Harkes at the Wall

The following piece originally appeared in three parts at Football Paradise.

My father is the best of men.

He worked in the woods of northern California, falling trees and wrestling them from the hillside to the lumber mill. It was June and his operation was in full swing after the long winter layoff, when snow and mud made the old logging roads that snaked through the Sierra Nevada Mountains inaccessible. Every moment counts in an industry with such a long off-season. Yet he had taken a Wednesday off to drive me and my brother the four hours to San Jose to see our first professional football match. He had little more than a passing interest in the game, but I was obsessed.

Every day, I would run outside with my worn Mitre ball and use the side of my house for target practice. The thump of the ball hitting that wall was the metronome of my childhood, and that rhythm peaked during the summer of 1998. Everybody thinks the best World Cup was the first he or she fully remembers. I had just turned 13, and I lived every moment of France ’98. By the end of the tournament, I had amassed a small library of recorded games on VHS tapes. It was all there: Prosinecki’s silky skills, the Laudrup brothers, Bergkamp’s incredible volley against Argentina, the Nike advert with Brazil playing in an airport, Beckham’s moment of madness, and France’s unlikely cast of heroes dragging themselves to World Cup glory.

In the days leading up to the trip, I channeled my excitement and anticipation into constructing noisemakers out of soda cans and gravel I collected from the creek that ran next our house. Sitting in the front seat next to my dad, I resisted the urge to test them out in the confines of our car. It was a long trip, and I did not want to test his patience so early on.

Arriving at San Jose was like entering a different world. The cattle pasture and oak trees I was used to were replaced by concrete of every variety. The smell of gasoline, strange fried food, and too many people hung in the humid air. To quote the old cowboy poem: “Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow; I love creation better as it stood.”

My dad navigated unfamiliar streets in Los Gatos to San Jose State University’s Spartan Stadium. Event staff directed us to a large grass field used as overflow parking. I had never seen so many football fans in one place. I didn’t believe it was possible so many existed in America. And here they all were, playing keep-ups in between cars and wearing San Jose Clash, Mexico, and El Salvador tops. There was a distinct Latin flavor, and norteño music blared from the cars around us.

Growing up in a rural community, I only had a vague idea others like me existed. When the sports editor of the regional paper (this was back when people still read newspapers) wrote an editorial about his hatred of football titled “My World Cup Runneth Over” enough people abused him into writing a mealy-mouthed apology in his column the following week, proof outrage culture existed before Twitter.

I’ve heard others describe something approaching awe as they enter stadiums, impressed by the open expanse of green and the towering blocks of supporters. The Clash’s home did not inspire such grand feelings; it was designed for American football and the pitch barely met the dimensions required by FIFA approved competitions. In fact, there was a belief at the time that the official measurements were a fiction. The upper levels remained covered, unused. Our seats were near midfield, a couple rows up from the pink wall that loomed over the sidelines, making throw-ins impossible to see. I was disappointed to be so far from the section behind the goal, the Casbah, where the loudest fans sat. I didn’t realize that my father had laid out a not insignificant amount of money to make sure we had decent seats for our first match.

 

*

 

It is a Wednesday, and that means midweek football. Kickoff has been pushed back an hour to make it easier for commuters to get out of downtown Seattle and match goers to arrive from work. My friends and I are goers tonight. It is our last get-together before the birth of another child. They live in the north of the city and ride the bus to the stadium. I am coming from the suburbs in the south and need to take the train.

I arrive at the station and gather up my coat and rave green Sounders scarf. I walk through the bus bay and catch the faint scent of urine. Why do people always piss here? There’s a public toilet 20 yards away that seems like a more convenient choice. A squat man with a neck that disappeared into his muscular shoulders long ago sees my scarf. He looks me up and down and growls, “While you all are sucking each other’s dicks at the game…” Ok, I think, here we go. Some meathead that loves American football is going to offer his unsolicited take on masculinity and sport. “…I’ll be at church!” Oh. That’s not where I thought that was going. He motions to me and an imaginary crowd of dick suckers, “Which is where you all should be!”

I’m excited for the match, and I climb the escalator steps to the train rather than wait passively to arrive at the top. I find my platform and hear the sounds of the station: trains coming and going, PA announcements, and a crazed man yelling profanities. Transit security has come over and is attempting to calm him down. “All I was doing was saying WHAT THIS BAD MOTHERF***** IS GOING TO DO TO THEIR RICH, WHITE ASSES!”

He is an elderly gentleman with brightly colored suspenders that belie his rage. He eventually realizes this guard isn’t going to help him in his fight against gentrification. So, he ambles over to me and shouts,  “THERE’S A GODDAMN TRASH CAN RIGHT HERE!” It’s an inauspicious start to the evening. Thankfully, he decides not to pursue the matter further with me as I get on the train.

