by Andreas John Kamateros
Before there were soccer moms, there was a soccer kid. He was short and lonely, but a generally happy young boy named John “Johnny” Sesklo and he loved the game of soccer. It was the mid to late 1980′s and Johnny was attending Naptha Junior High School just a few blocks away from his mother’s home on Omega Avenue in Philadelphia. He lived in a quiet neighborhood devoid of friends and was the son of a single parent struggling to raise him along with his maternal grandmother. With an absent father who resided back in Europe, Johnny had to learn how to become a man on his own. Choosing to join his junior high school’s soccer team would lead him down a path of personal growth and maturity. It was on the soccer field where Johnny learned the seven lessons of life.
The industrial arts teacher for metalwork, Mr. Bartholomew Reagle, who could be described as a real-life Cliff Huxtable, was the much respected African-American coach for the Naptha soccer team. Nothing could rattle Mr. Reagle’s confidence and coaching skills. He knew how to pick talent and inspire his players. He was a quiet, determined leader in many ways, but also served as a detached father figure for young boys like Johnny, who looked up to Mr. Reagle for advice and guidance, both on and off the field. To be under the tutelage of this impressive coach, all Johnny had to do was simply try out. Would Johnny find a way to make the team?
Life lesson #1: You never know unless you try. Every young man has a talent, whether hidden or obvious. Some boys show skill in scientific endeavors while others have a penchant for the creative arts and still others excel on the battlefields of sport. Johnny wasn’t sure where to find his calling in life or where to prove himself, but he knew his love of soccer had to find an outlet. Not being tall or swift or particularly gifted in any athletic skills, Johnny was still determined to join the team, even if it meant sitting ingloriously on the sidelines throughout the soccer season. How would he know if he was any good unless he tried? The path to maturity would begin with Johnny’s first step on the soccer field and making the decision to participate in Mr. Reagle’s soccer team try-outs.
Life lesson #2: Never give up. After walking to the Kentar Playground where the soccer team try-outs would be conducted and overcoming his initial nerves, Johnny joined a group of prospective players lining up on one corner of the soccer field while another group of guys lined up on the opposite corner. In the middle was the goalkeeper. Each group of guys would alternate by taking corner kicks toward the goal. This was one of many skill tests that day. The two groups consisted of a mixed bunch of guys, from the physically fit jocks to the wannabe jocks and a couple of boys who looked completely lost. A portion of the prospective players seemed to be pairs of friends who showed up to the soccer try-outs just for fun. Johnny came alone. These pairs of friends were running all over the place and not taking Mr. Reagle’s instructions too seriously. Would these guys make the team? There were too many guys and not enough spots available. Johnny did not think they had a chance, but it didn’t matter much, because Johnny was determined to show his own soccer prowess during the corner kick test.
One by one, the guys lined up and kicked the soccer ball to a sweet spot just in front of the goalkeeper. Hitting this sweet spot would show Mr. Reagle that the player had an eye for the field and understood the tactics of corner kicks. The first kick came from a member of the previous year’s soccer team. He was a tall, muscular, older guy—called “Moose”—who had a cannon-like leg and a dominant presence on the field. He was tough and a leader, full of confidence but also a nice guy. He was a real team player and played the game for fun. Moose kicked the ball with all of his power and it shot straight to the sweet spot’s center. Everyone knew Moose didn’t have to prove his worth on the team.
After Moose, the sides began to alternate. Kicks came from the left corner, then the right corner. It was a steady barrage of soccer balls that left the goalkeeper busy. Johnny was towards the back of the line and as his turn was quickly approaching, he became more and more nervous. His eyes didn’t even follow each kick. He only stared at his place in the line. Soon it would be Johnny’s turn. The boy in front of him stepped back and sailed the ball close enough to the sweet spot to earn a few claps from the other boys watching. Perhaps inspired by the clapping, Johnny stepped up with a trembling leg and kicked the ball right away. He forgot to let the boy on the other side of the field to kick first. Johnny’s kick was weak and wobbled half way—not even reaching the goalkeeper. As if not waiting his turn wasn’t embarrassing enough, the kick earned Johnny the merciless teases of the other boys—especially from one of the more intimidating, taller players named Anthony, who called him “stupid” and other comments belittling his intelligence.
