Monday, June 14, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Orange Crush

The Dutch played their first match today, a 2-0 victory over Denmark. The Dutch team is known in the Netherlands as Oranje, after their garishly orange jerseys. Now, if you've read previous posts, you may have noticed that I have some issues with the color orange. It's lovely in sunsets and beautiful on fruit. However, as a color for clothing I think it is the one hue that looks universally horrible on people. I have to admit, though, that orange soccer jerseys are a very important link to my own childhood and my personal history with this wonderful game.

My parents signed me up for my first youth soccer team in the spring of my first grade year. I knew exactly nothing about soccer going in except that you couldn't use your hands. In fact, to say I wasn't much of an athlete at that age is putting it mildly. My own adoring grandmother begged my parents to let me quit as she watched me struggle just to run around the field. I would have none of it, though, and that team turned out to be one of the most positive experiences of my youth.

It was an unusual team for many reasons. We got orange jerseys the first season (did our coach get last pick?) and given our success, losing just one game, our coaches seemed to believe it was good luck and we were always The Orange Crush thereafter. The team was also very good. I take no personal credit for that. In fact, I ran into one of my teammates in New York as an adult and even all those years later, we marveled at how lucky we were to ride the coattails of such exceptional athletes.

There was a lot of talent on our team. A few played soccer through high school, others switched to football, basketball and baseball with great success. But the other teams had good players, too. The star of our arch-rival team was A.J. Wood. If you've heard the name, it's because he went on to break the NCAA tournament career goal-scoring record and lead the University of Virginia to four consecutive national championships. I think he made the Olympic team, too, and may have played professionally for a while. And yet, more often than not, we beat his team. And the reasons why are the same reasons why that experience was such a great one for all of us.

The first season, we were undoubtedly the typical youth soccer team that chased after the ball in little boy clumps. But after finishing first in our league, we were bumped up to a more competitive group in the fall. We still won more than we lost but it was clear that talent alone was not going to see us through. In hindsight, I realize we had some very thoughtful coaches who did a great job of teaching us fundamentals as well as how to play each of the positions.

But most importantly, we were taught to be a team. I am fairly certain that I was the weakest player on that team. I know for a fact that I was the only one who never scored a goal. But I also know that I got better with each season because I never got anything less than encouragement from my coaches and teammates. And best of all, I was never made to feel as if I didn't belong - never by a parent and never by one of the other boys. And I mean never. We all carry with us the put downs we hear as children but it just didn't happen on that team. We were the Orange Crush. We lost as a team. We drew as a team. Far more often than not, we won as a team. In each of our last three seasons together, we won the league. In our sixth and final season, we went undefeated. We.

That atmosphere didn't happen by accident, either. That unusual team was born of an unusual group of parents. I didn't know all of the machinations behind the scenes at the time. Probably, none of the boys did. My mom and dad only later told me the stories of the parent meetings. It was a high-powered group: doctors, lawyers, high-ranking government officials, even a Presidential advisor. This group of A-types made a conscious decision that winning would not be the most important thing for us. Learning the game, learning to be a team and having a positive experience would be the priorities. The fact that we won anyway was a bonus.

After that sixth season, our stars moved on to select teams and the rest of us went our separate ways. I joined a rec league team and switched from forward to goalkeeper. It turned out to be a much better position for me but our team was awful. Let's just say I was a very busy goalie. I rode the bench as the backup keeper for one year of junior high. I didn't make the team in high school. My sister recruited me to join the band instead and the rest, as they say, is history. At the time, I was a little sad that my soccer days were over. In hindsight, I am grateful to have discovered that my talents and temperament were better suited to other endeavors.

I went to high school with several of the guys but all but one or two of them ran in different circles from mine. And yet, I have run into them from time to time since: online, at reunions and once that chance encounter in Manhattan mentioned above (a good story for another day). Whenever I have seen them, one of us will inevitably mention the Orange Crush and we can't help but smile. Even all these years later, all of us surely having been members of other successful organizations, I think we all know we were a part of something special.

To this day, when I smell fresh-cut grass on a Saturday morning, I have Proustian memories of those games. I can still taste the orange slices at halftime. I can still hear our parents yelling, "Go, Orange! Hustle!" I can still remember winning, but more importantly, belonging.

And that, dear friends, is why I love this game. But I still would have preferred red.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely post! As a parent of the team, it warms my heart to read it. Perhaps we parents did do some things right, though there was also a certain amount of A-level activity among us. But you team members were the ones who really created yourselves as a team. A great group of young boys becoming young men together. Well done and thanks for the great memories.

    John McIlwain