The First Goal: Revisited

So, here we are, last day of the year -- Happy New Year, everyone, and all the best to you and your family this year -- and it seems like everybody’s recapping. On the radio, they’re doing a countdown of the best songs of 2013. On various blogs, I’m seeing the best movies, the best television shows, the best gadgets, the best apps, the best inventions, the best medical advancements, the best political moves, the best Miley Cyrus dances.

And, of course, in sports we cannot stop ranking stuff.

So, let me tell you my favorite sports moment of the year. It might have been talking to Mariano Rivera for the first time or seeing my first soccer match at Wembley or walking around Fenway Park in the moments before World Series Game 1. It could have been seeing Peyton Manning throw seven touchdown passes in a game or standing on the ice in Boston after the Stanley Cup final ended and talking to celebrating Blackhawks while the Stanley Cup itself worked its way around.

It could have been watching Michigan’s unknown Spike Albrecht making shot after shot in the national championship game or Adam Scott making that putt on the 72nd hole to win the Masters. It might have been standing at the bottom of a mountain and watching Bode Miller ski down or watching Gregg Popovich grump his way through an interview or talking baseball with Billy Beane and John Mozeliak -- the two best in the business right now, I think -- as we walked around the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.

Well, it could have been a lot of things. This was a pretty great sports year.

But, well, it wasn’t any of those things. Of course it wasn’t.

Two years ago, my favorite sports moment was this: My oldest daughter Elizabeth scoring her first basketball goal.

This year, our youngest daughter Katie asked me to coach her soccer team. I had never coached any of my kids teams for numerous reasons, both philosophical and logistical, which are not worth going into now. But Katie can be a persuasive kid, plus her league was short several coaches, and so I uncomfortably stepped in.

Why uncomfortably? I never think anyone shares my personal philosophy of youth sports which is: Pay attention, have fun, be a good sport. That’s pretty much it. I don’t care whatsoever about winning. Let me make that clear; I don’t care AT ALL. Even mild parents would probably say I care too little about winning.

I can’t help it. I really don’t care. Maybe it comes from being around many of the the most competitive people on earth. Maybe it comes from Elizabeth, who from the time she was 2 was always infinitely happier to see SOMEONE ELSE win than actually win herself. I don’t know why but it’s an issue. I am not just uncompetitive but perhaps even anticompetitive when it comes to my kids’ sports. Sure, I know the argument that being at least somewhat competitive at every age is important because life itself is a competition. I know that competition motivates, competition inspires, competition ignites. I also know that many people mock the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality of youth sports people like me.

And I’m not saying they’re wrong. I suspect I’m wrong. But it’s my way. I guess in the end I don’t think there is any shortage of ways for kids to learn how to compete. They learn it everyday at school, at lunch, with their friends, at the dinner table, in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and various school clubs and, well, everywhere. Competition is ever-present in their lives from the earliest years. I don’t think youth sports -- I’m talking about for young kids -- are there to teach competition.

Well, anyway, by age 8 -- Katie’s age -- the competitive players, most of them, have already broken away into intense leagues with Great Santini coaches and, again, that’s right for them. It’s not my way, though. I laid this out for the parents of our team right away, just in case they wanted to find a better coach. I included this in my letter to the parents:

“Our only goals as coaches is to make the sure the kids have a great time and, hopefully, get better. My day job is as a sportswriter, and so I'm around some of the world's most most intense competition all the time. I love this league for my daughter precisely because it's NOT about that. Every player on the team will play exactly as much as the others, and every player will play every position, and I hope every player will come out of this feeling a part of something great.”

Yes, I can feel you gnashing your teeth from here. Surprisingly, no parent asked for a replacement coach. Or, anyway, I didn’t hear if they did.

We were the Light Blue Team. There were various protracted efforts to come up with an actual nickname but nothing ever came from them. When I met with the Light Blue Teem, I gave them two rules. One, they were not allowed to in any way question the referee. And two -- no, actually, now that I think of it, there might have been the only rule. It annoys the heck out of me when I see a kid question the referee. I can say, proudly, that at one point a player on our team went over to the referee and started to question him, and another ran over to his teammate and said, “Hey, don’t question the ref,” and they both ran off.

Actually, we ended up with a good team despite me. Every player on the team tried, they had good attitudes, they showed up every week, and they even seemed to like each other most of the time. There were really no discipline issues. It goes without saying that I had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. But I think I did impress them with the color-coded spreadsheets I made each week to make sure they all played precisely the same minutes and every position. And I lost five pounds running around on the field (coaches are allowed on the field in this league) encouraging, rallying and annoying our players with compliments.

Katie was the only girl on our team. She didn’t seem to mind. Katie is tiny -- I think the smallest kid in her class -- but she’s fast, and she’s pretty fearless, and more than anything else she follows directions. I’ve actually never known anyone who follows directions better than our Katie. She has a ferocious sense of justice. We think she might end up being a judge.

Last year, when she was playing in the soccer league, a local professional soccer player showed up to teach the kids some things, and while (let’s face it) most of the kids ran around without paying attention, Katie listened spellbound. Directions! She hungers for them. The player told her, “When a teammate has the ball, you run toward the goal so they can pass it to you.” From the point on, this was exactly what Katie did, which meant five or six times every game she would be wide open running toward the goal.

As you probably know, if you’ve ever coached 8- or 9-year-old soccer, this doesn’t mean much. The odds that a player will actually PASS the ball to an open player is slim. The odds that the pass would actually get through is slimmer. And the odds that Katie would receive the ball and get a shot on goal -- right, we’re talking about astronomical odds now.

Still, she kept rushing toward the goal whenever the time was right. A few times, players tried to pass to her but, for one reason or another, the play was foiled. Again, she did not seem to mind.

So: my favorite sports moment of the year. I was standing deep on the defensive end of the field trying to cheer up one of our defenders who, I can’t remember, had either hurt his ankle or had a stomach ache from eating two hot dogs before the game. And the ball was kicked out to one of our offensive players, who dribbled for a few steps. Katie, as she always did, raced toward the goal. And then, the first miracle: Our player kicked the ball ahead, a perfect pass, to Katie right in stride.

Then, the second miracle: Katie had a brilliant first touch, putting the ball just in front of her. The defender was behind her now. She had only the goalie to beat.

And then: The third miracle. She kicked her shot on goal. She did not kick it very hard. But the placement was good. The goalie lunged for it. And the ball rolled by his hand. It rolled into the goal. Katie’s first goal.

But that wasn’t my favorite sports moment.

No, it was the moment that followed. Katie, with a big smile on her face, turned around to find me me. I gave her a big thumbs up and shouted. And then, without celebrating, without making a big deal at all, she raced back to midfield, told her teammate that he made a great pass, high-fived a couple of others, and got back into position. Yes. Act like you’ve been there before.

In the car afterward, I asked her how she felt after scoring her first goal. She said she was happy, but she didn’t want to make the goalie to feel sad. I said, “Well, let’s celebrate now.” And we went to celebrate, over ice cream, where she replayed the goal again and again, each time a little bit more exciting, until she made it sound a bit like the Maradona goal of the century at the 1986 World Cup.

“Was it really like that?” I asked. And she smiled again.

“No,” she said. “But the next one will be.”