With the skill tests over, Mr. Reagle called upon everyone to take one quick lap around the field and then they could go home. The next day in his classroom, Mr. Reagle would reveal the short list of players who made it on the team. Johnny was still red in the face from his soccer field faux pas. He held his head down as he walked all the way home, cursing his luck and putting himself down. Johnny began to get angry and swore he didn’t want to join the team because of all those jerks who teased him. He even began to hate the entire sport of soccer. He was mad as hell and ready to give up. But what was it that possessed Johnny to show up at Mr. Reagle’s classroom the next day? Perhaps it was a perverse hope that he should not give up despite being teased, because being on the soccer team was what he wanted, even if he would look like a fool on the field.
As Johnny approached Mr. Reagle with a nervous sadness, the soccer coach smiled slyly and tossed him a green Naptha soccer uniform with the number 7 on the front. “Congratulations, Mr. Sesklo—you made the team,” Mr. Reagle said. Flabbergasted by the results, Johnny asked why. Mr. Reagle simply explained that Johnny showed the dedication he wanted to see in a player. “But what about that awful corner kick?” asked Johnny. Mr. Reagle reassured him that the kick was not so terrible, because there could’ve been another Naptha player there who would accept the pass and take the shot on goal. Inadvertently, Johnny showed some corner kick tactics that seemed to impress Mr. Reagle. Score one for those who don’t give up.
Life lesson #3: Hard work is its own reward. Mr. Reagle assigned positions to every player and Johnny was given the Center Forward position based on his performance in the practice trials leading up to the first real game. While a very prominent position on the soccer field, the center forward spot did not factor heavily in Mr. Reagle’s overall soccer tactics and game plans. The coach was a wing supporter. In other words, he placed his fastest and strongest players on the left and right wings to quickly move the ball forward in a heavily offensive-minded winning strategy. If lucky, the center forward might catch a rebound off the goalkeeper and score a goal now and again, but his main duty was to shadow the players in the backfield while trying not to be offside. How would Johnny fare in this dynamic? The first game would test Johnny’s mettle.
The first game was against Hairston, another junior high (middle) school with a reputation for highly athletic students. Listening to the other players on the team, the ones who played the previous year and sounded like war-weary veterans, Johnny began to get a sense that Hairston was a strong team and virtually undefeatable. Mr. Reagle’s strategy for this game was to rely on his fullbacks to keep a tight defense. It was going to be a close game. If Naptha had any chance to win, then it would come from an unlikely runaway shot on goal against Hairston. And what role, if any, would Johnny play?
The game was a war of attrition. The ball changed sides many times, but could not find the back of the net. Naptha tried, but Hairston thwarted every attempt. Hairston tried, but Mr. Reagle’s strong defense—and the faith he had in his fullbacks—held firm. The first forty-five minutes went scoreless and it seemed the game would end as a tie, except for what happened in the final few minutes.
Johnny left his role of shadowing the Hairston fullbacks and moved to a position closer to the center circle while most of the action was near the Naptha goal. Both of Hairston’s fullbacks took the bait and slowly followed Johnny, leaving their goalkeeper vulnerable to a counterattack. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the ball was passed by one of the players near the Naptha goal forward to Johnny’s position. He quickly took control of the ball and it became a breakaway sprint to the Hairston goal. It was just Johnny and the goalkeeper. Like a slow motion scene from a Hollywood movie, Johnny felt time slow down and his thoughts became lucid—which side of the goalkeeper would he kick the ball to score the goal and win the game?
Like pulling the hammer back on a revolver, Johnny cocked his leg in full stride and made ready to take the shot that would score the winning goal. But suddenly, flying over Johnny’s left shoulder, he saw one of the Hairston players jump in front of him and kick the ball away. Was Johnny denied a goal? Yes, in a sense. What actually happened was that the overly anxious Hairston player ended up kicking the ball into his own side’s net! Score one for Naptha! The game ended 1 to 0. The mighty Hairston team was felled by their own player. Johnny had his legendary goal stolen from him, but since he was the last Naptha player to touch the ball, he was given credit for the winning score. All that hard work was cut short and glory denied. The sweat was its own reward. It was a sweet victory, nonetheless. When Johnny’s first year on the soccer team ended after eight games, he only had that one goal to his credit.
