The Third Grade Soccer Game That Still Haunts Me
As a child, I was always very mild-mannered and eager to please. More than anything, I wanted everyone, kids and adults alike, to like me. I came from an overly strict household, so, as a wee one, this translated to me being a big rule follower. After all, rule-following was one of the best ways to get adults to like you — or so I thought. Eventually, I was so terrified of acting out of turn that my rule-following almost became kind of a paralysis. I didn’t want to make a single move unless someone told me it was okay. And, that brings us to my story.
Many times when you’re a kid, your parents would throw you into a smattering of activities, most of which you’d have no interest in or aptitude for. I actually enjoyed playing sports for the most part, but my main issue is that I showed no aggression. Because taking the ball from someone would be mean, and I wanted people to like me, remember? I had played soccer from the time I was in kindergarten, so by the time I was in third grade, when this story takes place, I was pretty familiar with the rules. Or so I thought …
We were a co-ed league of third graders, so my team had a mix of boys and girls, including the coach’s son J.D., who let the fact that his dad was the coach go to his head. Eight-year-old J.D. was bossy and bratty, as many children are at that age. But he was also a better player than most of us, so no one really called him out on it.
It was a warm spring afternoon when this fateful soccer game took place. I had been taken out of the game for a break to make sure everyone had an equal amount of playing time. I was eagerly waiting on the sidelines, ready to get back on the field as soon as I was told. The whistle blew and the action stopped. I heard my coach’s voice from way far away down the field calling me over. I took off running full speed to reach him, excited to get back into the game.
Only, when I got closer to my coach, I was greeted by a sight that was completely new to me. My coach and the ref were standing at the edge of the goal box for the opposing team along with J.D. All the other kids were lined up along the out-of-bounds line by the goal. Having never seen a penalty kick in my four years of children’s soccer, this setup was understandably confusing.
"By this point, it became clear that no one would help me. No one was going to tell me where to go or even what was happening."
I slowed my run as I reached my coach and began to ask where he wanted to place me, as was the procedure when you came in as a substitute. I needed to know who I was replacing, what position they were playing, and where that would put me on the field. But before I could even finish my sentence, J.D. began to scream at me. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” he screamed in my face. “GO!!!”
“Do I go over there?” I asked my coach as I gestured toward the other kids lined up on the sideline.
The coach remained silent as J.D. responded by screaming “NOOOOOO!!!!” in my face. Which, as an aside, why did he say no? Because that’s where I was supposed to go …
At this point, I was completely confused and looked to my coach and the ref for guidance, who both looked back at me silently like I was an idiot. I began to run to join the other children on the sidelines, but J.D. once again screamed, “NOOOOOO!!!” at me, stopping me before I’d even made two steps. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” he screamed at me once again. “GO AWAY!!!! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!”
By this point, it became clear that no one would help me. No one was going to tell me where to go or even what was happening. The coach (or the ref) could have easily said, “This is a penalty kick, you need to go stand on the sidelines with the other kids.” But he didn’t. Instead, he let his kid traumatize and humiliate me on the field. Thanks, Coach! Go, team!
I figured I wasn’t supposed to join the other kids because J.D. had screamed no when I asked him, which had seemed like a definitive answer. It was at the very least the only answer I’d been given to work with. I had no idea why J.D. was standing with the ref and our coach and the ball, but I knew I probably didn’t fit into that equation either. So, my young brain reasoned out the only option that made sense at the time. I froze in place.
There I stood, in the middle of the field, interrupting a penalty kick and holding up the entire game. All the parents, including my own, were dead silent. I had everyone’s full attention for my quiet inner meltdown.
I looked at the ref and my coach once more, my poor clueless eyes making one final plea for help. They once again looked at me like I was unbelievably stupid and then looked at each other.
“Okay, let’s just go,” said the ref, with a hint of disdain for my 8-year-old self.
And they continued the game and took the penalty kick around me. There I stood, five feet away, all alone, still frozen in place in the wrong part of the field.
Luckily, as soon as the ball was back in play, I knew what to do. I continued the game without incident, but inside I was horribly embarrassed.
After the game, I was worried my brother or my father would make fun of me on the drive home. They didn’t. No one brought it up. Maybe they hadn’t even noticed. I don’t know. But my mom didn’t sign me up for soccer again for five years after that season, so take from that what you will.
As the years went by, J.D. mellowed out, or maybe I just thought that because I was no longer on a sports team with him ... I kid. Eventually, by high school, J.D. seemed like a nice, cool guy and we had a friendly dynamic. But, I have to admit, I never quite forgot about the time he yelled in my face about that damn penalty kick.
Years later, at our five-year high school reunion, I was at the cash bar ordering a drink. “One rosé, please,” I told the bartender.
“I’ll get hers, too,” said a voice from next to me. It was J.D., who I hadn’t seen or spoken to since graduation.
“J.D., you don’t have to do that!” I exclaimed.
“Allie Nelson, I got you,” he responded, simply waving me off with a friendly smile.
That interaction, oddly enough, helped me feel better about an embarrassing moment that I had held onto for almost 20 years. You know what? We cool, J.D., we cool.