So as this year’s milestone of Pop’s birthday rolls by, I find myself reminiscing more and more about the “sports-y” side of him. Anybody who knew Pop will tell you how passionate he was about his favorite sports and teams. Maybe these sentiments rose to the surface because of all the FIFA shit going down. It’s probably a good thing that Pop’s not around to see all that though, not to mention the debacle that was Brazil’s World Cup last year. Despite his love for world-class soccer, Pop was never a huge fan of FIFA, he always thought it was an utterly decrepit, rotten-to-the-core organization. He liked to call them the “mafia of futbol”.
Anyway, what was even more interesting about his passion for sports, was the fact that he was able to adopt a couple of new sports that weren’t even “native” to him. Even though he was a relatively fresh immigrant from Brazil (he and my mom immigrated to the US in 1960, when he was 35), Pop embraced and became an aficionado of the most “American” of sports.
He would consistently amaze and out-trivia even the most die-hard native sports fans with his vast knowledge of baseball, basketball and football trivia (American football that is). I never really gave him the full credit for that until much later in his life, because seriously, that shit was impressive.
Pop’s love of sports had much to do with his athletic childhood and young adult life in Rio de Janeiro. He used to brag himself silly about the fact that his rowing club (Botafogo) was undefeated in Brazil’s national championships for several years in a row. He even had the medals to show for it.
He also played basketball for the same club, enjoying similar victorious successes locally, though his team couldn’t manage to crack into the nationals.
Being Brazilian, he also was passionate about soccer (“football/futbol” to the rest of the world), obviously. Because of course, he’s Brazilian and that’s the law. Though his “futbol”-playing prowess didn’t quite make the cut for any of the amateur club teams the way his rowing and basketball skills did, he was a die-hard soccer lover nonetheless.
Needless to say, moving to the US was a bit of a shock. He was surprised at how behind the rest of the world the US was when it came to soccer ( or “Association Football” as he preferred to call it). He was even more shocked to find out that despite being a country of over 250 million, there was no major national soccer league in the US. That was an unimaginable travesty to him. Especially when you consider that the rest of the world was quite heavily invested in the sport. And in Latin America, let alone Brazil, it was more of a religion.
Despite this lack of love for soccer in his newly adopted home country, Pop was committed to the mission that we kids would grow up knowing and loving soccer too. He didn’t really give us a choice on the matter. Much like when he made me take guitar lessons, even though I wanted to play drums.
He belonged to a Brazilian club in Chicago, and would drag us to their team’s games in the city league every weekend during the season. At the beginning, we were rather bored watching the games. But over time, we came to learn the rules and appreciate it more.
Pele’ was at his peak during the early 70’s (after taking the Brazilian team to the World Cup in Mexico ’70). So Pop made sure we watched every international game he can find on broadcast TV that featured the Brazilian national team and/or Pele’. We watched World Cup ’74 games live via satellite. We even went to Soldier field on several occasions to watch exhibition games that Pele and the Brazilian national team would play to a sold-out crowd.
And yes, whether we liked it or not, we came to love and enjoy soccer too.
When we moved to Brazil when I was 11, things went to the next level as far as futbol was concerned. It became a de facto complete immersion course regarding the sanctity of the game. Now, we were able to learn and play the game the way nature intended. Despite my tendency to think that the Brazilians were just a bit over the top about it.
Over the course of that almost one year in Brazil, Nick and I had now become avid soccer disciples. We had been successfully indoctrinated with Pop’s genetic and cultural passion for “the beautiful game”.
Going to watch Pop’s favorite team (Vasco Da Gama) at Rio’s Maracana’ Stadium were always incredible experiences of sensory-overload. To watch 200,000-plus people cheering at the top of their lungs… and/or sometimes even fighting… and/or trying to hit players on the field with a brick or a bottle (that’s why there is a moat around the field)… just had to be seen to be believed. There was no disputing it, Brazilians were insanely passionate about their Futbol.
When we moved back to the states, we found ourselves hungry to stay in the groove with our new-found love for the sport. Unfortunately, Cherry Hill, New Jersey had little to offer in the way of organized soccer. So we tended to just play pickup games ourselves with a few other neighborhood kids and make the best of it.