Life lesson #4: Cherish each moment for they are all precious. The following year of soccer helped Johnny settle in. He still had not proven himself, but his time would surely come. The first couple of games during the second season were unremarkable—even though Naptha pulled off both victories. Mr. Reagle had visions of a possible undefeated run, but Naptha never had a perfect season. Would this year be different?
The training days and practice games came and went for Johnny. Eventually, his maternal grandfather, Andreas—who was divorced from Johnny’s grandmother Theodora and lived alone in a dingy apartment in a blighted neighborhood—came to visit Johnny during one of his “at home” games. He brought his inexpensive Kodak 110 film camera and snapped a couple of grainy photos while Johnny posed off the main field at Kentar Playground. Andreas was proud of his only grandchild and Johnny was anxious to get out there and play—to show his grandfather some fancy moves and make him feel extra proud. Since Johnny’s absent father could not be there to support him, the sight of grandfather Andreas was a tremendous boost of inspiration. Johnny was ready, but the coach wasn’t.
Strangely enough, Mr. Reagle was uncharacteristically cold towards Johnny during that game. It was one of the first times when Johnny wasn’t allowed to start. What was Mr. Reagle thinking? He paced up and down the sideline and never even looked in Johnny’s direction when he needed to substitute a player. Johnny inquired and mildly protested, but to no avail. He would not get his chance to impress his beloved grandfather, because Mr. Reagle’s goal was a perfect season. It was clear Johnny did not fit in his coach’s plans that day. The game was important in order to keep the winning streak alive, but Naptha lost. Johnny’s antics on the sidelines while his grandfather took a few photographs did not earn him a spot on the field of play. Andreas left feeling a little disappointed. The day did not turn out as Johnny would have hoped.
His grandfather never returned to see another game. It wasn’t too long afterward, maybe a couple of years later, but Andreas eventually passed away—bedridden and ailing from an incurable illness in CFSH University Hospital. For the young soccer player, this was his first loss of a beloved family member. What few precious memories Johnny has of Andreas will forever include that one uneventful day at Kentar Playground when he briefly shared his soccer passion with his grandfather.
Life lesson #5: Even foes can become friends. Life travels at the speed of an elevated train with frequent stops along the way. With the train and as in life, when one set of doors close, another set opens. Such is the nature of opportunity. For most of Johnny’s young soccer career at Naptha, he never really had a chance to shine. That would all change against the next opponent.
By this time, Johnny was a regular sight on the soccer team. He had attended almost every practice game, quickly becoming friends with some of the more active players, but not quite yet earning their respect. Johnny always traveled by himself on “away” games since he knew which buses to take; however, the next team he would face was in an unfamiliar section of Philadelphia. Derby was the school.
Derby was far away. Johnny needed to take the elevated train just to reach the neighborhood. This was Johnny’s first time on the Agora-Hamburg Line by himself. He ran after his teammates who were eager to reach the Derby field. It was wintertime and the cold air made carrying the small gym bag containing Johnny’s soccer cleats and shin guards a bit cumbersome. In the hectic rush, all Johnny could think about was following closely behind his friends, because if he lost sight of them—he would be utterly lost. Johnny’s Indiana Jones-esque sprint from bus to bus and jumping on the Agora-Hamburg Line was an epic adventure in and of itself. Reaching Derby’s playfield was a relief for Johnny. Hopefully, the cold winter air would not play a factor in the game.
As a team, the Naptha players were unaware of Derby’s reputation. Johnny didn’t know if he would be facing lions or lambs. Either way, it didn’t matter to Mr. Reagle, because he always made sure all of his players were prepared. Johnny was going to start this game. No sitting on the sidelines for him. And right from the opening pass, every player on the Naptha team knew exactly where this game was heading. It would be a slaughter—a bloodbath on the battlefield.
