I don’t play soccer anymore.
10 years ago, if you had asked me who I was, I would have succinctly said, “Oliver Gray: soccer player”.
Soccer was life, was family, was me. A rolling ball was at the forefront of my brain at almost all times; I played what I loved, and loved what I played. Leather cleats danced across freshly mowed pitches, my music a cacophony of whistles, cheers, and trash-talking. Equilibrium was achieved when foot met ball, and ball met net.
For years and years my identity was tied to speed and fouls and goals and tournaments. My social life was dominated by soccer; the girls I dated were players themselves, the guys I hung out with keepers and strikers alike. I wanted nothing more than to be another Giggs or Cantona or Scholes; I talked of playing abroad, dreamt of scoring goals in stadiums I had only seen on TV.
In my mind, it was all I was good at, and it defined my worth. Every goal I scored bolstered my confidence, every crushing loss left me dejected and empty. I could not mentally separate myself from being on or off the field; it was often hard to tell where the boy began and the player ended.
Despite a very disruptive injury, I kept playing, even past when I probably should have. I hung onto the game I loved, to who I was, and all I knew about myself. I’ve spent the past 5 years trying to convince myself that I am still a soccer player, partly in personal lamentation, partly in starry-eyed nostalgia. I tried and tried to be who I once was, and play the game I thought I was supposed to play.
But I don’t play soccer anymore.
If you ask me who I am now I would – not so succinctly – say, “Oliver Gray: writer, IT enthusiast, mandolinist, runner, fiancé, homeowner, gamer, even at times, dancer.”
Soccer isn’t practical anymore. My knees aren’t what they used to be, limping around work is hardly professional, and the circle of friends I used to play with is no longer emotionally or physically proximate. My heart, whether crushed from watching my dream die, or wizened with age, just isn’t in it anymore. I’ve become very aware that I am no longer a soccer player, but still find myself claiming I am in certain situations.
I’m sure, if a ball rolled to my feet, I would still know what to do with it. I could probably still put it into the back of a net with impressive speed and decent accuracy. I’m probably even fit enough to pull off a 90 minute game, should it ever prove necessary. As Toby Keith said, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
But just because I can, doesn’t mean I should, and doesn’t mean I want to. As I’ve grown, I’ve found similar fun in other avenues; some far more cerebral than the young soccer player in me would have ever expected. I enjoy reading and learning and becoming a better person in ways that don’t involve the World’s Game.
My mind is now open to a world outside of a 110 yd X 75 yd patch of grass. My goals are no longer confined between three white, metallic posts. My legs can take me to see the world, instead of just pursue a ball.
Because I don’t play soccer anymore.
10 years from now, if you ask me who I am, I will confidently say, “Oliver Gray: husband, father, author, friend, brother, son, bandmate, manager, tutor, wizard and whatever else I want to be.”
Soccer has served as a framework for growth. Scoring a goal was just training for getting what I want out of life. Score enough goals, you win the game. Play hard enough, work with your team, and you’ll win the championship. If you lead your team by playing fast and hard, they’ll learn from your example and return it in kind.
It taught me to listen to my body, to eat right, and drink inhuman amounts of water. It taught me to respect fitness and never be ashamed of sweat caused by hard work. It hardened me to take any slide-tackle life can throw at me, and “rub some dirt on it” if I do happen to fall. Most importantly it taught me to keep a cool head, as a red card does no one any favors.
I am who I am because I played, not because I was a player. I love the game, and always will, but I can finally accept that I don’t play soccer anymore, and that’s OK.