In all of my 40 years of coaching, not one of the kids who played for me ever made it to the pros.
I was 18 when my dad asked me to coach my sister's village recreation soccer team in Garden City. I explained to him that with school, a job and a girlfriend, I had no time. He told me to make time. I made time.
The following week, 14 8-year-old girls stepped onto the soccer pitch and started playing tag, climbing on the goal nets or sitting in groups giggling. My sister, Ellen, was not very good at kicking a ball, but she was great at rolling her eyes every time I opened my mouth. We didn't accomplish much at the first practice. But my girlfriend showed up with homemade cupcakes and that seemed to inspire the girls to come back. We practiced a lot, but we never won a game. We did have fun.
The problem was that most of the girls didn't want to be distracted by a game. They decorated their uniforms with color markers or just sat near me talking about everything but soccer. We visited the ice cream shop, and ate pizza, more cupcakes and cookies. And if not for the little ball each girl brought with her, they would have nothing to sit on to eat their snacks.
Over the years I have coached boys and girls intramural teams, a few travel teams and school teams in West Hempstead and Garden City. For the last 12 years, I have coached the St. Agnes School seventh- and eighth-grade boys team in Rockville Centre. I am so excited that the season starts soon.
Last season, after a few days of tryouts, the team was selected, and we held our first practice. I knew I had a special group, but the players taught me something that will always stay with me.
During our scrimmage, a little bolt of lightning, a boy with a smile the size of size 5 soccer ball, came zooming across the field. Not once, not twice, but over and over. He did a fair imitation of me barking out orders to the players, and the St. Agnes boys laughed at his antics.
Some were able to slow him down and ask him what was up. He told them his name, J.J., and that he was 7 years old. He said that both his parents are gone and he is being raised by his grandpa and aunt. Our practice field was his backyard.
One by one, many of the players whispered J.J.'s info to me. They wanted to know what to do. I asked them the same thing, and they agreed he should play in our scrimmage game. He admitted that he had never kicked a ball before, but, our boys continued to feed the ball to J.J. and gave him a clear path to the goal. Amazingly, through the magic of this newly assembled team, he scored two goals, including the game winner. This resulted in huge cheers and high fives from both teams.
Was it possible J.J.'s smile could get any bigger? As we wrapped up practice, J.J. helped collect the equipment and asked when we would be back. We told him soon, and looked forward to playing with our newest and happiest "recruit."
That day taught me a lot about the character of these young men. I am not sure whether any of these lads will ever make it to the pros, but what they did for J.J. that day put them in a league of their own. I can't wait for the season to begin.
Kidsday editor Pat Mullooly lives in Garden City.