When we got to Florida later that year however, our soccer-prayers were answered. Soccer was much more popular there (presumably due to the climate). We quickly caught wind of a local soccer league at the YMCA. There was a team right in our neighborhood. They practiced at the elementary school field just a few blocks from the beach motel where we lived. They were the infamous “South Peninsula Pirates”.
Pop was just as thrilled as we were that we were playing organized games, never missing one. Within a few weeks, our coach asked him if would like to become the assistant coach.
For the next two seasons, the South Peninsula Pirates were one of the more dominating teams in the Under-15 league at the Y. Though we never clinched a championship, we made the playoffs and our regular-season record was always respectable.
After our second season, I graduated 8th grade and was ready to tackle high school-level ball.
Pop went to a post-season coaches’ meeting, where he found out that my future high school (Father Lopez, my parents’ choice to continue my clearly failing catholic indoctrination) was in need of a soccer coach. Behind the scenes and unbeknownst to me, he negotiated his way into the job. A few weeks later when all was confirmed, he came home after a long day at the restaurant to give us the news. He was going to be my future high school’s varsity soccer coach.
When he first told me, I was a bit put-off to be honest. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted my dad to coach me and my school’s team. Not sure what the rationale was behind all that apprehension, but it was definitely there. I even tried to talk him out of it. I brought it up one summer day while he was enslaving me at the restaurant…
“Pop, about you coaching the team…” he was at the grill cooking up some sausages. “Maybe you should reconsider. You’re awfully busy with the business, don’t you think it might be too much to handle? Along with everything else?”
It sounded like a logical argument to me.
“Nah, it will be fine. Besides, I need something else to do other than just running the restaurant all the time. We have practice 2-3 times during the week and on Saturday mornings. Plus the game days, there’s only 15 games. I’ll manage, and it’ll be a good breather for me.”
“The biggest challenge will be the away games. But don’t worry, I’ll figure something out with the staff to get away from here for those.”
I tried to show that maybe he was being a bit too optimistic…
“Hmmm… ok… but you are experiencing quite a bit of turnover, are you sure you can trust the register to the staff when you’re not here?” The ‘fear of loss’ angle was always effective with Pop.
“Yeah, but I’ll know when they’re stealing. I can always tell from the inventory and some other stuff. After I catch them a couple of times, I’ll handle it and they’ll stop.”
Goddamnit… Pop had already thought all this shit out. I was out of ideas.
He looked away from the grill for a minute, “Look son, I know it’s going to be a bit strange having your dad coach your school’s team. But don’t worry. Just understand that I’m going to treat you like any other player.”
“You’re not going to get any special treatment or coddling. You’re going to need to prove yourself to get on the field and earn your place on the team.”
Encouraging words… now I wanted him to be my coach even less!
Over the rest of the summer, I came to accept the inevitable. Barring some disfiguring deep-fryer fire, a near-fatal holdup or some other calamity, Pop was going to be the soccer coach and there was nothing I can do about it.
Once school started, the buzz around campus was all about how several of the school’s senior football jocks were going to try out for soccer for the first time. This was mostly due to the fact that soccer was now the new “hip” high school sport. All the popular jock-types wanted in on the action. It was more a vanity thing than anything else. They wanted the soccer pin on their already-full sports letter jackets and to put their soccer stint on their yearbook entries. I found myself utterly annoyed about that shit.
When tryout day came around one late September Saturday, about 50 guys showed up to fill a team of some 20-odd slots. A good chunk of the varsity football team alone showed up. At that point, I wasn’t sure what rankled me more. These muscle-headed philistines invading a game that was too classy and dignified for their ilk, or that Pop was going to be coaching. It was going to be an interesting season to say the least.
After the tryout, I tried to pick Pop’s brain about who was and wasn’t going to make the cut. Pop put on his poker face. He wouldn’t let on any clues, even as I named people off.
“You’ll find out Monday, along with everybody else.” Now I even started wondering to myself if I made the cut!
When the team roster was posted the following Monday, the results surprised a lot of people. Pop had jilted many of the cocky football jocks who were sure they were a shoo-in. After all, they were the football jocks, how dare Pop tread on them! Pop wasn’t impressed by popularity, status or titles, obviously.
