunday afternoon were always short a player and could give me a uniform shirt and let me play. They knew I would run hard and as a defender get in the way of developing plays, even though I did not have the skill to actually turn the play around. Many afternoons there were two games and both games had teams which were a player short. They say you can run about 9 miles during a soccer game, so my endurance obviously helped there if there were 18 quick miles involved on one Sunday afternoon.

In my Junior year I made the University of Washington soccer team. It was sort of a fluke, but I accept flukes as my lot in life. (Some I have even done well by, like surviving Vietnam unscathed in the middle of combat.) This particular fluke was that the University of Washington soccer team used off-season athletes whom they had recruited internationally for other sports. Most especially, skiing sports brought in exceptional athletes, all of whom had played a lot of soccer, and many of whom had played at the semi-pro level in their own countries.

Learning soccer with that high caliber of player was a premium experience. They passed well and moved well without the ball and definitely expected you to do the same. They anticipated a play from far down the field and jogged early to the most likely area of contention instead of feverishly reacting from a distance. And always — they stopped the ball, dead. Most Americans let a long pass bounce off a bone and then the chase it down. That is very easy to defend because the American player never really has control of the ball. But these foreign guys deftly took a ball coming from 60 yards away, and caught it flat against the ground with one foot and no other movement. This always created several feet of “safe” space around them in which they had total control to move or pass before a defender could interrupt.

Stopping the ball was one of two things I learned from these exceptional athletes who it was my good fortune to play with. The other was that soccer games at the best levels are won not by doing something ordinary but merely faster or more powerfully, but by finding the slightly different approach, the small mistake in timing, something to create a scoring situation that defenders don’t expect…and a good defender anticipates nearly everything. Watching that creativity evolve is what keeps international crowds glued to their seats for the one or two goals that their teams do score, often after many close calls. When playing, I was decent with my head and only passable as a kicker, but I learned to love trying to spot situations to create openings for shots, and later became fairly good at it, and eventually even scored some goals because if it.

The fluke that allowed me to make the university team was based on other teams complaining that the University of Washington had too much foreign talent and other teams could not compete. Thus they made a rule that every NCAA team had to have at least two American players. And in my Junior and Senior years, I was one of the token Americans. However, there being only two such spots, I could look on it in a positive way and say there was high competition for those slots, and I won out.

I played in South America a few years later, and held my own, and became friendly with some team members from the English school where we’d picked up jobs at for a few months. And later, back in Dallas, I started playing left wing, which was easier for a right footer because I had developed my left handed throwing one summer at age 12 when I had broken my right wrist.  Later in soccer, defenders often dumped it out to me on the left wing to bring the ball down the length of the field, which was where the endurance came in. At the end of such a run, I often crossed the ball into potential scorers, or was able to sneak in to the “back door” of the goal and head one in that came from the right.

Because I became the leading scorer in the Dallas First Division (for a few weeks, that is…), I was invited to practice with the Dallas Tornado professional team’s ”taxi squad.” There was always a possibility one of the professional soccer players would become sick or hurt, in which case they occasionally called up someone from the “taxi squad’ to fill in the roster for a game. If that had happened, I could have said I was once a professional player (– “once” is the operative word here). However, I would have had to go to 4 hours of practice in the evening after working at Texas Instruments all day, and to have left work early a lot of times. Having a young family to support, it just couldn’t work out, so I didn’t practice with the Tornado and did not get to say I was “once” a professional athlete. Confession time: In my first few taxi squad practices with the professionals, the play seemed to be flying past my eyes and my reactions seemed far too slow. I realized that at age 32 I would have to spend most of my few extra waking hours trying to keep my body young enough to fly around at that pace. Or age might have claimed me anyway. A bad back claimed me when I moved to start a business in Seattle, and I did not play soccer again for twenty years. For some reason I was still fast, and everyone else in an over-55 league I joined had slowed down. I scored a goal, made some marvelous runs down the field at left wing, and blew out an Achilles tendon. However, it was a glorious few weeks at age 61, a sort of vacation from aging.

This was about the time I took up tennis again. I’d never been very good at tennis (surprised?), and never had great eye-hand coordination, but I could still run. Running in a seniors league made me useful in doubles matches where almost no one did run more than a few steps, and I could race across the court behind my teammate who the ball sailed over in a lob, and manage to keep the ball in play. I looked forward to such situations, and got the same old thrill of acceleration that was my original reason to love sports.

Golf — on the other hand — was something I had always abhorred, partly because of the built-in excess of leisure, but mostly because I spent time looking for balls in the forests which ran alongside the greens. My long balls always sought out those forests, to die in the underbrush. I had learned a little golf in a university Physical Education class, but in my renewed attempts about every 10 years I could never avoid the incessant gigantic slices which made the cost of golf almost double the greens fees, because of lost balls. Only now, as my running days may wain, have I started studying golf again. I can now hit a ball onto the fairway almost all the time. Thus I can now be disappointed along with the rest of those duffers in shorts who muff the short shots that I too flummox and who take as many putts as I take to get up to the hole. It’s a sort of fraternity of geezers.

However now with golf, I see that there is indeed what I most liked about sports. There is a good walk of about four miles, of course, if you don’t use a power cart. That is OK exercise, but no reason to love the sport. No, it is when you swing hard and hit the ball squarely, when that ball sails up and up and away from you, and disappears through the air straight over the next knoll. I swear, there it is…transferred to a little ball…that thrill of acceleration again.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved