“The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they don’t know the game.”
— Bill Shankly, manager, Liverpool Football Club, 1959 - 1974
The day after I told him what I’d seen, Dave didn’t miss a beat. He took a step and stood square on looking me in the eyes and he said, “You know that’s just a thing, right? A thing some women like. It’s normal.”
It felt like fifteen minutes passed with him staring, and me making a series of tiny adjusted stares back, and also at the same time staring into nothing, and feeling very aware of all the other things around us, and Dave finally said, “So, maybe stop overanalyzing us?” and zipped up his bag and walked to his car. While he was walking off, he shook his head and gave that hands on hips pffffft of breath that he usually did when we were on the soccer field and he tried to give me a pass and I was a step late getting to where he thought I needed to be. He would always turn away before making that face, because he felt that in his role as captain he should never directly show us his disappointment.
It gummed me up for hours afterward: what’re you supposed to say if someone tells you to stop analyzing how they act with their wife? And Dave’s conversations weren’t usually that quick or pointed, so it had caught me off guard, and I worried I’d crossed a line. He was usually much more circumspect, if a little terse. He was a natural leader.
We had worked together for two years by that point and had become friends. We played on the same soccer team in the over-35 league. Dave’s wife was friends with my wife. And at that time, he was probably my only friend outside my marriage. Dave taught me everything about not just playing soccer in a functional way, but about how the game can be cruel, and turns on a moment, but can be so magical. He also taught me that it demands total commitment.
As the mysterious and legendary Yugoslavia defender Velibor Vasović is said to have put it, “I never understood why you'd play a game in which you lost four kilos of your body weight for nothing. When you put on the shirt and laced up the boots, you had to win. Otherwise you might as well stay at home and watch the television.”
But to Dave, winning was almost—almost—secondary to playing the game the right way. It turned out that in soccer there were rules—and the rules came in many layers.
There were simple rules, and even these had to be both learned and then gamed. These were things like the offsides rule (when in defense, every man must raise his arm in the international gesture to claim confidence the striker was offside; when playing as striker) and yellow cards (each ref had a threshold for yellow cards that demanded both a friendly chat after you committed egregious fouls that sounded like, sir, you know I had to go for that, or he was just a little too quick for me there). If you got away with a bad foul, you had to do the opposite—you had to get heated, and beseech the referee to book your opponent for making too much of what must have been a normal challenge. If someone cleated your teammate, you were to do the same to them at the next opportunity. These were rules that took some context to implement, but that were straightforward enough.
Then there were the complex codes a team lived by. Dave taught almost all of us that. Most of us had never played before, and Dave told us that he recruited us as a team of amateurs on purpose. The other over-35-league teams, he said, were composed of has-beens who both had passed their primes and worse, thought they could still play. He picked us because we still had hope, he said. We could still learn.
Dave had been our captain since forever, and he was a good captain because he was a good motivator and he looked after the details. He would call each of us before a new season and ask how we were feeling, what we had been working on, and whether we were ready to play another season. He would also bring beers for after the game for everyone for whom the night’s exertions had really meant something. We would always stick around another few moments, chattering about the yard dog tackles the other team had left on us, the coward of a ref, the missed chances on goal. After two beers, Dave mostly got up on his soapbox.
“Messi is not a genius,” Dave said once while we were cracking beers in the parking lot. He snapped the small, old cooler lid shut with a long plastic creak. “Xavi is a genius. Riquelme is a genius. Pirlo is a genius. Messi is just fast and left-footed and quick at math.”
I thought of Messi’s scrambling runs, thought of the sublime chips, the way giant defenders bounced off him, the quick passing.
“Why isn’t Messi a genius?” I said.
“Because he only plays well with the best players around him,” he said. As he slurped from his beer, he looked right at me. “A genius turns a team of scrubs into a great team.”
Josephus asked what made a teammate a great teammate—I think with a touch of irony, though his accent always made it hard to tell. Dave was completely silent for the rest of the night after that, but when we were the last two left in the parking lot, I asked him again what made someone a good teammate.
"Trust,” he said. "If we’re all committed and all always working incredibly hard, there will always be another defender to clean up behind us if we fall. And a good player also never—ever—shithouses out of a fifty-fifty tackle. Or even a losing tackle. And lastly, but just as importantly, no matter what the score, or how tired your legs think they are, a good teammate has to always be showing for the ball when your teammate needs to pass.”
