My Soccer Journey: How I Fell in Love With the Game I Once Called Lame

by Jason Heitman

 

Setting: New job. Day One. It’s an opportunity to see where you sit on the scale of social awkwardness and discover how quickly you can forget everyone’s name. Insert “typical Austin startup” and you can envision the workspace–ping pong table, espresso machine, open floor, over-priced organic lunches, and hip music.

Hipster bingo.

I was staring at a labyrinth of new hire information on my fresh-outta-the-box Macbook when I heard the boot music of an Xbox One. I shot a glance towards the noise, observing two of my coworkers settling in to a lunchtime game session. I rolled back in my four-and-a-half-star ergonomic office chair to see the game of choice.

FIFA 15.

Not just FIFA 15, but the demo. Surprising, to say the least, considering all the other overpriced objects that consumed the office space. I wanted to make friends and hopefully avoid looking like a dork, so I rolled over and nodded towards the individual closest to me.

“Hey man….y’all play a lot?”

“Yeah, when we can. What’s good?”

“Cool. Just checkin’. Demo huh?”

“Yeah, we’re too cheap and lazy to get the real thing.”

I should note I had previously left a job in the video game industry and was drowning in extra electronics of the gaming medium. I pounced on the opportunity to be a righteous dude and offered to bring my extra PS4 up so they could enjoy the full title. From there, friendship was born. What came of it, however, was more surprising.

Texas, my homeland, is the mecca of American football. It starts in the youth ranks and it never stops. At the tender age of four I was already on the trajectory of football stardom, or so I thought. I played until the opportunity ended at the closure of my high school education. I was built for the violent nature of the sport. Football, the American stylization, was all I knew. It was my life from birth.

Sure…I dabbled in other sports.

I spent my little league years people-watching from the outfield. I tried to convince myself I wasn’t under a height disadvantage on a basketball court. I even threw hands at a gym for a few years, mostly under the recommendation of a guidance counselor.

But soccer? Beyond lame.

I spent most of my time in the game being whistled for aggressive challenges and body-checking my peers. Innocently, an opponent kicked the ball into my face during open play, which caused a massive red leak from my nose. I rewarded his innocent effort with a gracious shoulder-check and was voluntold to spend the rest of the match on the bench. Contact sports fed my childhood angst and athletic desires, but somewhere, deep inside my psyche, the soccer bug lurked.

A majority of the boys who held the title of “close friend” during my youth seemed to be soccer athletes. I saw the first Dallas Burn game at the Cotton Bowl, went to countless Dallas Sidekicks games at Reunion Arena, and frequently participated in kick-arounds at recess or after school; but it never stuck. The signs were there. It was just a matter of wrong place, wrong time.

Ultimatums tend to guide sporting affiliations. As previously stated, football was intertwined within the DNA of my family and its heritage. I was born into a true Texan family: the blue and silver star, or else. The family was split on college association, so I spent most of my childhood bouncing between the collegiate flavor-of-the-month.

Fast forward to my late twenties. As I began to befriend my FIFA compadres, I wondered where my soccer affiliation should lie. I never cared much for MLS. I watched the World Cup with alternating enthusiasm, and I had seen more documentaries on European teams than actual live matches.

The thing I knew with utmost certainty was that I hated Man United. Stemming from seventh grade experiences with a group of classmates, I built a disdain for the Red Devils. There was a girl I liked, and her boyfriend was a United fan. It helped my cause in that he was quite the prick. My juvenile hate for his antics (and the fact we fancied the same girl) bled into the crest he would frequently flaunt.

I toyed with multiple English/European clubs over the course of a few years thanks to the influence of soccer-minded associations, but, yet again, it failed to connect–at least until I met Lon and Scott, my aforementioned FIFA colleagues. For them, there was only ever one choice.

~

I was aware of the Super Bowl dynasty of the Dallas Cowboys in the early nineties, and I vividly remember the Super Bowl XXX, even though it occured during my pre-teen years. That said, I’ve always felt your “coming-of-age” as a fan is during your “coming-of-age” years as a teenager. Those years were filled with a steady decline, exhausting mediocrity and the retirement of my favorite players. You could say I was born into luxury and class, only to get kicked out of the mansion and move into a serviceable but mundane shoebox of an apartment that could double as the set for Office Space. I mean, we weren’t the Lions or Browns, but we were definitely the butt of a few jokes.

