One day in the spring of my daughter Ella's fifth-grade year, the dad of one of her friends showed up at our front door unannounced. I suspected the worst: girl backbiting, shoplifting, cheating in school. Little did I know that it was worse than that. It was the Grim Reaper of the B Team crossing our threshold.
This dad did not have a robe and a six-foot scythe like in The New Yorker cartoons, but he came wearing an askew "U.S. Soccer" cap and waivers and permission forms. He said the fifth-grade B soccer team was short a player, and he knew Ella from basketball and considered her a good athlete. Would she mind coming onboard at midseason? He even invoked words that the Sirens might have been successful tempting Odysseus with: "I am sure playing time will not be an issue."
It took several weeks for the forms to go through. Youth soccer in 21st-century America is a force not to be trifled with. In England, I guess, when someone comes to the doors and asks whether your kid wants to play, you assent, and then they tell her to show up the next night. In the Colonies, things are mightily different.
All Ella needed was for me to sign about six waivers, medical forms and player profiles. She needed a note from her doctor, a current photo for her league I.D., and another for her U.S. Soccer registration. I needed to give the supplicant dad two copies of her birth certificate and at least one other something that showed her birth date.
Most of this had to go to some office in suburban Trenton, N.J., our state capital, to be processed, and Ella would not even be allowed to practice until cleared.
Ella and I went to watch the next weekend as the team, having only 10 healthy players, got tromped. Still unprocessed, Ella had to sit out another week, another game with only 10 players.
By mid-October, Ella was finally on the field. At this juncture, Ella's greatest skills were never slowing down and, perhaps because she was the smallest kid on the field, a propensity for getting fouled, especially by the least coordinated and largest members of the other team.
One early November afternoon, as the temperature was sinking and the wind was revving up on the secondary Crows Woods field — a rutted and hilly affair suitable only for B teams — Ella took the ball near the back-end line and dribbled furiously through the ranks of the other team down the right side. Her head was down and focused on the ball most of the time, and she wove, obviously determined, past her opponents. At the end of the run, she found, maybe to her surprise, a tall but gawky girl barreling parallel to her about 30 feet closer to the goal mouth. She gave everything she had to the kick across — which, at 4-foot-whatever-she-was, still was an effort — directly onto the girl's right foot, which somehow directed the ball into the goal.
This goal came just minutes after Jack O'Malley showed up to watch a few minutes of the game. Jack is the icon for all that is virtuous about youth sports, be it in Haddonfield, N.J., or wherever else he could be. Though he travels for work, he has been the coach at every level of every sport there is, sometimes in the absence of his own kids on the team,
At that moment, though, Jack was coaching the vaunted fifth-grade girls A team.
"Wow," he told me during halftime. "I didn't know Ella had that in her. I didn't think she even played."
"Well, I don't…" was all I could get out.
"Let me have her. She's just what we need. Spunk," he said. "Hey, got to go to a fall baseball game. Talk to you later."
My mouth was still in the fourth word of that first sentence, not that I knew exactly what it would be. I didn't even get a chance to wave before Jack was gathering his sons, Johnny and Patrick, and bounding toward his van.
It didn't matter, though. There was joy coming to Mudville. With her mad dash, Ella had blown by that B Reaper. Hallelujah and all those blessings: She was going to be an A Team girl.
Robert Strauss extracted this piece from his book Daddy's Little Goalie.