Our soccer coach was a man named Jerry who had a mustache like an extra in a Western film, and a thick scar that looked like the laces of a football running down the length of his thigh. His brother Brian helped out sometimes. He had a mustache too, but it was more of a Burt Reynolds, and if he had any scars we couldn’t see them. They had both played semi-pro soccer, and their kids were my teammates. They were the first of many coaches I would have over the next ten years. Later, there would be John, who had the physique of an old timey circus strongman and jogged for exercise, a hobby that people still viewed with suspicion, if not condescension. Mike, who was just out of college and handsome and therefore the coolest guy we knew, a guy I was convinced would somehow become our friend, a guy whose girlfriend wore cutoff jean shorts and tight tops and when they walked away from practice we all exchanged knowing glances acknowledging that he was a certified sex haver. Luke, a classic biker archetype who one night my friends and I would see drunk by himself and sitting on the slide at the playground near my house, threatening to stab us if we kept staring at him. Diego, who was from Uruguay and was the most skilled soccer player I would ever meet; he was in his fifties and he talked to us too often about our developing testicles, and on more than a few occasions volunteered to drive some of our teammates home after practice, stopping at his house for tea first (at twelve years old, we knew this was weird, but didn’t really grasp how weird, or how serious). For the longest stretch, there would be Bradley, a man who seemed to think that having married a Brazilian woman had granted him secret soccer knowledge, but he was unable to impart any of it to us. Between scrimmages, he told us stories about running in the mountains of Brazil, as if it had been a religious experience. Over time, he learned to hold us in contempt, and by the time we were old enough to drive ourselves to practice, he showed up late or drunk or both. He lectured us about our defiance and lack of discipline, which often cost us games, but we ignored him because we were teenagers and we wanted to spite him. His son never looked him in the eye. He cried often during games and we ostracized him for his softness. On my high school team, I would be coached by Kurt, who liked me because I was one of the only city kids on the team. Before practice, we had to find his car in the parking lot and wake him up, because he’d been kicked out of his house; in hindsight, I realize he was living in a perpetual state of being Recently Divorced, nobody in the world has ever been more Recently Divorced than him. On the drive home from one game, he stopped the team van on Roosevelt Boulevard, shifted into park, and made us listen as he sang along to “Lola,” which none of us had ever heard before, to his horror. He was a tantrum-throwing coach, the kind who stormed onto the field to grab you and humiliate you in front of everyone for being out of position on a corner kick. At halftime versus North Catholic, he tried to emphasize his anger by kicking over our water jug, and when it didn’t spill, he instructed us to pick it up and dump it out because we didn’t deserve water. I will never be able to explain why I wanted his approval as badly as I did, but over that summer I called him a few times just to let him know I was doing the workouts he’d assigned us. I was tricked into thinking his anger was something like love.
Youth sports are reliant almost entirely on volunteer staff, and kids are at the mercy of which teammates’ parents are a) available, b) interested, and c) decent people. If the only parent with an open schedule is a tyrant, then you’re stuck, and either you quit the sport or you grow up thinking it’s normal for adults to berate children for kicking a ball inaccurately. You learn to make excuses for bullying old men. You say things like, “A coach’s job is not to win games, but to mold young men,” and so when you find out a coach has been abusing his players, or exploiting their labor for massive profits, or turning a blind eye while an assistant molests them, you already have a lifetime of rationalizations lined up. Unqualified youth sports coaches are the gatekeepers to all kinds of trauma. When you meet an asshole out in the wild, you can safely assume he had an asshole coaching him in baseball when he was nine. Because so many people spend their lives being belittled by authority figures, they learn to believe it’s okay for their boss to be like that too. They learn not to value themselves at all. They make excuses for even the worst men. They vote those kinds of men into office because the cruelty is so familiar.
Throughout my youth I will play other sports, but none with the fervor and occasional excitement of soccer. We will win a few city championships, and I will make a few all-star teams. Twenty years later, while cleaning out our basement, my wife will hand me a box of dusty old trophies and say, “What do you want to do with these?” and I will toss them in the trash. There are limits to how much you can carry with you. It all comes down to square footage and how much free time you have.
