I had been dreading this call for sixteen years. No, not that call, thank the Lord. I will still be alive, but I will be living a life unable to play the sport that I have been playing for literally 50 years. My bowed legs; the cutting and slashing; the stop and start; all of it has conspired to literally scrape the articular cartilage off my left knee. The sadness and nostalgia are profound. Each step is now felt – with pain signals sent to my brain. An artificial knee is around the corner.
The reason I knew the day was coming was because my teammate from college, an orthopedic surgeon who had operated on my knee once before, predicted that he would make this call. He told me to stay away from the high impact activities. He warned me that I would be an early candidate for a knee replacement if I didn’t follow his advice. Guess what. I didn’t follow his advice — entirely. I gave up basketball and tennis, but not soccer. Sixteen years later he had to make the call. Why didn’t I follow his advice? When you are in love, the heart almost always wins over the head, and I have been in love with soccer since the age of 7.
Because I love the sport and not because I doubt my friend’s professionalism, I tested out the prognosis. I went out and played with a new team against an old team. I knew and respected everyone on the field. The level of skill was terrific for 50+ year olds. It was competitive and intense. I had not played in a year because of COVID, and it showed in my game. I loved every second on the pitch, but my knee didn’t. I could tell from the first step. I could feel bone hitting bone, but I relied on the adrenaline that had always pulled me through. The pain was put in a little box at the back of my brain, and I ran through it trying to drink in the experience – knowing without admitting to myself that it would be my last. Then, as the body is crafted to do, it sent me the ultimate signal. As I compensated for the knee, my other calf cramped to the point that I could not continue.
Unable to run, I went to one knee and called for a sub. I was done. I felt regret. I wanted to continue. I wanted to run unencumbered as I had for five decades. I missed that feeling of just accelerating with no pain. I had so many conflicting thoughts and a profound sadness as I limped off the field nodding to teammates and opponents alike. The manager said “get a stretch and we’ll get you back in.” I knew that my calf simply would not allow it. My teammates and opponents, some of whom I have known and played with and against for 30 years, did not realize what was happening. I did. My body had pronounced the death sentence, overwhelming a heart that had beat for the game for 50 years.
What will I miss? Not the drinking after the match. That was never my thing. I will miss the little things that experienced soccer players will recognize. I will miss
- The decision as the ball is approaching – look up; go wide; pass back; trap, dribble and move.
- On defense, seeing the give and go develop, realizing that a step towards the ball will mean you’re beaten, and being tricked into taking the step anyway.
- Seeing two players flood the zone behind me and realizing that I have to pick one and praying I pick the right one.
- Flicking my eyes periodically to the sweeper to make sure that I am not holding some threatening forward onside.
- The flood of rage as I am hit too aggressively and then the realization at how ridiculous a fight would be at 57.
- The self-interested absolute whining to the referee, led by myself, when I feel wronged.
- The intentional “professional” foul when I have been beaten, increasing in number with every passing year.
- The smell of the grass; the nod to teammate and opponent alike after a nice move; the clap on the back from the goalie when a shot is blocked.
- The camaraderie of people giving their all, even as talents, fitness and energy begin to deteriorate.
- The lights and mist of an evening game because the fields are needed for the young and energetic during the day.
- My teammates in New York, in DC, on G.B.U, Rangers, ZAM, Curmudgeons, Land Warriors, Ex-Cavs, and many more.
- The whole beautiful experience.
So, now I have to look to the next chapter. I ride my Peloton – as hard as I can sometimes. I am buying a gravel bike. I will work hard at it and enjoy the riding, but it will never replace the comfort, combat, and camaraderie of the world’s most beautiful game, played by me for half a century. It is a day I have dreaded for years. It signals aging, change, and deterioration. I have not gone gracefully. I have resisted the inevitable with literally every fiber of my disappearing cartilage, but my time has come. I will now watch the beautiful game wistfully, wishing I could be on the pitch, wondering why my body gave out faster than others, wryly admiring the amazing skills of those still there.
Goodbye beautiful game. It was an honor playing you. Never the most skillful, never the most artistic, I played you intensely, and you gave so much back. To those still playing, take care of the game; enjoy it; relish every moment; because sadly for all of you, that phone will ring one day.