My life in sports


When I was a youth, I was consumed with sports. I poured over the sports pages and soaked up statistics. I spent countless hours with my older brother throwing the football or having a catch with a baseball. In ninth grade, I remember having to write in my English class what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I wrote, “professional athlete”. Afterwards I noted that when all the aspirations were read aloud, I was the only one in the class who had written such a dream. (The one kid who actually had a chance of becoming a professional athlete wrote “sports writer.”)

Two years later, I walked away from sports on any kind of organized level. A combination of factors led me to become disillusioned with the world of sports. First, and probably foremost, I didn’t experience the kind of success I had hoped for. Having not yet had my growth spurt, I took a particular beating as I wallowed away as third string quarterback. I switched to soccer goalie but over time lost the competition for the starting varsity position. In baseball I pitched, developing a sore arm from throwing too many curve balls early on in my development. My brother was off at college so he wasn’t there to encourage me. In both baseball and soccer I ended up on J.V. rather than the varsity, and frustrated and fed up, I left it all behind in my junior year.

During this time I was trying to shape an identity, as is the task of adolescence. (See previous post “Rorzak Test and wondering who we are”.) I began to carve out for myself a self-image as “sensitive soul who strives to bring healing to this wounded world.” I became overly serious. The Vietnam War was still going on, and it now seemed to me that sports were too trivial to devote time to, particularly in the face of a world that had so much pain in it. So I quit the sports teams and spent time volunteering at hospitals and nursing homes and in tutoring programs for disadvantaged children. Later, I would discover a gift for theater, as well as consciously enter into a spiritual quest as I became a religion major in college. It was around such things as these that I developed my identity. Over time I became estranged from my brother whose life headed off in quite a different direction.

For the most part, I left sports behind, though I still would read the sports pages in the newspaper to relax — a closet sports junkie. Over the years I would have a reoccurring dream at night in which I’m back in high school, going out for the team. In the dream in its various forms I would never actually get very far; I would never actually reach the point where I got out onto the field to compete.

At 31 I had a son. At age 5 he was on a soccer team and the woman to whom the position of coach fell was clueless, so I offered my help and became the assistant coach and Andrew had fun even though we lost all our games. When Andrew was 6, my offer to help wasn’t taken up, and coaching Andrew fell to some macho types who snarled a lot. That did it for Andrew and sports. For the most part he did fine without them; Andrew is gifted in music and theater and art.

My marriage to Andrew’s mother was very short lived, and at 39, I had a second son with my wife Sarah. Bobby was a quite different child: big, strong and innately competitive. This time around, with Sarah’s encouragement, I got more involved in my child’s coaching, volunteering my time to coach both Bobby’s baseball and soccer teams. Bobby really enjoyed sports, and gradually his sports passion and identity became focused in the position of a soccer goalie. I spent many, many hours playing soccer with Bobby, and for the most part these hours were very enjoyable time spent together.

Over time Bobby became very good at being a soccer goalie. Last Spring I concluded my time as Bobby’s soccer team coach as he was recruited to be the starting goalie on a more elite, highly competitive travel team. This Fall Bobby entered middle school, where he tried out for the school team as well and made it as one of their two goalies, a significant honor for a 11 year old playing with boys as old as 14. I’m proud as punch of his accomplishments, and the success he has experienced has been very good for him.

On rare occasions I still have the old dream, but when I do it takes me further. I actually get out onto the field and play. It’s fun.

Another thing that has happened in the last two years is that I’ve reconnected with my older brother, who also has a son who plays goalie. This has been a wonderful thing. We don’t have a great deal in common in other parts of our lives, but we do have soccer and sons in common, and that’s no small thing.

There have been times I’ve had to monitor myself in regard to caring too much about my son’s soccer success. I think it has been helpful to give up being “the coach” (he listens better to coaches who aren’t his dad, anyway.)

This little essay is about a healing in my soul.  Perhaps you got that. There is more to me than was contained in the image of “the sensitive soul that strives to bring healing to this wounded world”, although that is a part of who I am. There is also a part of me that enjoys the thrill of competition — going out onto the playing field and trying to kick some butt. There’s more to Bobby then that as well, but for now he’s having fun with this part of himself. This Saturday his team plays their second game in the State Cups. Oh, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.


