Evan was a great little soccer player, eager to learn new moves, willing to run the length of the field, ready to shoot the ball whenever he found the opportunity.
After a few years he asked if he could join his friends and try out for the competitive league.
It meant more time and money spent on the sport, but he was good at it and his Dad and I wanted to be supportive.
He made it into the league and was assigned to an established team. During the first meeting Team Mom Mary went over the costs of the new uniforms (expensive) and the hours the boys would be practicing (a lot).
The Coach took the floor to go over the “commitment” he expected from his players. He explained that as their “commitment” rose their grades might fall.
This seemed a bit excessive for a group of ten year olds. I examined the face of the other parents. They were murmuring agreement and smiling. They seemed to be nice, normal people from nearby neighborhoods, so I kept quiet.
As the meeting concluded one of the fathers voiced how pleased he was that his son was on Coach’s team. Another mom agreed, adding that she was well aware of his history of winning seasons. Everyone started clapping, Coach humbly basking in their enthusiasm.
I have always been clumsy and uncoordinated so I was unaccustomed to the cultural norms of sports.
Nobu was a natural athlete and all his sons inherited this skill. I counted on him to de-code team customs. After dinner I told him about the cost and time involved in Evan’s new endeavor. He shrugged it off as the new way.
Nobu was less accepting of the way Coach performed during games.
The man had a few favorites that he kept in most of the time. The other boys were only allowed to participate when his first line got tired and needed a break.
This was beginning to take a toll on Evan. He had entered the season as a terrific soccer player. Now, when he was on the field and the ball came to him, Coach pulled him off. If the ball didn’t come to him, Coach pulled him off.
At first I thought Coach was intentionally trying to ruin the game for my son. His intentions were more insidious. Evan was not one of his stars. He was an anonymous cog in the machinery, a warm body to throw on the field. The Coach’s disregard for these ancillary players verged on contempt.
After about a month, Nobu had enough.
We sat with Evan one night and Nobu told Evan he thought his son should find a team where he could have more fun, more play time, more growth.
“But Dad, it’s the middle of the season. I won’t be able to join another team unit next year.”
“That’s okay, Evan. We can kick the ball at the park. Maybe we’ll go fishing.”
“I want to stay. I’ll try harder. Everyone knows Coach is a winner.”
“Son, I think he’s a loser.”
“Dad, I’m not a quitter. I’m staying.”
We tried to make the best of it. Nobu went to every game, clinching his jaw, patting Evan on the back, always saying, “Good job, Ev”.
I took him to every practice, chatting with the parents on the sidelines, trying to be the type of Mom that was expected.
Finally, it was the end of the season. Coach gathered the boys and announced that this year he couldn’t take them to the Pepsi Tournament, the much anticipated playoffs.
Everyone was disappointed.
The mom and dad next to me commiserated, “Isn’t that a shame.”
Thank God, I thought.
Team Mom Mary told us the end of year party would be in a couple of weeks at Red Robin. She’d contact us later with the exact time and date. We could give the ten dollars for Coach’s gift to the treasurer tonight.
$10? Red Robin? The recreational soccer teams of the past had pot lucks and picnics. I supposed everything about competitive leagues was more expensive. Even their celebrations.
I sighed and Evan grabbed my hand.
“Mom, won’t that be great! That’s when they give out our trophies!”
Evan had made the best of the situation. So could I.
Nobu, Andrew, Evan and I got to the restaurant a few minutes late. We were directed to the rear room. It was packed. Fifteen players, thirty parents, brothers, sister, grandparents. We found an empty table on the fringe.
Nobu and I mingled, Evan joined his group of peers, and Andrew played with the younger kids.
Coach accepted his extravagant gift with the same false modesty I’d become familiar with, the trophies were handed out, we settled our bill and left.
On our way home, Nobu and I gave our own speeches to Evan.
We told him how proud we were of his character. How every game he’d tried his best. That he had persevered because he felt it was the right thing to do. That the chapter was closed, but we had all learned a valuable lesson.
Evan took his trophy to bed with him. I tucked him in, glad it was over.
Until three days later. When the phone rang. A woman’s voice, breathless, anxious.
“Alice, I have to tell you something.”
“Who is this?”
Did she say Dara or it doesn’t matter?
Improbable sentences expressing an impossible situation tumbled through the tiniest of wires.
“The team did go to the tournament. We won. But Coach didn’t want to bring three of our players. Evan was one of them. We had the ceremony at Team Mom Mary’s house last Saturday. We swore we’d keep it a secret.”
My blood had run cold at the beginning of her confession. Now rage was making it boil, my face hot, my thoughts clearing.
“What you’re telling me is immoral. Against the rules and the spirit of sportsmanship. What is wrong with you, whoever you are?”
“That’s why I’m calling. I feel terrible.”
“Why did you participate in this sham?”
“If I didn’t, my son son would be blacklisted. No one would have him on their team. He’d never get a college scholarship.”
“These kids are ten years old for chrissakes. What kind of morality are you….”
The dial tone signaled the woman had said enough to assuage her conscience.
The receiver sloshed in sweaty palms, my shirt wet from wave after wave of revelations crashing about the kitchen, one by one. Fifty people from eight months to eighty years had colluded in this well orchestrated pretense. I parsed every word, every gesture from that night. Their deception was complete. It was stunning.
I called the league office, expecting outrage. Instead I was greeted by indifference, bureaucratic collusion.
I would not be put off. Eventually Mike, a young man in his twenties, who told me about his love of the game, agreed to look into my allegations. No parents would return his calls so he spoke directly to Coach. Who confirmed every detail. He knew he was untouchable.
Mike assured me a letter of rebuke would go in coach’s permanent record.
I received a copy months later.
The paper was cheap, the letters were blurry. It was slippery and wafted to the floor.
The next season Evan joined a new league, a new team. There was no team mom, just the coach and another dad who helped out. The coach went over the practice times, offering to pick up the kids who didn’t have a ride. His credo seemed to be Everyone Plays, Everyone Wins. Nobu and I stood on the sidelines during the first game, still a little anxious. Evan was once again running from one end of the field to the other, smiling, his hair catching in the breeze.