It was, coincidentally, Sebastian’s thirteenth birthday, and we were in North Carolina, where his Roanoke Star SW U-13 club was playing in a soccer tournament. After Arsenal scored a goal on a fantastic Santi Cazorla free kick, we had to go to Sebastian’s next tournament game. His team was playing well, winning games by comfortable margins. This was Sebastian’s first season playing travel soccer. He had been invited onto the team after excelling as a rec league goalkeeper for several years but it soon became obvious to all, coaches and Sebastian included, that he wasn’t going to be able to unseat the team’s starting goalkeeper. The life of a second-string goalkeeper can be frustrating. In order to get game time, Sebastian tried to develop as a defensive midfielder but he needed to improve big-time on his ball skills. And his pace. And his stamina. His coach would put him in for a couple of minutes here and there, but his shifts rarely inspired confidence.
Later that night, after his team won another game, Sebastian and I returned to the hotel room and watched a sketchy Russian-language download of the rest of the FA Cup final. Though Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s legendary manager, had been with the club since 1996 and had steered them to several major championships, speculation was rife he would be sacked should Arsenal lose. Throughout the game, even after Arsenal scored a second goal to tie it up, Wenger displayed the grim countenance of one whose stomach acids burbled ferociously. Eventually, thanks to an inspired Olivier Giroud back heel pass to set up an Aaron Ramsey shot, Arsenal scored the winning goal in extra time. Wenger would later label this the “most emotional” of all his championships; by all rights, the club could have folded after falling behind by two goals so early into the game, yet they hung on, showing tremendous calm and patience.
Later that night, while Sebastian slept, exhausted by the two games he played, I surfed through all the articles I could find about the FA Cup Final. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon an interview with Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s de facto defensive midfielder. Sports fans often imagine a losing coach’s halftime talks to be fiery foul-mouthed rants challenging players’ manhood, yet Arteta singled-out Wenger’s halftime address for its nurturing message. According
Arteta, Wenger told his players that he was proud of them. He told them that he believed in them, and if they believed in themselves, they could overcome the halftime deficit.
Wenger’s halftime speech was a piece of psychological brilliance.
“He told us to stay calm. We had done the most difficult thing, which was to score the first one [after going two down] so now the game was open, we had plenty of time to do it, we could not rush it,” Arteta said. “It was brilliant, I think the lads continued to play and we showed a lot of experience and composure.”
The next morning, on Sunday, Sebastian’s team fell behind very early in a game against, frankly, inferior opposition. For a while, his team looked likely to get an equalizer at any moment, but as the game wore on, their opponents fell into a well-organized defensive shell. In youth soccer at his level, it’s very rare for a player to remain on the bench for an entire game, yet that was exactly what happened to Sebastian. His team pressed and pressed, sacrificing defense for offense. Tactically, it made sense for them to play without a deep-lying defensive midfielder (Sebastian’s position), especially since their opponents were content to merely clear the ball out of their own half every time they got a boot to it.
Sebastian’s team lost, 1-0. It might have been the only time that season his team failed to score a goal.
After the game, Sebastian’s coach bluntly told him that he didn’t play because he wanted to only use players who could “influence the game.” Driving back to the hotel, Sebastian was totally devastated, his eyes red and puffy and nearly sobbing. He berated himself for not having more talent, berated himself for every poor touch he had on the ball throughout the season. Normally a happy go-lucky kid, he was utterly despondent.
It was one of the crisis moments when I really felt, as a father, that my words could make or break the course of his life, one of the few times that I felt called upon to utter words of brilliance. Which is a good thing, because brilliance and me aren’t really compatible.
Luckily, immediately I thought what Mikel Arteta said about Wenger’s halftime talk. I told Sebastian how proud I was of him for practicing hard throughout the season. I pointed to the incremental progress he had made in improving his ball skills, his positioning, his passing. Although the end product might not yet be there, he was improving. Rather than dwell on the liabilities he brought onto the field or the ways he still needed to improve, I talked about what he was doing right. Since Christmas, he was working out at the gym on the days his team wasn’t practicing to build up his strength and stamina. He worked out regularly with me, too, working on his shooting and dribbling skills. Quite possibly, all together, he was working out more than anyone on his team. I told him how proud I was of his past achievements, both on the field and off. He was growing up to be a fine young man, and I was so proud to say he was my son.
Because of how the tournament brackets were set up, Sebastian’s team played in the championship game despite their loss. I should have been excited for him, and for his team, but I dreaded what would happen with Sebastian if the coach elected not to play him again.
Amazingly, and perhaps employing some psychological brilliance of his own, Sebastian’s coach put him in the starting XI for perhaps the only time that season. And it ended up being more than just a token appearance for Sebastian. He played well, and with confidence, and there was nothing about his game that afternoon that screamed liability!!! By the time he was taken off for a breather, his team was up 2-0. Later, in the second half, I think he assisted on a goal. He could justly take pride for helping his team win.
That was two years ago. From time to time, I wonder what would have happened had I responded differently when Sebastian was down on himself. I could have said, Dude, you just gotta work harder! Or stuffed his head with empty plaudits. Or perhaps suggested maybe he should wake up and realize he was never going to be Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey or any of the Arsenal stars we watch every week. But what he needed was confidence, something any father should be able to provide their child.
Errata #1: Sebastian has kept up with soccer. He now plays primarily as a winger. Last weekend, he dribbled through and around three players to score in a 6-2 defeat. I’m proud of him. I’d be proud of him even if he never touched the ball again.
Errata #2: Earlier in the week, Entropy published a cooking-related memoir-ish piece of mine called “Chicken in a Pot.” It contains a really good recipe for the title dish, which I originally found in Cooks Illustrated. Give it a look if you’re hungry for something to read. Or if you’re just plain hungry for rustic chicken dish.
Errata #3: Also, yesterday the latest issue of Passages North arrived in the mail. Which really excited me because it contains a short story of mine called “Chimpanzees.” It's one of my more bizarre stories (first line: "The chimpanzees aren't chimpanzees but sock puppets we stain brown with shoe polish and accessorize with googly eyes") but, in a weird way, it's probably one of the most personal stories I've ever written, one that comes close to expressing a lot of things I've been feeling over the last few years.
I really owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many editors—including Timston Johnston, Robin McCarthy, and Matt Weinkam—who went above and beyond the call of duty to help me make this a better story. Thank you!
Errata #4: Last night, around ten o'clock, my kids and I walked around our quiet neighborhood. Dusted with snow, the streets seemed almost luminescent. Not a car was out, not even a mouse. And the only sound we heard on our quiet little walk was when, a few blocks away, a grumpy old man burst from his house to cuss out his dog for wanting to come inside from the cold. #creepy