Though Derby was a competent team, they were not athletically skilled in soccer. In the first 15 minutes of play, Naptha had already scored three or four goals. There was no real challenge or threat from Derby. But there was a moment in the game when Johnny had time to talk with one of Derby’s fullbacks. It was an actual conversation, which led Johnny to believe he made a friend that day. But as the ball was passed forward by one of the Naptha players, Johnny had to excuse himself so he could score against his newly-made friend. It was odd. Even the Derby player knew the rout was coming. It was that kind of a game.
During a two-on-one breakaway, Johnny and one of his teammates advanced the ball to the Derby goal with the goalkeeper nervously awaiting the outcome. Johnny briefly paused a second to decide whether he should pass the ball or score the goal himself. His teammate was open on the right side, but Johnny took the easy shot and scored from the goalkeeper’s left side. Though it seemed a selfish act, the game actually allowed for every Naptha player to eventually score a goal. Johnny and his friend had a few laughs afterwards.
Life lesson #6: If at first you don’t succeed, reverse course. The Derby match will forever be remembered by Johnny for its lopsided victory. Derby was crushed by Naptha with a final score of 14 to 0. This dominating display of soccer prowess was back during a time when teams showed no mercy. Players played for the glory of the game. If another team was weak, you took full advantage of them. You scored to win and you won with scoring. If you won, it was a time of celebration. If you lost, it was a time for reflection. That was the philosophy Mr. Reagle had instilled and inspired in all of his soccer players. Play a good game and you reaped the rewards. But there are times when the rewards aren’t trophies, but something much sweeter.
As it turned out, Johnny had his greatest soccer moment during the destruction of Derby. Johnny’s role as center forward was to always shadow the fullbacks, but there were times when he would switch positions with one of the wings, especially when he controlled the ball and the action was intense. In one such instance, Johnny was making a run with the ball up the right side of the field. In his way and following him step-for-step was a Derby player determined to block the ball when Johnny was ready to score or pass. What could Johnny do? There was no way to get around the Derby player unless some trick was employed.
As Johnny ran faster, so did the Derby player, making it nearly impossible for Johnny to pass him on the inside. Field real estate was quickly running out and the path was leading Johnny toward one of the corners. How would Johnny handle this situation? All he could recall was the teasing and taunting of his fellow teammates back during those early soccer trials. Would this be a replay of the horrendous corner kick he took the previous year?
Hearing the shouts of his teammates and realizing that he had to do something athletically amazing, Johnny did one of the simplest things possible. He put his foot on the ball and suddenly stopped in mid stride. The Derby player was caught totally unaware and the momentum of his speed carried him further up the field. Now Johnny was open to take either a distant shot on goal or simply pass the ball to one of his teammates who was closer to the sweet spot. This time, he gave the ball a good kick and it sailed to Anthony, who quickly redirected the pass to the back of the goal. The move was so spectacular and the resulting goal was so satisfying that Anthony, the player who teased Johnny the previous year during the soccer trials, offered Johnny an unopened can of Sunkist orange soda. Johnny smiled and gladly accepted the token, but it wasn’t the value of the soda that made the moment truly special; it was the acknowledgement Johnny received from Anthony—one of the “big guys” on the team—that boosted his spirits. Johnny would never forget that day against Derby. He was recognized as a hero and finished the second soccer season with the most goals he ever scored. Six.
Life lesson #7: All good things must come to an end. Though the Naptha soccer team did not have an undefeated second season, there would still be a third season to follow. Mr. Reagle was looking for returning players. Johnny had a top-notch second season as center forward. He achieved his goals of earning respect and praise on the soccer field. He lived his dream and shared his passion with his grandfather Andreas. He was filled with more confidence and began to see himself as a man, rather than a boy. He was sensing a change within himself. Perhaps this metamorphosis was as a result of the great success Johnny had on the soccer field or perhaps it was all biological.
Either way, Johnny began to share his soccer stories. By telling his stories, he found a new love and passion, i.e., writing. Johnny was transitioning from physical to intellectual pursuits. He was growing into a fine, young man. The seven lessons of life he learned while playing soccer will forever remain in his mind and soul. For the young soccer player who grew up on the field of life, the memories that remain were his greatest goal.
Disclaimer: The events of this short story are true; however, the real names of people, places, schools, and soft drinks were changed to protect the privacy of all individuals involved.