Having your father as a coach is both a blessing and a curse. Mine was my mentor, my protector, and my harshest critic. There are lessons that he taught me that are only now beginning to sink in. Although he is gone now, he lives on in those moments we shared on the pitch.
When I was a boy, Pop was a giant to me. He was a stocky, compact man with a forbidding scowl and a towering intellect. To a child, he could be terrifying. As his son, I had a respect for him that bordered on fear. I wanted so desperately to make him proud of me.
His mind operated at a different level. He never treated me as a child; there was never any coddling or “dumbing down” anything he said. To be around him, you had to “play up” to his level. Whether it was a pick-up game of basketball in the driveway or a chess match, he played to win no matter who, or how old, the opponent.
Growing up, I was a big fish in a small pond. Coming from a small school and playing on B-League Club teams as a kid, being the best player on a team was not exactly newsworthy. My father made sure to remind me of this regularly.
Pop was my soccer coach from when I was 4 until I was 14 years old, playing summer and winter leagues. He maintained the same team for the last 8 of those years. Our team played well above the sum of our combined talent because of him.
My dad’s style of coaching was less about technique and skill, and more about teamwork and heart. For him, it mattered more how well you played as part of the team than how talented you were with the ball. This coaching philosophy carried us from the lowly AAA to the premier league.
I started every game that my father coached. If permitted to brag, I was the best player on the team. Every moment on the pitch was a chance for me to earn recognition and praise from my Pop.
Despite having advanced 5 levels in 8 years, we had never won a championship. In what we all knew was going to be our last year playing club soccer with my dad, we played beyond ourselves. Coming down to the last game of the regular season, we had one game to win to move on to the playoffs. As luck would have it, the final opponent standing in our way of advancing to the semifinals was our long-time nemesis…the dreaded team from Salinas.
They had beaten us in each of the 5 matches we faced them in since earning our spot in the premier league 2 years earlier. They were bigger, faster and more talented. Besides having won the Cup 2 of the last 3 years, this team had our number.
During the week of practice leading up to this game, Pop exuded a confidence I had never seen before. On the morning of the game, he called me into the den where he was accustomed to drawing up the plans and line-ups for our games. He drew me in close, put a heavy hand on my shoulder and locked my gaze with his cool blue eyes.
His eyes froze my heart just before his words shattered it: “You won’t be starting this game, son.” For my entire life, I had carried with pride the banner of being the coach’s son and the best man on the team. This cold, aloof, intellectual man whose approval I had sought my whole life to obtain, dealt a deathblow to my spirit.
The car ride to the game was unbearable. I was crushed. My sadness soon turned to anger. Had I done something wrong? Had I not been playing up to his standard? My mind was racing as we arrived at the field.
As warm-ups ended our team gathered on the sideline to hear the starting line-up. A hush fell over the huddle when it was discovered that I would be riding the pine. When the line-up was called out, Pop brought everyone in tight for a final word before taking the field:
“This game is bigger than any single player on our team.”
Immediately out of the gate, Salinas took the ball downfield and scored effortlessly. Dad was not moved. He was calm and collected, offering his steady and customary encouragements. I stood by his side and cheered as loud as I could as we brought the ball up. The next 5 minutes seemed like an eternity spent holding my breath. When the ball rolled mercifully out of bounds at the 6th minute, Pop relented and sent me in the game.
In all of my life, I had never felt the sense of belonging to a team more so than in that moment. We played with intuition and purpose. Our opponent’s weakness was revealed in their inability to play the same way. This team of superstars was no match for our unified attack. Holding them to that one, early goal, we went on to win 2-1 and advance to the playoffs.
The morning of the semi-final game, my father called me into the den once again. I would not be starting this game either. Being the selfish, naïve, 14-year-old boy I was, I didn’t understand why he insisted on punishing me in this way. The car ride that morning was no more pleasant than the last.
As in the previous game, we were outmatched and outclassed. I watched for 10 minutes as my mates managed to avert disaster while I squirmed on the sideline. At the 11th minute, Pop called my number. The match was ultimately decided in overtime, our squad narrowly pulling out a win with a score of 1-0.
The exhilaration of that victory felt like we had won the championship. There was no way we were supposed to win that game. Had it not been for command performances by some of our back-up and second string players, the outcome would have been far different.
The championship game was set for the next evening. Our first ever game in a big stadium; our first ever game under the lights. This was the biggest game, on the biggest stage, for all of us.
Pop and I were not at home when he drew up the line-ups for this game. It was not until game-time that I learned that I would, again, be a spectator for the start of this game.
A few seconds after kick-off, he knelt down and spoke softly to me, “This is not about you. It was never about you. We are a team, ahead of all else, son. They all needed to know that they didn’t need you to win. Now your team needs you.”
With that, he put me in the game. My feet didn’t even touch the ground as I took the field. I scored the first goal of the game on a breakaway in less than a minute. I scored a second goal just a few minutes later. Just after the start of the second half, I scored the third and final goal of the game.
This would be the finest moment I would ever share with my father. The sound of the final whistle signaled the completion of our crowning achievement. Everyone on our team celebrated that moment as a champion.
I was proud of my father; he led his team of average talent from very humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success. And, in that one, fleeting moment, he, too, was proud of me.
The lessons Pop passed on to me from those last few games reveal themselves to me even still today. The virtues of teamwork, patience, and humility are ideals I strive toward because of those moments with my dad on the pitch.
I miss you, Pop.