The purists among us applauded this development, including a reluctant me. He did, however, tap into a few of the football jocks, mainly because they were good kickers. Pop was actually happy to see that several of the football players had adopted excellent “soccer-style” form. He also tapped into a couple of them for a rather insane plan to build the team’s defense.
I made the cut, but as a second-string midfielder. I immediately got pissed when I saw that. First of all, Pop knew that I’m a forward and my strongest position is outside right. Why would he put me on midfield knowing this? What the fuck was that all about? I had a lethal center-cross kick that virtually assured reliable assists from the sideline. My corner kicks were also not too shabby.
Then second of all… I didn’t get on first string? Again… what the fuck???
Needless to say, I was not thrilled about that at all. When I got home from school, I called Pop at the restaurant…
“The Delly, is this for takeout?”
“Pop – I just saw the team roster at school.”
“Ah, good. Congratulations son, you made the cut… anything else? I’m a bit busy here… ”
“What?? Midfielder?? Second string???? What the hell is that all about? Pop, you know I’m a forward, wing, outside! That’s all I ever play!”
“Yeah well, we’re going to do things a bit differently this year. We’ll talk when I get home.”
He hangs up.
Now… I’m just seething. First, I get insulted with this degrading placement on the team, then Pop acts aloof about it and cuts me off. This shit wasn’t going to stand, not without a fight.
When Pop got home later that night, it was perfectly clear that I wasn’t happy, giving him the cold shoulder.
“Got something for ya…” he says, with a fake mafioso grin.
He brought home some of the spicy corned beef that he knew I love more than life itself. Clearly it was a cheap bribe or a feeble attempt at a conciliatory gift. I wasn’t buying it. My cold, indifferent reaction clearly demonstrated that it was going to take a lot more than my favorite deli meat to right this wrong.
“Pop, seriously…” I try to keep my cool, “why did you even put me on the team if you were going to insult me with this shit? I’m not a midfielder! You know this!”
“Son… look… you’re a freshman. You need to get some experience on the field. This is a new level of soccer for you. You need to become a more flexible player.”
Yes, that made sense, but I didn’t give a shit.
“With midfield, you’ll get the best of both offense and defense. You will learn to run the field better and position yourself. You’ll get more versatile” He tries to be pragmatic. I’m still not totally buying it.
“This team is going to need some help on front-line defense, I’m putting a couple of the football neanderthals on fullback. They are aggressive but not too fast or coordinated. Your long-range kicks will help get the ball out of the danger zone before the penalty area, before they have to handle it.”
“Well, I don’t see how that’s going to happen when I’m on the fucking bench!” I lead into my next sore point.
“Again… you’re a freshman and you’re my son. If I start you, the rest of the team is going to be awfully cynical about my coaching. Nobody is going to take anything I do or say seriously. Do you want to build a team? Do you want to win games or not?”
“Yeah… well…” Ok, so I didn’t have a ready answer to that.
“Well, what? The Lopez soccer team hasn’t had a winning season or made the state or regionals in quite some time from what I’ve been told. Let’s try to change that, what do you think?”
I didn’t have a handy comeback…
“Don’t worry, I’ll play you. But Tony, you’re going to need to prove yourself on the field. I’m not going to put you out there just because you and I have the same last name. This is high school ball, it’s not the same thing as the Y, ok?”
I let the issue lie and bit my tongue during the entire pre-season. It helped a bit that I saw the team making fast progress since we’d started practicing in late September. Pop ruled practices like a second-tier tyrant, firm but fair. He had us run laps, do excruciating drills and we had scrimmage games that seemed to last forever. He picked out individual players and worked with them to improve on whatever they were weak on. I was surprised to see that he was diligent, communicative and didn’t miss a thing on the field.
It was also interesting, because I can see that he was really enjoying it.
Slowly but surely, everybody found their places on the team. We started looking less like a ragtag group of players and misplaced jocks to more like a strangely-cobbled team of guys who actually knew what they were doing. When our first season game came around in early December, we were ready to rock.
The season started out with a bang. We opened at home against Bishop Moore, a cross-sport catholic high school archrival over in Orlando. Our team scores an awesome goal in the first five minutes of the game. It pumped everybody up to see that our hard work all pre-season might actually pay off. We didn’t score again, but kept the lead until halftime.
