On Wednesday, my nephew's high school soccer career ended. I've written about Max and soccer before -- indeed, one of my most popular blog posts was about him.
His last game was the state (Connecticut) semifinal. My mother and brother went to support my sister in the stands and Max on the field, getting their own "big head" to cheer with and wearing one of the many "Don't Poke the Bear" shirts that we all proudly own.
I had a busy schedule and an 11-year-old with a busy schedule and decided not to travel for the game, waiting, I thought, for the state final game on Saturday. It was, in so many ways, a rookie move from a seasoned sports fan, putting the cart before the horse. But the Stonington Bears were playing the 23rd seeded Plainville Blue Devils (yep -- Blue Devils....can't make this stuff up) and I felt certain that another win was in the cards.
I was wrong. Plainville's Cinderella run -- they had a 9-7-1 season -- continued, and they will face Ellington in the Class M state final on Saturday while Stonington, 19-3, hangs up its cleats. And I, of all people, should've known better.
Max's team read ONE GOAL this past summer. Many of them became enamored of the amazing Abdi H. and reached out to him. Others, including Coach Paul deCastro, came to a reading I did at the Stongington Library last June. The idea of "together brothers" -- Pamoja Ndugu -- seemed to ring true for this team, which had so many players who had been teammates since they were five years old.
There is nothing I can say to Max, one of the most decent, hard-working kids I know. He's funny. A joy to be around. Truly patient with my daughter and her devotion to him. And a great soccer player -- coachable, fit, collegial, savvy. I can only go back to that moment in ONE GOAL when Coach Mike McGraw is on the longest bus ride of his entire coaching career -- the ride home from the Maine Class A Boys State Championship game in 2014:
McGraw continued his impromptu speech, feeling his blood pressure going up. Losing was not good for his health. His team’s string of postseason tragedies, year after year, took a toll. The veins in his neck pulsed. He could hear his heartbeat in his head. His face got hot, and there was a slight ringing in his ears. He felt like what he wasn’t saying was going to kill him: they should have won that game.
Instead, they played right into Cheverus’s hands. Cheverus, for God’s sake. The seventh seed. The word kept echoing in his head. The more he thought about it, the hotter he got. He thought it would be Scarborough. He was ready for Scarborough. How in God’s name did Cheverus beat Scarborough to get into the final?
“In no uncertain terms,” he said, his voice breaking, “we are going to be back. You’ll go to school and hold your heads up, because your friends are still your friends and the people who love you still love you. It can be a cruel game that has been pretty beautiful for us, so go to bed and don’t think too much. Tomorrow will be tough, and then it will get a little easier.”
He felt bad for the seniors who couldn’t go back, he said, players like Ibrahim and Mike and Speedy.
“We have to go back,” McGraw said one last time. This was not the right ending to their season.
Max can't go back. No senior can. But he can and will go forward, finding another beginning in the wake of this end. And next year, when the Bears make it back to that game, I have no doubt he will be there, cheering and supporting those who looked up to him, expecting them to get the job done.