I’m glad to be on it, and I enjoy looking out the window at the neighborhoods I used to know well when I lived in the city. The girl in the seat next me is eating street teriyaki with chopsticks. It doesn’t smell pleasant in the tight confines of our carriage. One of the guys I’m meeting asks in our group text if anyone wants a banh mi (complete with accent symbols).  Thanks to the teriyaki though, I’m not really hungry.

A small cadre of Sounders fans exit at Stadium Station. I stay on for one more stop to meet my buddies at a bar north of the stadium. We find a booth at the back and talk about our kids, DIY projects, and health insurance. Basically, dad stuff. Then one member pulls out a flask of bourbon and tops us all off. It is illicit, and it gives the evening a youthful playfulness that is becoming rarer and rarer in our worlds.

We make our way to the stadium. Surprisingly for Seattle at this time of year, it isn’t raining. Our seats are in a section of bleachers that rise up behind the north goal known as the Hawk’s Nest. Our tickets were exceptionally cheap even for the bleachers. When we get to our seats we see why. The fans in the row in front of us brought their floor toms. The drummers came to provide atmosphere, but it reminds me less of fan culture and more of that one kid in class that can’t sit still, always tapping something with his pencil. There is a group of Sounders fans that adopted the motto of Nos audietis in somniis, or “You will hear us in your sleep.” When I close my eyes to sleep at the end of the evening, I do hear the drums, but I suspect it might have more to do with noise-induced hearing loss than anything else.

 

*

I did not enter parenthood gracefully. There were complications, and my wife and I nearly lost our son during the birthing process; I found out later that I nearly lost her too. She needed an emergency procedure to save the baby. So, while she was being prepped for surgery in the operating room, I found myself alone in a hospital hallway. I sat on a bench with my head in my hands, unable to process the preceding hours or what the next few would hold. Finally, a nurse led me into the OR. My wife was already there on the table, and I sat near her head. Her arms were stretched out in a Christ-like pose to give the doctor room to rescue our baby.

This is my body broken for you.

I shook from the cold of the room, a crisp clinical cold, and my wife was shaking from the loss of blood and anesthesia. I saw fear in her eyes as the doctor went to work, and I hoped she couldn’t see it in mine. And then our son was born.

It wasn’t like the movies, and we waited, waited to hear his cries. Something was wrong. We had worked out ahead of time that if there were any problems, I was to go with the baby. So, I followed a crowd of nurses to the darkened neonatal intensive care unit. It was warmer there. The danger passed, and suddenly I was left alone with my son. My son. Unable to hold him, I patted his back and softly sang the songs he head been hearing in utero for the last nine months. I wanted him to recognize my voice and know he was safe with his dad.

I wasn’t prepared for parenthood. Sure, I put together a crib and installed car seats, but I wasn’t ready for the feelings that come from having a child. They’re bigger and more complex. And harder. What do you feel, for instance, when three years later a different doctor tells you that your son’s brain doesn’t work the same way it does in others? There is pain.

But there is joy too. Perhaps the greatest joy is being able to see world again through the eyes of a child. To see their faces when they are introduced to something magical like snow or as grand as the ocean. Or football.

My son, now four years old, knew about the game. He had an intellectual understanding of it from a children’s book explaining the rules I got him for Christmas last year. He often joins me watching matches at home. He likes to sit with my arm around him just so, following the figures on the screen move the ball from end to end. I was surprised at how excited he was when I asked if he wanted to go to a match with me.

I figured non-League football was the way to ease him in, and there is a semi-professional team a short drive from our house. Even a short jaunt with children, however, requires planning and packing. I brought snacks, water, a change of clothes (just in case…), a coat, a mini-ball, and safety earmuffs. The last item was especially important. One of our early clues something was different for him was how distressed he would be at an event with a public address system or sudden, loud noises. It was later that we learned about sensory processing disorders. I knew a football match would be a challenge for him, but I also knew how brave this little guy was.

 

*

We had arrived early, and my brother and I rushed to the front to in hopes of collecting autographs from the players warming up on the pitch. I was especially keen because DC United was in town. The club was the first dynasty of Major League Soccer and fielded two of my favorite players: Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes.

I loved watching Etcheverry play the game. He sported a decidedly unfashionable mullet, and it flew out from the back of his head as he twisted and turned with the ball. A mercurial enganche, the United States simply didn’t produce players like him. The country did, however, produce players like Harkes: strong, hard-working, indomitable. It was odd he was even in San Jose though and not with the national team in France for the World Cup. Just before the tournament, he had been unceremoniously stripped of the captaincy and dropped from the squad. Rumours abounded as to why and they seemed to settle on some combination of breaking curfew ahead of a match and a tactical disagreement with the manager, Steve Sampson.