A few minutes after second half kickoff, some crazy referee-shit happened. The field ref blew his whistle at what was thought to be a foul. Instantly, our defense stood down due to the whistle call. In an instant, a Bishop Moore forward who had possession and a clear shot shoots for the goal and gets it.
Inexplicably, the ref acknowledges the goal!
Pop and the rest of the team are not happy and the spectators are wondering what the fuck that was all about. He stomps out onto the field, shouting that the ref had already blown the whistle, the ball was dead.
The ref won’t have any of it, and warns Pop of a yellow card and tells him to get back on the sideline. At that time, Pop recognizes the ref to be an asshole ref from our Y-league games. He was well-known for his shitty calls there too. FIFA-style corruption was clearly alive and well even at the high school level.
We ended up losing our first game due to another bogus penalty call. The ref accused one of our neanderthal defenders of a handball in the zone. When it wasn’t even remotely possible. It was a sign of things to come.
The rest of the season didn’t fare much better for us. While we scored consistently and had a strong offense, it was incredibly difficult to hold a lead. We gave up a lot of games in the second half. Not to make excuses, but because we were such a small school, we had more away games than home games in order to play other schools in our district class. This surely took its toll on the team, among other issues.
Our final season record was 2-2-11. We were at least happy about the fact that we beat those assholes at Bishop Moore on their home turf on our second regular-season game against them. Nonetheless, having such a defeat-ridden year was a bit demoralizing. It should have been better. We had really come together as a team and played a solid game, even if we couldn’t keep it up all 90 minutes. Hell, I had even started to like playing cleanup midfielder.
After our last game of the season, which we lost to Deland of all schools, Pop gave a speech to the team.
I wish I can remember the whole thing, because it was quite the keeper. He basically said that despite our team’s record, he had seen us all grow to be strong players with a great future in soccer. He also pointed out that according to our statistician girls, the ‘neanderthal defense’ he had riskily put together had given the school record for the most goal defenses a run for its money. That was a bit of a surprise to everybody and drew applause.
Then… he warmly thanked the players. He told them that he appreciated their giving HIM the opportunity to be their coach. He had missed being immersed in the game and he had missed the competition. Sure, he got some of that back with our Y-league. But this time it felt more real to him, and he was grateful.
He went on to say that he was even grateful and proud that he got red-carded during one particular game at the city stadium. He had gotten in the referee’s face over a horrifically bad call, who had been at it the whole game. Pop’s frustration built up over the whistle-happy ref’s antics. By mid second-half, he just blew his lid. The ref incidentally, was the same one who threw our season opener with Bishop Moore. Pop had to leave the field for the rest of the game. Probably a first in the local high school sport scene’s history.
“That’s something not a lot coaches in the state can put on their hat…” he laughed, as we all joined in.
He then said some nice stuff about how he had come to know all the players on a personal level, and liked them all. He only hoped he had been a positive influence or inspiration for them to stay with the game, if not some other way.
“Whether you know it or not guys, soccer has a big future in this country. Try to be a part of it.” I did remember that last line from his speech.
All in all, it was a humbling, heartfelt speech. Even the crusty, cynical senior players were visibly moved by it. I was actually proud of Pop for sharing his feelings the way he did. Despite our abysmal season, we had all come to realize that we really enjoyed playing under him, as well as with each other.
After that, we got in the car and headed towards the restaurant. I was still a bit in kind of a spell from everything. He looks over at me and wonders why I’m gazing at him.
“So… why not coach us next year? We’ll do better… ”
Pop dismisses the idea… “Ah… the school probably won’t take me back after what happened this season. And the athletic director wasn’t happy at all about my red card, ” he shrugged with a grin.
“He said he didn’t even know a coach can get red carded until that happened.” We both laughed at that.
The grin faded…
“I just wanted to try it. It was nice to be back in it that way.”
He paused a bit… there was something else he wanted to say…
“But there’s another reason. I just wanted to be involved in something that included you, but in something a bit bigger than us. You know? Something that we could share with each other for a change. Just us. I think we managed that, eh?”
“So thanks, I know it wasn’t easy being the coach’s son this whole season, but thanks for letting me be a part of this…”
The car stayed quiet the rest of the drive, as we headed towards the beachside.