A Soccer Dad Faces Parenting, Coaching and Dreams

A Soccer Dad Faces Parenting, Coaching and Dreams

by Mauricio Espinoza

Jordan leaped to grab that ball as if nothing else in the world mattered, the way good goalkeepers do, oblivious to the sea of enemy legs that crowded the penalty box like hungry sharks with menacing cleats for teeth. My brave eight-year-old shark-slayer got to the ball first, preserving a hard-fought 1-0 lead against a superior team our novice squad had no business defeating or even tying, on one of those glorious fall afternoons I have grown so accustomed to love in Ohio.

But in the middle of the grass- and mud-splashing excitement of the play, we failed to notice that one of those cleat-armed mouths had landed on Jordan’s left hand full-force, making my goalie roll into a fetus position, still grasping the ball, tears of pain (those are OK, but never tears of fear) gushing out along with the subtlest of whimpers. As the father and coach of the injured player, I rushed onto the field and carried Jordan out of bounds in my arms, while the rest of the kids and their parents and grandparents stood and clapped — the closest you ever get to a standing ovation as a soccer player.

When you were born and raised in a soccer-deranged Latin American country like Costa Rica, and you are a male, and you become a father, this is one of the things you always dream of: to have a son who loves the game as much as you do, who plays the same position you play, and who one day becomes the hero, sprained hand and muddy face and tears of pain and all…except Jordan is my daughter.

Most people assume Jordan is a boy when they hear the name or read it on the sign-up sheet at the hospital, for example, after the injured hand incident. No, she wasn’t dedicated tothe glory of His Airness like all those boys named Jordan in the ‘90s were. Her name was inspired by Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby, which my wife Randi and I read together during an American literature class at Ashland University. Let it be clarified that Randi didn’t care much for Jordan Baker as a character, her reputation as a cheat having been well-documented, but she liked the name just the same. I did too. Beats being named Daisy any time of the year. When Jordan was almost five, we had another daughter. We named her Kathryn so there wouldn’t be any doubt as to her gender. Kathryn is eight now. And she doesn’t care much for soccer.

Many academic articles and books (Roger Magazine’s Golden and Blue Like My Heart comes to mind) have been written about soccer and masculinity in Latin America. I’m certain many more have been written about the other football and male culture in the United States. All of that matters very little — even for someone who likes to study the relationship between sports and culture — when I think about my own relationship with my daughter in the context of playing soccer.

Have all these years of consciously trying to subdue the influence of my inevitably machista upbringing actually had an impact? Am I any less sexist or misogynist than the other guy, here or in my home country? I don’t know. Would I have felt any differently that autumn afternoon, or any of the other times Jordan has made awesome plays on the field, if she were my son instead? I honestly can’t answer that. Do I wish Jordan or Kathryn were boys? Certainly not. But I do wonder — still do after 13 years of being a dad — what it would feel like to have a son, what my father felt when he had me, his firstborn.

Our lives have been very different, my dad’s and mine. He finished sixth grade as an adult through night school. I’m working on my Ph.D. He toiled all weeklong in construction and farming jobs. I work in a quiet office at a university, teach classes, go to fancy conferences. But there’s one thing that has always united us, made us equals: soccer.

On Sunday, his only day of rest, he would faithfully practice his religion on the dusty pitch of our tiny mountain town. Just as faithfully, I would go watch him score thrilling goals and — more often than not — get yellow- or red-carded because of his fiery temperament. Either way, I was proud of him. When I went to elementary school and was finally included in the team, I figured it was my time to impress him. I wasn’t a striker like him, but a goalie — too lazy to run I suppose. The first time he came to watch one of my games, the coach had me play defense, and because the referee didn’t show up, my father was asked to blow the whistle. Our team was trounced, and to make matters worse, I committed the silliest penalty ever toward the end of the game — used as I was to playing goalie, I intercepted a shot with my hands in the box. My father had no choice but to point to the penalty spot. I could see disappointment (and a bit of embarrassment) in his eyes. All he could see in mine was tears.

When you were
born in a soccer-
deranged Latin
American country,
this is one of the
things you always
dream of

I suppose my interest in coaching Jordan’s teams — traveling all over the state to tidy suburban parks and dealing with the occasional angry parent or ethnically insensitive spectator — has as much to do with the need to realize my own soccer-dad fantasy as it does with the constant reminder that my father’s dream went unfulfilled, and that I somehow need to make up for it. This quest, however, has its limits.

When Jordan entered preadolescence, she no longer wanted me to be her coach. She preferred female coaches then, and soccer began playing more of a socializing role. No more early-morning rides to a tournament somewhere on Lake Erie, stopping for candy bars along the way and having lunch at a picnic table by the beach.

Now that she’s in middle school, she has begun playing volleyball too, her loyalty split down the middle. That’s the process of growing up, I tell myself. It was the same between my father and me, growing up and growing apart little by little, soccer games and boxing bouts on TV the only thing we shared for quite a while. Last fall, when I was once again “allowed” to coach (well, co-coach) her team again, Jordan didn’t want to be the goalkeeper anymore. She had never before shown much interest in any position other than goalie or defense, evidenced by the fact she had scored a total of one goal in seven years of playing. But that season she played striker, scoring three goals in a single game and finishing as the top scorer of her team.

During one of the games, she stroke a pass perfectly from just outside the penalty box; the ball grazed the underside of the crossbar and ended in the back of the net, a beautiful goal that not even a good adult goalkeeper could have stopped. I bragged about it on Facebook to my friends. I was proud of her. My father — a six-hour flight away from the action — would have been proud, too.

Two months ago, Jordan came to watch one of my games. Yes, I still play, stubbornly, despite the ACL surgery and the broken ribs and the twisted fingers and other occasional ailments. She sat with a friend from school, whose dad was playing on the other team. I had one of those magical nights when the goalkeeper gods are on your side and you could stop a cannon ball if it were fired at you. Despite being severely outmatched, my team came ahead by a goal. When I reached the bleachers, Jordan ran and gave me a hug. “All the people were saying, ‘Who’s that goalie? He’s awesome.’ And I told them, ‘He’s my dad.’”

Then she said it. Jordan uttered the words I had been waiting 36 years to hear: “I’m proud of you.”

Mauricio Espinoza is a communications specialist, instructor and Ph.D. candidate in Latin American and Latino/a Studies at The Ohio State University. He also writes poetry.

Also see Cheering or Being Cheered? My Daughter’s Cheerleading Adventure by Lu Bailey in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Nine Titles Thinking About Title IX by Rachel Toor in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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