Column: Junior High Sports


“Anyone want to play goalie?” Coach’s query met his young audience like a profound question stumps the last section of History of Civ.

We were the quintessential American junior high soccer team. We had the jocks wearing their Ronaldo jerseys, we had the video gamers who showed up to practice with Hawaiian Punch instead of water, we had those skinny guys whose voices hadn’t begun to change yet, and we had that fat kid whose only reason for being there was that he was the mandatory 11th player. The fat kid raised his hand.

The poor guy, he tried so hard to keep up in practice. He really did. His glasses kept sliding down his round sweaty face, and his pink cheeks kind of bounced up and down while he chugged around the field. He would usually finish his half-mile about the time the other guys were getting rushed home by their stressed-out soccer moms who had forgotten there was a casserole in the oven. I think he was the right choice to play goalie. He definitely couldn’t run up and down the field like the other players.

I think we won one or two games that season, and I know one of them was against a school that had a carpet basketball court. We also got scored on by a girl.

It happened during our first game, and one of our world-class fullbacks caught the ball with his hands in the box. I remember how scared our new goalie looked as he positioned himself for the coming penalty kick. The other team’s best player, a girl (who was taller than the rest of us seventh-graders, anyway), calmly stepped up and put the ball past him. He kind of dove at it, but I would put it more in the category of a stop, drop and roll.

The thing that really amazes me about junior high sports is that someone had to coach those teams. Can you imagine volunteering to do that? I’m so glad there are some good junior high coaches out there.

I’ll never forget that soccer coach, either. He really taught the chubby guy how to be a decent goalkeeper. You should have seen the time Coach showed him how to attack an offender who was on a breakaway. This is the scenario where the goalie is supposed to run out, yell and slide like crazy at the guy with the ball. Well, Coach started dribbling toward the goal, and our goalie started to run out. He yelled “keeper!” and slide-tackled the coach like you wouldn’t believe. Coach cracked a rib, no joke. But he just lay there on the ground, gasping, holding his ribs, and wheezing out the words, “Way to go, man. That was a great tackle!” He didn’t even get irritated. He was just glad that one of his young players was trying to improve and be a better goalkeeper. He really changed the way that guy played in the goal, and before you know it, that chubby guy had grown 10 inches, lost 30 pounds, and was winning state championships.

There’s just no measuring the impact that a coach can have on young athletes. A coach can be a role model that a kid will look up to, or be an impact in ways that teachers, friends and maybe even parents can’t. Young athletes need a patient mentor to teach them how to play the game right and with character. They need someone who cares if they are to succeed in the future, and they need someone to show them how they can then impact one who looks up to them. Basically, they need a coach who will take an unathletic fat kid and show him the ropes just like his most talented junior high superstars.

I would know — that fat kid was me.