The I in Athlete
I’m sorry I never told you I was quitting soccer. The goals that we built together never fully manifested, and it was too hard for me to tell you in person. Our lifelong father-son puzzle has fallen short here, at the University of Michigan. I did not know it then, but looking back now I understand how proud you must have been to see that goal posted above my bed: “play professional soccer.” Without your sacrifices, I would not be close to where I’m at today. There’s so much I’ve wanted to tell you over the years, but words are always harder to find in the moment. I hope this letter shows you all you’ve done for me, and all that is left for me to find on my own. But mostly, that soccer will always be ours.
I like to think soccer was my profound connection to the world, an arbitrary love that derived out of some deterministic fate, a secret language between the ball and my feet. From the beginning there was this subtle art in which the ball freely flowed on the field. I loved the sound of the grass parting, leaving a line as I passed the ball to your feet and you smiled. I was a child blissfully at play.
This “love” was the centripetal force that kept our family so close. Tethered to your grandiose passion for the sport, I was destined to keep playing, no matter what. My first memory of soccer evades me, but perhaps you can recall. Did the game choose me or did I choose it? The feeling of being with the ball became so innate as the years moved on that the question soon eluded me. The game became a chance to escape my mind, and my identity slowly merged itself to it — the first thing that looked like love.
In eighth grade, when I was asked to pen a letter to my future self, I responded passionately in a way that made you proud. I was genuinely sure of who I wanted to be. I wrote, in my block/bubble hybrid handwriting, about the only thing I knew — I wanted to be a professional soccer player.
And yet, as a 12-year-old, my goals were not entirely my own. Standing in a mirror, I always saw you pointing back at me. Coming from a privileged community, the world wasn’t leaping out of its shoes to show me my naïveté, so soccer became the lens through which I learned, and you were almost always the teacher.
Each lesson I learned, on and off the pitch, always aligned with our soccer goals. In the summers, that meant hours at the field with a repetition of shots, 12 balls for each corner, left and right, each passing round marked by the word “again.”
In the winters, the echoes of the racquetball walls were conditioned faintly into my ears with each pass. The sound of the last rolled into the next, until a constant white noise appeared. What started as play became a routine of practice and repetition. With each touch, pass and shot, we built together the foundation of our relationship. If I wasn’t playing for the love of the game, I certainly was doing it to be loved by you.
As I grew, the expectations of the game grew more immense. My anxiety and the constant criticism I faced blended together to create a meticulous form of perfectionism. Even after bright performances, you were always fixing my mistakes, constantly honing and molding me like a fine craftsman.
I know you were hard on me for a reason, so I was equally hard on myself. I wanted nothing more than to prove you wrong. I knocked the ball against the wall for hours in the backyard, constantly hearing your voice, until I finally internalized it as my own.
Accordingly, one mistake in game would sometimes haunt me for the rest of the match. Without knowing it, we both had created a paradoxical loop. My greatest assets — practice and perfection — also became my downfall. Still, I always wanted more, to prove to you that I was everything but a quitter.
When the inner workings of chance and geometric luck combined with hours of sweaty shirts and fancy footwork, we had finally done it, Dad. I walked around Ann Arbor with you and Mom in a dream-like state. My whole life had been for this moment. You put your arms around my shoulders as we walked out of the Michigan Athletics office, freshly signed to the University of Michigan. I can’t remember if you said you were proud of me, but I could feel your warm presence.
As I walked out of the locker room and into my dreams, I lightly tapped the words “WIN FOR MICHIGAN.” Standing in front of the crowds with jittery hands, I took a deep breath and looked for your familiar face. With a slight nod of your head, the years of preparation raced through my mind. Nobody knew how I was standing there, but you.
Two years treaded on and problems are destined to arise when the sole basis of your identity is built on performance. When I did not play well, I excluded myself from any validation. My idea of self-worth became thin, reduced to something that my coaches could fiddle with. Off the pitch, I always felt the need for approval, which I was no longer getting from soccer — a never-ending act, constantly appeasing others as I had done my whole life.
Simultaneously, the game no longer seemed like my own, a version manipulated for far too long to fit the views of how others perceived I should play. College athletics, built around structure, rationale and winning, had bullied out the formlessness and freedom I had found at any early age. My creative dance with the ball came with instructions on how and when to do it.
At times, I still felt like that child at play, smiling effortlessly, unburdened by what the game had become. I hoped that when I found anxiety and insecurities while playing, that child would empower me to play with passion. I hoped he would help me dictate every move and mistake as I purely played for the love of the game. But, by my senior year, the expectations of those around me had rotted away that part of the game. Soon, I felt as if I was playing for everyone but myself.
One should never pursue their craft with popularity as the sole purpose, and yet, most of our creative outlets are monetized and marketed based on their transactional value. With soccer, my form of creativity became battered and bruised beneath the demands of winning. My soul was sick and tired of soccer’s solid shell. The soft elements of play that I first found with you were now broken and brittle. Hardness and strength had left a steel bridge, with no room for water to flow.
I know we never reached our final goal, but in my 17 years of playing, I don’t think we should end on a negative note. Society often looks at athletes as one-dimensional, but each sport comes with its own sociological, psychological and cultural characteristics. For me, in my highly subjective biases, soccer is not just a game, but an art and philosophy. At its pinnacle, it reaches for an aesthetic dimension, utilizing dance and movement of the body through space. I learned throughout my years playing that a sense of honor and duty comes from competition, forcing me to search the limits and potentials of my mind and body.
I feel like most of the time I struggle to be completely honest with myself and to be completely honest with you. I’m eternally grateful for all you have done, and all that soccer will continue to do. Both of those pieces make up a large part of my heart, and I take them with me till the last beat. I miss soccer already, but maybe I’m more me than I’ve ever been.
At least in something new, I can find new weaknesses. I hope when you read this, you find a smile, because you have given me mine so many times before.
So cheers, Dad.