Jon Johnston

The Boy Who Couldn’t Kick A Ball

young person sitting on grass in front of soccer goal

I coached recreational league youth soccer for a decade. The goal of the league was to teach kids how to play soccer, have fun, participate , and develop life skills, such as teamwork. Kids develop at uneven levels. Some are much more coordinated than others by age seven. Others will catch up later. Some, like myself, will stay uncoordinated for their entire lives, continually poking themselves in the eye with a pencil if given the opportunity.

As I gained experience as a coach, I began learning how to handle the kids and put them in position to be successful. Every year, I’d receive a new group of kids with a few leftovers I coached from year to year. I had to get to know new kids so I could help them overcome whatever physical shortcomings they had.

Toe Taps

The easiest way to discover who was ahead in terms of coordination was to have the kids do toe taps. A toe tap is a simple drill where a player taps their toe to the top of the ball, alternating their feet in repetition. It told me a lot about what I was dealing with. I could discern who was most coordinated, who was in decent shape, who was competitive, and I could easily separate the most advanced kids from the others.

One year I had a 10-year-old boy who could barely move his feet. He was fine walking and talking, but he couldn’t do the toe taps at all. He fell down several times, and when we moved to another drill, I discovered he couldn’t kick a ball. He had zero coordination. Zero.

While I’m watching him, I notice a man is videotaping me while we practice. Nobody’s ever done that before. It bothers me. I’m not a licensed soccer coach. I’m not an expert. I wonder the worst about the man, whether he’s taping the boys but disguising it as taping practice. I decide to confront him, to discover his motives and find out who he is.

The Big Brother

After practice, I notice Benjamin, the boy who can’t kick a ball, goes over to him. This is good, as it’s my chance to understand who the man is and find out more about my new player. I stroll up to them and say, “Tell me about your son”, which is misleading because I know Benjamin isn’t his son. The man is as hairy as a Sasquatch, burly, and much darker-skinned than Benjamin, who has black hair, the only similarity between them.

The guy responds, “I’m not his father. Nobody knows where his father is. I am his big brother.”

I am confused. I look at Benjamin. I look back at the man. He is way too old to be Benjamin’s big brother.

He notices my confusion. “From the Big Brother organization.”

I nod in acknowledgement. The Big Brother tells me Benjamin’s mother has never gotten him involved in anything. She works full time to support them and after school, Benjamin stays at home alone and sits around playing video games. The Big Brother enrolled him in soccer and bought him a ball. He tells me he’s taping these practices to show his mother the drills so Benjamin will do them at home.

No Place For Bullying

One day at practice, I notice two of our better players making fun of him. I catch them making jokes about how he can’t kick a ball. It angers me. I know human nature. Take a group of people and stick them in a locked room for a couple hours; they might not pick a leader, but they will always pick the person they all hate. Benjamin works hard at practices. He plays hard in games. He is polite, pleasant and a joy to be around.

I look at one of them ask, “Austin, how many goals did you score in our last game?” Austin responds by looking at his shoes. I ask the other boy the same question. He looks away. I tell them I don’t want them making fun of someone on their own team. “You make your team better by lifting teammates up, not putting them down.” I explain everyone has different circumstances to deal with, and that, in fact, Benjamin is working a helluva lot harder than they are.

End Of The Season

At the end of the soccer year, our club has a tournament. It’s not for a big prize, it’s a big get together. Our team is ready and we play reasonably well. By now, Benjamin is one of the better players on the team. He is light years beyond where he started.

During a break in a game, I notice Benjamin has a can of pop. I take it from him and throw it on the ground. I tell him he can’t drink pop during soccer or it will make him sick. I’ll buy him another one after the game is over. I instruct our players to share their water with him because he hasn’t brought any. They quickly do so.

I feel like something has changed. I look around for his Big Brother. He’s not there. There is a different guy I’ve never seen before who’s now glaring at me because I threw Benjamin’s pop on the ground.

After the game is over, we do our season wrap up. Players and parents come together. I tell the parents what a joy it has been to coach their sons for a season. I’m not lying and it’s not sarcasm. Being involved with kids as a coach was one of the most rewarding things I ever did. I talk about each player, pointing out a specific area in which they grew. When it’s Benjamin’s term, I announce he’s the most improved player on the team. The other kids know this. They slap him on the back, tussle his hair, and yell his name. Benjamin is a now a part of something.

Everyone departs. Benjamin walks to the man who had glared at me. I ask him what’s going on. He explains the other guy had to move, so he’s the new Big Brother. He doesn’t look very sports-oriented. I explain to Benjamin in front of his new Big Brother that next season Benjamin can request me as his coach and that I’d love to have him on my team again.

A year comes and goes. The next year of soccer starts. Teams come together. Coaches say hello; veteran coaches catch up, new coaches introduce each other. I wander around the fields, looking throughout the teams for the Benjamin. He’s not there. When I get home, I go through all the rosters. I can’t find his name.

I never saw him again.