"Let's kick, Daddy." Those were the words our 2-year-old son Braedon uttered a few months ago. As soon as the phrase had crossed his lips a flood of memories came rushing back to the forefront of my mind.
Two decades ago if you were a soccer player growing up in Millersville, Pa., "Let's kick! " or "Do you want to kick?" meant so much more than passing a ball back and forth as my son was now requesting. In our 1980s lexicon for soccer junkies, "to kick" took on a cult-like meaning that was as deep and varied as the characters who engaged in the activity.
The first step was to head over to the Millersville University soccer field, which was conveniently located a quick fence hop from Penn Manor High where most of us went to school.
If you arrived alone, you spent some time juggling and dribbling through mock defenders before drilling shots at the kickboard: a dilapidated structure the size of a regulation goal with peeling green paint.
The "wall" as we called it was a rectangular box with a narrow hollow space in between four plywood walls. Since the wall had no roof, if you hit your shot just wrong, with the appropriate pace and dip, your ball would end up pin-balling back and forth inside the structure and you would have to climb inside for retrieval. If there were several players at the wall, whoever shot the last ball in, had to fish out all of the balls!
Almost always, someone else would show up at the wall to kick. With two or three players your kicking options expanded to partner juggling, "pinging" the ball and serving balls from the flank for your buddies to blast into the wall with volleys, "bikes" and diving headers.
"Pinging it" was a blast. You hit low, driven, flighted balls as hard and as accurately as you could right at your mate and he had to control it and ping it back to you as hard as he could. The goal was to hit the ball so hard that your friend's first touch got away - the closer you were to each other the more fun the challenge.
Mark Colangelo was the master. From 10 yards away he could control my hardest drive with a pillow-soft touch and with a lightning quick second touch he'd bang the ball off my shin, much to the amusement of anyone watching.
When we tired of pinging it, we went back to the wall where one of us would go out to the flank and serve balls to guys making runs into the box. We only sent one runner at a time and soccer balls were usually scarce so you wanted to be extremely efficient with your crosses.
Today it seems like kids are happy to just dump it into the box anywhere. Back then, when a guy three or four years older was making a full speed run to the near post, you felt a heavy responsibility to put it on his head. If you were accurate and consistent, the older guys loved you to go out wide, which was an honor. If you struggled out there, they sent someone else out and gave you the hook.
As good as it felt to be chosen to set the table from the flank, the most fun was being on the receiving end of those crosses. It was not enough to score, you had to finish with style. Diving headers, full-, half- and side-volleys, deft flicks and "bikes" were all on the menu. If you caught a basic bread-and-butter cross that did not immediately lend itself to a gourmet presentation, you added your own bit of flavor to hopefully create an unforgettable dish.
Ground serves were roofed into upper corners or heel-flicked sublimely to the far post. On the rare occasion that a goalkeeper was brave or insane enough to jump in net, you'd have to go for the meg at least once.
We all tried "bikes," but nobody could pull them off like Roy Mehl. Roy was a stocky, powerful player who like Mark, played his college ball at Lock Haven. He missed his fare share like the rest of us, landing in a heap in the dirt. But when he connected, it was like the ball was shot out of a cannon and it would go crashing into the wall. Then he'd stand up, dust himself off and never once change his facial expression from the intense stare that was a constant whenever he played.
Once four players arrived, we could abandon the wall for a spirited game of 3v1. It was our version of the age-old playground game "monkey in the middle" and our goal was to truly make the guy in the middle look like a monkey. Making him run around foolishly flailing and missing was sheer joy and a nutmeg that kept him in for an extra round was ecstasy.
We learned from our elder peers the art of leg blocking, scooping the ball over an outstretched foot, head and shoulder fakes, deceptive glances, behind the leg flicks, supporting shape, defensive work rate and redirecting a pass with one touch while jumping over a flying two-footed tackle. All this without a coach in sight!
Ah, but the best was still to come: when we picked teams and played. By now more people had arrived and we had numbers for a game. Seventh- and eighth-graders were there like Teddy Brubaker and Hans Haverstick (who sadly passed in 2005). Then there was my era of high school guys like Bill Mullins, Matt Allen, Dan Lembo, John Symonds and our dear friend Boyd Lyon, who sadly left us in 2006.
Boyd was the most competitive of a group of hyper-competitive guys. If he ended up in the middle during 3v1 he would chew up the grass with his hard running, violent cuts and crunching tackles.
In pick-up games if you took the ball off him, you knew to play it quickly to a teammate because he was coming after you with a ferocity befitting his last name. Off the field, Boyd was a teddy bear, kind, loyal, always up for a laugh; a wonderful friend. On the field even the older guys hated to play against him and everyone loved to have him on their side.
In addition to our high school group was the older crew; college guys and recent grads like Colangelo, Mehl, Grant Myers, Chris Hoover ('Hoov'), Eric Hurt ('Nike'), Chuck Ducker ('Duck') and Troy Newswanger ('Wang'). We all grew up in the 'Ville, most attending Penn Manor and many going on to play in college.
The pick-up games were always intense. Whether it was 2v2 or 10v10, we played like it was our last day on earth. No one wore shinguards, but that did not prevent us from getting "stuck-in" or "going to ground."
You often hear coaches say "the game is the best teacher" -- it is also the most fun and we absolutely loved it. We kicked for hours every day and we still could not get enough. When it grew dark the guys who were old enough to drive would pull their cars up to the field and turn on their lights so we could get an extra 15-20 minutes in.
No one talked of getting burned-out - what was that? We craved the game like nomads lost on the desert dying of thirst and when we found our life-sustaining elixir, we gulped greedily; we were insatiable.
Little did my son know the spark he was rekindling for his grateful father when he said those three simple words, "Let's kick, Daddy."
"Kicking" was a way of life for us back then. The personalities and the game itself helped form us during our most formative years. I am sure there were countless other little pockets of soccer-playing fanatics creating their own versions of the beautiful game all across America back in the 1980s.
I fear many of these tiny futbol Meccas have died off and it is up to all of us involved in the game to do our best to stave off the extinction of informal soccer and encourage and applaud its renewed growth. So that in the future, countless other fathers, mothers, siblings, friends, neighbors, teammates, coaches and strangers can respond as I did to my son Braedon, "Yes, I would love to kick!"
(Chris Apple is the head coach of the University of Rochester's men's team.)
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