I never realized how little I use my legs in sports (aside from simply running) until I played football with the local boys. During a rain delay, I never realized how little they use their arms until I was showing them how to throw a baseball.
Some of the boys in my village invited me to play. I hadn’t played football (soccer, as it’s known in the states) since my team sports class in my sophomore year of high school. I was worried these boys would make me look really bad. The tallest one was up to my neck, but it didn’t matter – they’d been playing their entire life.
If I wasn’t having a hard enough time keeping the ball in front of me and passing accurately, it was even worse trying to figure out who was on my team. There was no shirts-and-skins or any kind of indication who was on what team. It was just a bunch of black-haired short kids running around and every time I had possession of the ball all of them would scream, “JJ!” After a number of passes to players on the other team, I screamed, “You all look the same!” Thankfully, they weren’t wearing their school uniforms anymore and I got a feel for my team after a good 30 minutes.
Less than 10 minutes into the game I found myself chasing the ball near the baseline (not sure of the football vocabulary, so I’ll use basketball and American football terms) far from the goal. Is it bad for the ball to go out-of-bounds in football like it is in basketball after your team touched it? I don’t know, but like a basketball player jumping into the stands to save the ball, I ran and kicked on the run. As a result, my ass still hurts. While running, I kicked with my right foot and felt my left slip from underneath me. In that split second I was suspended – two-and-a-half feet up – parallel to the ground, I could only think two things: This is going to hurt and Don’t hit your head. Grudgingly, my ass absorbed all of the impact. I got right back up to find a dozen laughing boys giving me a thumbs-up.
Football requires great footwork. It seems obvious, but try playing it. All the sports I play (baseball, basketball, tennis, etc.) do not require great foot coordination. Because of this, I did a lot of passing. I passed a lot to be as unselfish as possible and because I can’t protect the ball. As soon as an opponent comes within ten feet of me I pass to someone else because I have no training in … I don’t even know what you call it. Great football players (and some of the boys I played with) can trick their opponent like Magic Johnson would look one way and pass another. They can do this … with their feet! I can’t. I pass. Once during my 90 minutes of play did I move past an opponent with the ball without passing and I internally celebrated more than I did with my two goals.
That’s right, I scored two goals. I shouldn’t have been that excited as the game looked similar to the game of dodgeball in Billy Madison – “Now you’re all in big, big trouble.” With my two goals I was able to teach the kids the two-handed high five. Surprisingly, they seemed to be new to this concept, but once they saw it, everyone wanted to high-five the tall white guy.
To go along with the two goals, I should mention there were three breakaways where it was just me and the goalie and I managed to boot the ball outside of the goal. I also took this poor kid out when we ran into each other while running. I kept going and he flew to the dirt. I asked if he was okay and helped him up with a face full of dirt and the biggest smile and loudest laugh I’d seen all day. With this incident, I realized how intimidating my stature was and found I could exhibit screams of terror if an opponent knew I was approaching at high speeds. Once, as the goalie and I were running to the ball, he screamed like a girl who just discovered a spider in her purse.
When it started to rain, we took shelter under the school’s overhang. The kids had been screaming out baseball since I got there (my reputation precedes me) so I picked up a rock to show them how to throw a ball. I wound up like a pitcher from the stretch and pretended to throw. They all made valiant efforts, but it was obvious none of them play any games where throwing is involved. They asked me to actually throw the rock, so I wound up and threw it as far as I could.
I felt like Roberto Clemente. In the province of Surin, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I could have the best arm.
Play resumed when the rain stopped, but the fire of our play had burned out. The delay had dimmed our spirits and I was thirsty and dehydrated. When I told everyone I was going to leave, I received wais (Thai bow to show respect) from all. As I was getting on my bike I saw everyone else leaving, too. They seemed to think if I was leaving, what was the point sticking around?
It unlikely will be my last game.
It’s also unlikely these kids won’t be playing baseball soon … or some form of it.