Now that I am a team manager in my work, and have a team that reports to me, and squabbles, and hesitates in their own decisions, and routinely crumbles into a particularly bureaucratic dysfunctionality, I think of Dave’s list of good teammate qualities often, and I wonder why my repeating the same things he used to say won’t stick with them the way it did with me. I think the list is useless without the physical feelings of exhaustion, of futility, and of frustrations stemming from unanswerable questions posed by a defense of ugly, old, cheating shithouses. If you don’t know the bleakness of those feelings, what can a list give you?
I recall quite clearly the moment I realized I wouldn’t play forever. The vision that preceded the full realization—which only came after the ligament in the center of my left knee ruptured, and had to be replaced by a piece of my hamstring. Before those moments, it should have been much clearer.
When I saw Dave grab defenders by the throat in a fit of rage, it was right. Righteous, even. He was always quick to take a red card as long as it meant letting other teams know they could never put a dirty tackle in on one of us without answering to Dave. I still remember my first game, losing the ball out of bounds, but still getting clattered on both sides by two other players, one of whom stuck his cleats into my thigh and left a gash. The referee blew the whistle and was fumbling in his pocket for a card when Dave delivered a more swift sense of justice, and punched one of the offending players in the throat. Dave stood over the poor asshole holding one finger up in the gesture he always used to show a referee or the other team that he stood for principles and wouldn’t melt away when challenged. He would never shithouse out of a challenge. We all went out for beers afterward. The feeling was magnificent. Noble. Boundless. And it was as good as it would ever get. Genuinely.
The fields where we have always played are nestled between some train tracks and the river on what would otherwise be an empty floodplain. The tunnel underneath the train tracks that lets you exit the far side of the soccer fields is still there. It goes under the long berm that raises the train tracks above where the river usually reaches when it jumps its banks during a flood. It’s only a short tunnel, and it’s quite well lit, but still, not too many people tend to use it. It leads to behind the hospital where there aren’t many parking spots, but there are a lot of loud machines—air conditioners, ambulances, a rescue helicopter in a long shed. It’s a loud and chaotic space where there’s always something going on, and only a few places for a soccer player to park. But Dave has always used this tunnel, since his wife Sarah works for the hospital and has a spot in the big garage.
I remember that night, the referee was a very young boy I’m sure was still in high school, but hadn’t been a soccer player himself, and so refereed the league games. He was completely unprepared for the ugliness and Machiavellian shithouse behavior of these grown men. He had the look of an earnest young future lawyer, and I was completely unsurprised to find out many years later he was the son of immigrants who were supportive, strict, and unwavering in their faith of what the American legal and economic system could be for them and their son. We met as volunteer coaches at the high school. He did it to help give guidance to the young players—many of whom also came from the mostly Burundian and Bosnian resettlement population—while I just needed something to do after my MCL ended my playing days. The young man would not go on to be a lawyer, as I thought that night, but did, in fact, become a paralegal in the time I knew him.
That night when the referee blew the whistle to begin play, I had hoped so much that I would be able to set aside the tight feeling in my gut that being near Dave had given me after our conversation at practice the night before. A thing some women like.
Leaving practice two days earlier, Dave and Sarah had been about midway through the tunnel, and almost out of the glow of the streetlight. I was still on the edge of the field, unpacking the aspirin from my gym bag in the grass beside the tunnel, and in the falling darkness they did not know I was behind them. Dave was totally calm until the moment he reached out for Sarah, and grabbed her by the throat and held a single finger up for several pulses.
I felt my heartbeat in my temples. The scene replayed so easily. Dave held the lone finger up at Sarah and stared, and then he took his hand from her throat, and without any more words they walked out of the tunnel together and disappeared on the other side.
When I asked him about it after practice the next day, he was so sharp and so quick to put the right face on. And on the following day, playing on the field just 30 feet from the same tunnel, I had hoped with such a shithouse ache that when the game began it would be okay to forget the calmness and then the quickness with which he had grabbed her and pinned her to the tunnel’s walls, holding her at the throat, or the shunting of her shout as his hand cut off her air, or the quick and easy way he had talked to me after practice and walked off.
The ball bounced off my shins and out of bounds. I remember trying and trying to figure out where on the pitch I should have been standing. I remember thinking to myself, If we win this match, everything’s okay. I whispered it to myself over and over as I ran aimlessly through the midfield missing tackles, not arriving for the ball on time. Everything’s normal.