I sit with two of my roommates, watching the news coverage of the invasion of Iraq, aired uncritically and stupidly, the same way they would broadcast the Rose Parade, all of the commentary indistinguishable from ad copy about the immense might of the American military and the necessity of an invasion, all of it scripted by ghouls who will prove to be grifters and criminals but will nonetheless fifteen years later be treated as honorable statesmen despite no particular effort on their part to rehabilitate their image, having simply been redeemed by the passage of time and the more overt awfulness of their political descendants; there are people dying on the screen but we’re told to focus on the spectacular explosions, which, if I’m being honest, a bad part of me does find enthralling, and it becomes too easy to detach myself from the reality that an illegal and ill-conceived war—these are not observations made in hindsight, both of these things were obvious then to anyone who was being honest—has begun for no specific reason beyond a general desire for vengeance, which means thousands will be slaughtered in the short term, and none of us realizes this war will continue forever, that it will just lurch forward year after year justifying its own existence because once war has started it’s really easy to explain why you need to keep warring, especially when there is no specific end goal that would generally be accepted as winning, and the ripple effects of wanton bombing lead to economic and cultural devastation, to regional destabilization, and therefore more terror, and after a while most people will be able to go weeks at a time without ever considering the lives of the soldiers abroad or the citizens of the occupied lands, war is just an abstraction, a thing we salute before football games right after we express our awareness of breast cancer, and when the soldiers come back from the war we say thank you for your service and maybe they go viral by surprising their kid by showing up at their graduation or something, and we all feel great about. Our hearts are warmed.
Prior to this year, I had not earned my cynicism. A variety of systemic biases and supports had allowed me to live 21 years without really having to understand anything. None of my friends cared about politics or social justice because caring about things was extremely uncool (this attitude is markedly different from the students I teach now, who aren’t all thoughtful and well-read, but are dramatically more aware of the world around them than we were). Even though La Salle was run by Christian Brothers and ostensibly pursued a mission of public service, this commitment rarely trickled down to the students. What I wanted to do then was play Madden on PlayStation 2. My roommates and I stayed up until three AM playing game after game, hurling controllers across the room and screaming at the TV and punching holes in the wall when we lost. There wasn’t time for anything else.
That semester I took a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Nazi resistance, in addition to an independent study on the literature of the Holocaust. A semester later, I took a course on the Sixties with a man named John Raines, who was a genuine Civil Rights hero—Freedom Rider, organizer of numerous marches and prayer vigils, and one of the co-conspirators who robbed the FBI field offices and exposed COINTELPRO. For the first time in my life, I was asked to engage critically with systemic injustice. Like many college students, I became unbearably smug about my political awakening, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong. A year later, when La Salle closed a major thoroughfare in our North Philly community, I wrote an op-ed for the school paper accusing the university and its students of abandoning their high-minded mission in favor of classism and racism. The University President invited me to his office to discuss my article, but when I heard how angry he was, I no-showed, and spent the rest of my time at the school avoiding him. I never wrote for the paper again.
My dad died a couple months after the shock & awe attacks. While he was dying, I struggled with my independent study more severely than any other school project I had undertaken; my professor expected more of me than I was able to deliver. I quit my job just to feel agency over something, and three months later, my rent check bounced. At my friend James’ 21st birthday party, I got beaten up in a bar fight, thrown through a table and kicked in the chest hard enough that I had boot prints in my skin the next day. I don’t even know why we’d been fighting, I just saw my friends getting punched and decided to make myself punchable too. I started applying to grad schools even though I had no interest in going. The war continued, possibly through the rest of my life. It was a time of extraordinary, ceaseless shame. I spent so much of it feeling like I should be doing something besides whatever I was doing.
There’s this writing move I feel like I’m expected to do here, at the end of an essay, where I add some flourishes and assign meaning or reveal hidden beauty in the events I’m describing, but sometimes there is no meaning, and the only beauty or ugliness is just what’s on the surface. What am I supposed to tell you? That everything got better? Come on.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University. Find him on Twitter @t_mcallister.