  1. Al
    13 Oct 2006 10:26:30

    JEFF, I guess its a guy thing but at one time we all think about being professional ball players.I grew up watching Micky Mantle and Yogi Berra and can still name the line up for the 1960
    yankees. My own sports life was cut short by
    appendisitis so I couldnot go out for football
    in my freshman year the next year I was working after school. I played softball with the firemans teams for a few years Then I got married and moved out of town. No more fireman nomore softball. 28 years later I started playing softball again with the church team. During my hiatus I beganto have some second thoughts about the value of sports. so much importance is put on sports and competition and winning that t actually promotes frustration
    feelings of failure and turns otherwise normal intelligent people into maniacs. I have heard that 1 in 16000 will ever play professional sports. Imagine where we might be if we spent our time instead of coaching 4 and 5 year olds and on up into high school something that has so little lasting value (even if you win, you will eventually lose again) we spend that time on such things as world hunger or curing aids or cancer or learning to forgive like the amish people.

  2. Charlie
    13 Oct 2006 11:08:45

    First, I want to write how much I have enjoyed reading Jeff’s blog. My first memory of Jeff is when we were both walking around our college campus as freshmen, both on campus a week early to try out for soccer, and both a little homesick (actually, I was very homesick already). That was the beginning of a great friendship. Jeff is a little humble about his athletic abilities. He beat me out for the backup varsity goalie position that year. I used to call him “Biceps” because of his oversized “guns” (should a pastor be toting guns around with him?), and he could throw the soccer ball farther than many of us could kick it. I would have liked to have seen him on the mound for our baseball team, but it wasn’t to be.

    I thought I would throw in a story I read in the “Soccer Coaching Bible” in a chapter about competing with class –

    “One of the best examples of model behavior was Dr. Bob Baptista at Wheaton. Bob’s team was playing Lake Forest for the conference championship and the right to got to the NCAA regional playoffs. It was a home game for Wheaton and closely contested. Late in the game, Lake Forest just missed what would have been the tying goal. The game ended with Wheaton winning by a goal. As Bob checked in with the players after the game in the locker room, he overheard his goalkeeper inform a teammate that he thought the shot by Lake Forest actually had gone in the net and out a hole in the back. Instead of ignoring these comments, Bob inquired further and took the player to the field to check the net. Sure enough, there was the hole in the net.

    What to do? Forget it? After all, Lake Forest had already returned home. Who would know the difference? That wasn’t the way Bob Baptista thought or lived. His sense of fair play and integrity came to the forefront. He called the Lake Forest coach the next day and told him of the situation. The Lake Forest coach was willing to forgive and forget. He thanked Bob for his honesty and was about to hang up when Bob said, “I think we should play the game over.” The Lake Forest coach told him that he had already collected the equipment from the players plus they couldn’t afford to come down to Wheaton again. Bob insisted on replaying the game, and to do so Wheaton would come to Lake Forest the next day. The Lake Forest coach agreed to the replay. Wheaton won again – now they were the true and justified winner of the game and the valid representative for the NCAA playoffs.

    Talk about delivering the right message for your team. Wonder why this story has gone down in soccer circles as the all-time example of true sportsmanship and integrity? The next week Bob had a chance to share the whole scenario with the student body, and he closed his talk by telling the students, “We had a lot more to lose than a game. We had our reputations as a Christian community on the line.”

    Would you have made the same decision that Bob did? It’s a good question for all of us coaches to ask ourselves. One thing is for sure: Bob’s team never doubted his character and integrity; he set a standard of conduct that would never be questioned. Leading by example — that’s the key!”

    I’ll end with a personal perspective and I’d be interested to see if you think this is going too far. I think that to the extent that coaches like Bob Baptista leave an imprint on their players, they have done all of us a favor. In contrast, people whose mentors have continually encouraged them to get away with as much as the system will allow wind up in later years acting like those who were in charge of Enron. Respect for teammates, opponents, officials, and the rules are all usually given lip service at some level, but the followup is often weak. I was fortunate to coach a great young girl a few years ago. She wasn’t the greatest soccer player, but she was a great person. She impressed me so much that I wrote a long letter to her parents about her, and I remember that when she dropped off our team, I told her dad that “the world doesn’t really need more great soccer players, but it sure could use more people like M. who treat other people the right way.” M. was a player who maintained her character and integrity while in the midst of everything which can go on in sports, and she was truly an inspiration.

  3. Pastor Jeff
    13 Oct 2006 11:48:07

    Al, yes, the church softball team is a lot of fun, and we succeed turning losing into winning. And yes, people get way out of hand over sports. For me, it was the 61 Yankees:  Roger Maris, 61 home runs, Mickey Mantle, 54.

    Charlie, great to have you on the blog! As you note, if coaches (and parents)shaped sports more consistently into a character building arena, maybe there would be a lot fewer Enrons. Nice connection.
    Actually, our senior year at college I remember having a foot race with you. You won. And I still remember it.

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