So when it came to choosing my footie allegiance, a shade of red called to me with its sweet siren note. I thought at first I chose Liverpool FC. Once a world power, now struggling to find its way due to a run of imbecilic ownership and poor life choices. The smell test was definitely of the Cowboys’ sour musk. They were always on the verge, but could never bridge the gap. After months of toying with the notion, the day I decided LFC was for me was Steven Gerrard’s last match. That ended with an excruciating six to one defeat to Stoke City.

A fitting beginning.

~

I suppose that once you are an athlete, you are always an athlete–at least at heart. I begrudgingly played softball on a plethora of adult teams over the course of my twenties, but frankly I find that endeavor boring. I wanted a different kind of camaraderie, something to boost my heart rate and shed lingering weight. I wanted to fill the gap left by years of sporting and military endeavors. So when Scott and Lon asked me to join them as a substitute on their coed indoor team, I jumped at it.

Note, I had (possibly still have) the control of a blind dog and the finesse of a wrecking ball. I was a force on defense, to a degree. Few wanted to challenge me due to my aggressive nature, rather they just waited until I had the ball at my feet. It was inevitable I would make a mess of it. Regardless, as time progressed, I relearned the sport and even transitioned to keeper, a position where I’m serviceable at best. I found an outlet that I loved and it strengthened my bond with something I once belittled. It also gave me a flock of new folks to call friends.

~

Liverpool FC chose me. Seriously. I firmly believe in the notion of luck and how it plays into human scenarios. I was in need of new direction–a reset. I stumbled across what has become my number one material love, thanks to a move, new friends and a video game console. My wife used to joke she couldn’t handle me being obsessively passionate about two sports teams. The Cowboys will always be my introduction into sports and my life-long love, but Liverpool FC personifies something beyond that.

LFC is my gateway to the rest of the world. It’s an inviting and inclusive culture filled with folks whose gaze is focused beyond just the sporting aspects. It’s not to say other sports don’t provide similar communal foundations, but I don’t believe they bridge the gap between culture, demographic and heritage quite like the original Football.

~

When I moved to the Mississippi/Tennessee border, I thought my newfound love would flame out. I was spoiled by the abundant opportunities in the ATX, but what has happened in my two years in the Mid-South has surprised me. I met a diehard baseball fan who has a hard time admitting my obsession is rubbing off on him; befriended a high-school teacher with such an intense love for the game, I swear he was born in the wrong country; joined a Sunday league with the Mississippi Boys; and joined a church whose Irish preacher wears Chelsea blue shoes in the pulpit. I found a pocket of footie fanatics in the heartland of the slow-smoked and muggy.

The love for poetry-in-motion can infect even the staunchest of critics. I took my father-in-law to see a comedian in Nashville in September 2016, and I insisted we stop in Franklin, Tennessee, to catch the Liverpool match. I expected a ho-hum response, as he reminded me he had watched more soccer since I moved to Memphis than his previous 60 years on this Earth. I persuaded him with a Gaelic breakfast, and he was in. Over the course of the 4-1 win over Leicester City, he was serenaded by a crowd of elated, inebriated supporters, and tried to pretend he wasn’t having a blast. He basically smiled the entire time we were there, even yelled at the TV once or twice and proudly spouted his trademark response of “THAT WAS COOL!” as we left the pub. It may not have completely won him over, but the seed was planted.

I’m a believer in “paying it forward,” so I feel the unrelenting need to convert more like me. If they don’t chose to support the club I love, well that’s on them. If they at least take a material and commercial interest in the game, then that’s a win. My hope is that they find something that captivates the mind, whether that is of club or country.

~

I’m a Texan at heart, and I always will be, but Memphis has dug it’s muddy claws into me and I can’t help but think I showed up at just the right time. Whether it’s professional soccer on the doorstep or the opportunity to assist a city with a tumultuous history, Memphis can build a shrine to the World’s Game in its own image–gritty yet permeable. So come join us at pubs and on pitches, and fall in love–like we all have–with something that is pure magic.

Unless you’re a United fan, then go to Nashville.

With love and respect to the great cities of Memphis and Liverpool,

 

Jason

 

Note: We’d like to thank Jason for his submission. As always, we want to tell the stories of the beautiful people who live in the Mid-South and love this beautiful game. If you want to tell your own soccer journey, we are accepting submissions at 901soccerpod@gmail.com. 

(photo credit: Egypt Independent)

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