A few weeks ago I could have ended my soccer career on a high note. In stoppage time, I scored the tying goal for my over-30 team that was facing relegation.
I thought about never playing again.
Whatever it is, we all want to leave it on our terms. We want to go voluntarily–quit instead of being fired. But we also prefer that the departure be positive. We want to peak at the end. We want to hit a walk-off homerun. We want to reach the crescendo and bow as the audience stands for applause.
Taking a bow had been on my mind long before I scored that goal. My doctor told me two months earlier that I need ankle surgery. Also I will be a father soon. Post surgery and vita con kiddo, I knew that playing soccer would get pushed down in priority.
After scoring that goal, I considered leaving on my terms with that as my signature. I had the high note. I just had to add the retirement.
That’s how John Kruk had done it.
Playing for the White Sox in 1995, Kruk singled, told his manager that he was retiring and left the ballpark before the last out. That final hit gave him a .300 batting average.
Arnold Palmer kept going until he physically could swing no more. Playing poorly and painfully in a minor tournament in 2006, he told a handful of fans that he was done. He explained, “It’s tough and it’s emotional for me because it’s my life.”
Soccer is a big part of my life.
Pitcher Jim Palmer retired but tried to come back seven years later and after being elected to baseball’s hall of fame. That effort failed.
Lance Armstrong retired and unretired. Pel’e retired once and later announced his next retirement three seasons before it happened. Then there’s Brett Favre, incapable of retiring, and Zinedine Zidane, who had the high note (a goal in a World Cup final) but was forced out on a low note in the same match (the headbutt).
With their range of retirement experiences, none of these guys gave me the direction I needed. I wanted to know how to squeeze all my abilities into one big bang with some assurance that future games wouldn’t be worth playing. My recent outings had been a good game, decent game, bad game, worse game, and good game. There was no obvious indicator of what the future held if I kept playing.
Perhaps I should have quit 22 years ago, when I was playing the best soccer of my life. Instead I moved from forward to midfielder to defender as my skills diminished, my speed subsided, and my younger teammates pushed me aside.
The slide of age could have been slowed with practice. But adulthood doesn’t offer practices like college soccer does. I was playing twice per week and never practicing.
I do warm up. And the warm-ups take longer and longer. For indoor games I warm up and stretch longer than I play. And I am so effing tired of warming up. The day I quit playing may be the day that I just get tired of warming up.
Once that happens, there won’t be any un-retirement for me. That invites injuries. I have enough of those.
As I scored the goal mentioned above, I was dealing with a strain in my left quad, a tracking problem with my left knee cap, a Charlie horse in my left calf, swelling in my left ankle, and some stray parts in my right ankle that would be removed via the pending surgery noted above.
My earlier injuries include three knee operations; four fractures in my face; and casts for a broken finger, sprained ankle, and cracked wrist. I cannot count the number of times that I have pulled quads, groins or calves. I have separated my shoulder, cracked ribs, peed blood, endured a concussion from my own goalie’s elbow, endured a concussion from a teammate’s shot, and once took a punch to the forehead that left a scar.
This is not a list of accomplishments or a sign of longevity. Frankly, I am embarrassed because good players stay healthy. Nike used to tell us, “Life’s short; play hard.” For me it has been “Life’s short, Recover quickly.”
Recovering quickly gets more difficult as I age, though, because my body needs rest. How do I rest quickly?
Recovery also involves lots of ice. And I have to say that I am absolutely amazed at the physical gratification of removing that ice from my body. It feels so good.
But I am also amazed at how painful walking down stairs can be. I worry that my decrepit joints will not allow me to bend down to pick up my child years from now.
Children (along with wives) caused some of my friends to give up the game long ago. These friends never decided to quit playing; they just found their soccer gear while cleaning their garages and realized they hadn’t played since their kindergartners were born.
Other friends gave it up in college and could never regain the fitness needed to play years later. Some tried but they suffered pull after sprain after strain.
Their farewell match was a pick-up game where they played no defense and managed to knock one shot between two orange cones after five tries from two yards away. They went out but not on a high note.
As these friends and former teammates quit, I kept playing. It helped that I didn’t get married until I was 39.
Preferably, my longevity would be measured not in years or injuries but in games and goals. Until I was 30, I scored roughly once per game. My best guess is that I have played 900 games and scored 600 goals.
If I finish a game without scoring, I add one notch to my thoughts of giving it up. When I don’t score and play poorly, I ask myself why I keep trying. Perhaps, I wish, one day in the future, I will do the things I could do years ago.
Without a crystal ball to guarantee that, though, my options seemed equally inviting as I increasingly considered never playing again. If I were to let that tying goal be my last effort, I avoid future frustration. If I decided to continue playing, I could hope for some joy and expect more physical pain.
What did I do? I continued. I decided to play again. Truthfully, I just did what I had done for so long—I showed up, gave passion to my effort, tried to help my team win, and hoped for another high note.
Four days after that glorious shot, I played indoor and scored zero. Then I played outdoor with my over-30 team, doing nothing noteworthy as I ran in circles for 90 minutes.
At our next outdoor game, my highlights were a caution for dissent and taking a whack on the left shin, for the fifth injury to my left leg at that time. The whack gave me swelling on the side of my shin, bruising toward my ankle, and stiffness in my Achilles.
Painfully, I came out for my last game before surgery. Knowing that I would be out for three months and possibly forever, I chipped a second half shot from 35 yards toward the far post.
As I watched my shot drift closer and continue its appealing curve toward the goal, I prepared to celebrate. Maybe I would go like John Kruk. I would walk off the field, leave my boots on the touchline, hand in my jersey, and drive home with the biggest smile on my face.
But my shot hit the post.
Minutes later, with the game tied 1-1, I chased down an opponent and cleared the ball, knocking into my own net. We lost 2-1.
So I can’t retire now. I can’t have an own goal be my walk-off, my signature, my legacy. I will have to rest, recover and return. And when I score again, I may just take a bow and drive to the house right then.
I just hope that goal comes before my child is the one driving the car.
Jamie Clary is a frequent writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He is the author of The First American Soccer Trivia Book, which is available on Amazon.com and at www.soccerprofessor.com.