A few players jogged over to sign autographs for the cluster of young fans my brother and I joined. To my absolute delight, Harkes was one of them, and I readied myself to make the most of my brush with one of my idols. I had brought a pen and made sure it worked properly when the big moment arrived. I needn’t have bothered; the professionals simply grabbed the first Sharpie they saw and worked their way down the line with it.

I couldn’t believe it when Harkes took my programme and began signing it. Desperate to speak to him, I blurted out that Sampson was an idiot, and I was so sorry to see he wasn’t in team for the World Cup. My hero paused a moment and looked up at me. I couldn’t quite process his facial expression. What I did not know at the time, and what very few people knew, was the true reason he was left home. It had come to the attention of the manager that Harkes had engaged in “an improper relationship” with a friend and teammate’s wife. That look on his face I couldn’t fully understand was shame. “Me too, buddy,” he said and quickly moved on to the next young fan.

We made our way back to our seats and the match began. I made use of my homemade noisemakers as I would at the high school basketball games I’d attended. I looked around though and noticed I seemed to be the only one making a racket. My father looked on serenely, content to let me enjoy the sport I loved in whatever annoying fashion I chose. But I noticed the discomfort of my neighbors, sat down next to my dad, and settled in to watch the match.

It was a bloodbath. The Clash wasn’t a great side in the best of times, and, due to international call-ups, it was shorn of its best player. I didn’t mind though. I had come to see United. I was pleased as the sun went down and the temperature dropped because it gave me a chance to put on my black Adidas jacket that very closely resembled United’s Adidas kit of the same color. It finished 4-0 to the visitors. I celebrated each goal, and I also noticed the increasingly dirty looks of the home fans around me. I didn’t care. My dad was there, and they’d have to get through him first.

 

*

The smell of ballpark garlic fries cuts through the boom of the drums and pre-game pyrotechnics.  One of our number suggest we take a selfie to document the occasion, but the drums have reminded us we are all too old and crotchety for such a thing. The moon occasionally peeks out from behind clouds in the sky opposite us. It’s a beautiful fall night for football.

The match isn’t living up to expectations, however. The first 45 minutes provide few moments of excitement. Even the pep band is rather subdued, with the brass section paying more attention to their phones than the pitch. Halftime brings a merciful respite from the drums.

The second half is slightly more entertaining. The away team, the Philadelphia Union, puts the ball in the back of the net following a smart finish from a difficult angle. The stadium is stunned into silence until the referee signals for a video review. It is my first time being in the stadium for a VAR review. I almost don’t believe it when referee indicates no goal after spotting an offside. It feels unnatural. Not necessarily bad. Just unnatural.

The rest of the match is very stop-start with injuries both real and imagined. The crowd has no sympathy for the Union player that gestures for a stretcher only to hop off the field and re-enter play soon after. Philadelphia has traveled nearly 3,000 miles for this midweek match and decides to settle for a point. More players go down and stay down while the home fans howl in outrage at their gamesmanship. And it isn’t just the fans. The Sounders on the pitch are fed up too, and refuse to give the ball back after the Union put it out so a player could receive “treatment.” Predictably, this doesn’t go down well and there is shoving and an over the top challenge resulting in a red card for the visitors. The mood in the stadium darkens. The moon has long since disappeared behind low clouds, and we feel a few drops of rain. I wonder how water affects the drums in front of me.

The Sounders push forward in stoppage time to break the deadlock and give the fans a goal to release the tension. But then a mistake from the goalkeeper gifts the away team a late, late winner. VAR will not rescue us this time. One of my companions, the most diehard Sounders supporter of the group, leaves without a word to the rest of us. The rain increases, so the rest of us decide to follow him out and join the stream of disappointed fans making their way home in the dark.

 

*

We arrived at the playing fields a little after kick-off. It was one of those warm, overcast days we get in Washington where the rain, which would be a gentle relief, threatens but rarely falls. The gray provided a pleasing backdrop to the green of the half dozen football pitches of the complex. There was a nominal admission fee, but, as we arrived late, the woman taking tickets didn’t bother with us. There was plenty of room on the aluminum bleachers, and we sat down in an unoccupied row to watch the match.

