I love the World Cup. It is the only event that seems to bring the world together and remind Americans that we are but one out of many nations. I have watched this year’s World Cup in bars, at work, with friends and listened to it on the radio as I drive (that own goal by Ghana in their game against Portugal almost sent me off the road). All of which is why, in honor of the World Cup, I am going to tell you about the single greatest game in my own brief soccer career — a moment in time that taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. The lesson that one game taught me? It’s a lesson that most writers would do well to remember: glory can come in unexpected moments and you have to grab it while you can. It’s not always about winning it all.
You have to remember that I played soccer back in the Dark Ages, before Title IX changed the world of women’s sports and before the UNC and Olympic teams made women’s soccer a household reality. After I graduated from college and moved to New York, I continued to play soccer in a women’s league that would face off each Saturday along the East River or, if we were lucky, in Central Park. Although I sometimes played midfield, eventually I ended up as the goalie because no one else wanted to do it and that’s always an irresistible temptation for me. I had my work cut out for me. Everyone was in shape and more than a few were exorcising their New York City angst on the soccer field. I took a beating and spent a lot of Saturday afternoons icing sprained ankles and massaging pulled hamstrings. I was young then and thought it was proof that I was invincible. I was having the time of my life.
Out of all the teams in that NYC league, the Super F’s were the best. They were from Queens and almost all Haitian women who had learned to kick a soccer ball as soon as they could walk. When I say they could run rings around the rest of us, I mean that quite literally. These were formidable women. I remember the captain of the team was a woman named Jocelyn who had six children. Yes, six children – and yet she was one of their leading scorers. It was not uncommon to go down in defeat to the Super F’s by double digits or more. Still, it was almost an honor to be defeated by them. They were skilled, they were relentless and, although they treated us with suspicion off the field sometimes, they were great competitors and good sports. If they knocked you down, they’d extend a hand and haul you back up. And some of them were my friends. I had gone to a tournament in Alabama with a few of them and spent a great weekend eating take-out joint barbecue ribs on the hoods of our rental cars with their unbelievably talented striker, a jolly young girl named Evelyn who worked as a maid at a hotel when she wasn’t playing soccer.
One day, my team — whose name I cannot remember, and probably for a good reason – was scheduled to play the Super F’s as the opening game in a popular men’s soccer tournament in Queens. When we arrived at the field, it turned out to be a stadium. Over 5,000 Haitians were already assembled in the stands, ready to spend a Saturday viewing soccer. Now, I had a very white team. I was the brownest person on it and that was only because I tanned easily in the sun. There was not a single white face in the crowd and I started to imagine what it was going to be like when the bloodbath began. We were definitely not playing for the home team.
The moment the game began, it was clear that we were way out of our league. Not only were the Super F’s at the top of their game that day, my team was sluggish, irritable and distracted. Within minutes, our strikers and midfielders were arguing with one another and the halfbacks had let player after player get so close to me that I quickly decided I had absolutely nothing to lose. I became a crazy person. The goalie can get away with a lot in soccer when they’re getting pummeled–the referees will look the other way out of pity. I began diving at the opposition’s feet, wrapping my arms around their legs so they could not wiggle away and get at the ball again. I threw myself sideways, first to the left and then to the light right, again and again, to keep that ball out of the net, determined that if my team was going to be useless at least one of us, by god, would play their hearts out. I shoved my way through my own players to stop the ball the moment it entered the goalie’s box and I was bouncing off the goalposts so often it was a wonder I didn’t detach a retina.
I was so busy concentrating on the game I did not realize that the stadium had continued to fill with spectators and that the noise level had risen to a roar. I just kept defending that goal with every fiber of my being. My efforts helped but, of course, they could not stop the onslaught of Super F players drilling soccer balls at the goal. By halftime we were down 11-0 and completely demoralized. My teammates looked at me oddly during the halftime huddle, but I dismissed their glances. If they weren’t going to do their jobs and defend me, I would have to do it all myself.
I took the field for the start of the second half with dozens of saves already under my belt. But almost immediately, a Super F broke free and came straight at me with the ball. I looked at her, she looked at me, and she knew that I was going to run right at her and dive at her feet. So she did what any good soccer player would have done: she kicked the ball as hard as she possibly could, straight at me, hoping to loop it over me and into the goal. I had my hands outstretched, getting ready to grab her legs, when I saw that ball coming straight at my face. I jerked my head up in horror and, somehow, the ball deflected off the top of my head just enough to clear the goal as if I had planned it. A massive roar went up from the crowd as I fell straight back onto the field, arms still outstretched in a Christ-like pose. The crowd went nuts, cheering and stomping and whistling as a referee ran over to make sure I was okay. I staggered to my feet, dazed, and wandered in circles while the referee checked me out. Through a haze, I heard the crowd and realized that they had taken up a chant: “Goalie! Goalie! Goalie!” The crowd wasn’t cheering against me, they were cheering for me. They had been cheering for me all along, I just hadn’t known it. That stadium was packed with probably 10,000 Haitians by then, and every one of them had all decided to cheer for the underdog — and that underdog was me.
That did it. For the rest of the game, I played like I was possessed. I played like I had never played goalie before. I was a madwoman. I dove, I rolled, I kicked, I screamed, I did everything but dribble the ball down to the other end of the field to score myself. (I actually did make it the half field at one point, but knew enough to get my ass back into the box.) Having that crowd behind me was an amazing experience. It kept me going. It gave me strength. It pushed my adrenaline rush to new heights. I felt like I was on the shoulders of 10,000 people, being raised up to the top of the world. It was glorious. But the point I want to make is this: we lost that game 19 to 0. I may have had god knows how many saves by the end of it, but we still lost 19 to 0. That is a thrashing by anyone’s standards. It is humiliating and surely nothing to be proud of. But by the time the game was over, the crowd was chanting “Goalie!” once again and did not stop until I took the field and did a victory lap, waving at each cheering section as I passed by. It’s not something you ever forget. In the midst of truly ignominious defeat, I had found glory.
I try to remember what I learned that day when it comes to my career as a writer. Like most people, I do not make the New York Times bestseller list (although there are days when I feel like I must be the only one) and I have yet to score a huge advance from a major publisher. On the other hand, I am proud of every book I write and I pour my heart into each and every one of them. I have devoted readers who pay attention to what I write and who get it. They understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. They cheer me on and they let me know that what I do matters to them. They want me to take risks and when I do, they reward me for it. And do you know what that is like for me? It is the game changer. It makes writing fun. It makes me feel like I am on the top of the world, being raised up by thousands. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that being at the very top is the only thing that matters. Sometimes your greatest glory comes from doing your best and having others realize the effort that takes.