The level of play was low, but understandable given the level of the league. The home side, however, was clearly well-drilled and moved as a unit, executing their game plan. This is in no small part down to their manager, a former national team member and holder of MLS scoring records. A midfielder shouted at his fullback for launching a long ball over the top rather than keeping possession; it resulted in a goal. “Jump Around” by House of Pain played from the lonely speaker across the pitch. It caught my son’s attention. Thankfully, the noise traveled from a far enough distance to be a source of intrigue rather than anxiety. The PA excited him because “it sounded like Iron Man.” He has never seen Iron Man, but he seems to have a pretty good approximation of him.

From that point on, it was the sounds that delighted him: the whipping of the linesman’s flag, the thump of the goalkeeper’s punt, and the referee whistling for fouls. Especially the fouls. After a player was chopped down near the sideline, he told me he wants to be a member of the red (away) team when he grows up. I asked why, and he told me it’s because of the fouls. Apparently I am raising a Roy Keane.

Halftime came, and it was a busy time for all the kids. A pack of them scurried out to one of the goals to play an impromptu match until one of the substitutes jogged over to warm up and scattered them. My child is too busy getting down to the music playing to join the others. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” came on, and I can assure you he did, indeed, get jiggy with it.

After all that excitement and dancing, it was impossible for us to remain in our seats, and we ambled over to one of the unoccupied fields. I kept half an eye on my son, running and kicking his ball, and half an eye on the match. The home team scored another goal from a ball over the top, and the visitors’ manager was furious. “How many times is it going to go over your heads?! F****** drop!” My little guy was out of earshot, chasing his ball. It was a relief to know I was not going to have to explain a new vocabulary word like that to his mother.

 

*

Fans began squeezing past us on their way to the exits. I couldn’t process why anyone would leave early. I had waited my whole life to see a match live, and I reveled in every moment of it. The goal kicks were thunderous and echoed the drums in the Casbah. Men with trays of overpriced stadium food moved quickly up and down the stairs of each section, barking their wares: “Hot dogs HEEEEEEEEEEEERE! Get your hot dogs HEY-ERE!” We feasted on overpriced frankfurters and even more expensive Sprites. It was a different world, and I didn’t want to ever leave it. But the final whistle blew, and it was time to make our way back to the family car. The reality of the four-hour late night drive home settled over us.

I was always amazed at my father’s ability to stay awake on these drives. It felt superhuman. My younger brother got into the back seat and was asleep before we made it out of San Jose. Not me, though. I was going to show my dad I could be like him. I could stay awake too. We left the city behind us and entered California’s Central Valley. We zoomed through the darkened farmland on either side of the motorway. We stopped for fuel, and my dad got us Skittles from the minimart. They were one of his tricks to ward off sleepiness. If he felt himself getting tired, he said, he would ask me to pass him one Skittle to wake him up. We ate the bag together one at a time. I fell asleep soon after we finished it and woke up as our car pulled into our driveway. We were home.

 

*

I say a quick goodbye to my friends and hurry to the station. My haste doesn’t matter, as I arrive just after the train’s departure. I watch helplessly as the platform fills with irritable, damp football fans – the refuse of CenturyLink Field. The PA cycles through its safety announcements, “Please do not stand on the yellow line.” A couple of schmucks reach their toes out to stand on the line in unison. They laugh at their synchronized idiocy.

A large man pushes his way through the crowd and steps in front of the woman next to me. “Umm… excuse me,” she says pointedly. He turns, looks back at her dead-eyed, and shifts his bulk half a meter to the left. In front of me. His ears are too big for his head, and his face is blotchy from drinking. He smells like cheap beer and disappointment.

The train arrives. We surge to get on. He steps on to the carriage and attempts to position himself to the side of the doors, a prime spot to brace oneself comfortably when the train is full. It’s going to be my spot. One of the best bits of coaching I ever received in my playing career was to get your knees lower than your opponent’s to move him off the ball. I do just that and nudge him to the middle of the car as I enter. There’s not much he can do about it as the carriage is now full, and he focuses on keeping his balance as the train departs. I smile as others jostle him. It reminds me of a story I heard about the Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh; he would spit on the seat next to him whenever he took the bus to discourage others from sitting beside him. Thus marks my full transformation into crotchety old man. I can’t help but think a Sounders victory would have at least delayed it another week or two. Maybe the man at the bus bay was right – I should have just gone to church.

 

*

 

The rain and an approaching bedtime signaled it was time to go around the 75th minute. I was worried my son wouldn’t leave without a fight, but he followed me to the car obediently. I strapped him into his car seat, and he said wistfully, “I wish we could stay.”

“Me too, buddy, but it’s almost bedtime.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep,” he said. “Can we play soccer when we get home?”

This kid. He knew what buttons to push. “Sure, buddy.”

“I will do some fouls.”

So, we went home, kicked the ball together, and he launched into some wildly illegal tackles on me.

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