Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why We're "Montanan Hooligans"

I write this blog from Minnesota. I've lived here now for the past three years, and for 9 of the past 13. I haven't had a Montana address since 2001, before I went to college. So why do I cling to the title "Montana Hooligans"?

Because that's where I lived when I first learned to love the game, and that's what led me to love it and live it in the way that I do now. Twenty years ago, I was voraciously reading every word, every syllable of every bit of coverage I could find on the World Cup back in the US, crouched on the floor of my room, learning names like "Higuerta" "Hagi" and "Jorge Campos"

At the time, I was a lousy athlete. I didn't have the depth perception to hit a pitch in Little League. I didn't have the strength or form to make any sort of shot on the basketball court. I wasn't allowed to play football. But I, like so many kids in the early 90's, got shuffled into an AYSO soccer league. I played, never very well, but always enthusiastically and honestly, and I remember clearly, my mother squirming and my father cheering.

My father had always been an athlete himself. He didn't have a choice. Up in Libby, Montana, it was just what young boys did. He played little league, he shot hoops, he ran track, he too was banned from playing football (his father, my grandfather, worried about injuries). As he raised my brothers and I, he strove to  teach us well, and sought out games and events he knew that he knew we could do too. Matt & Simon picked up a basketball, I went out on distance runs. He could do that with us. He loved doing that with us.

So when soccer came along, I took it as a given that he would play with us. Sure enough, without ever planning it he was out on the lawn, helping us with foot traps, complimenting our passing, setting up header practices. He was always the imposing figure, towering above us tykes (he still has a couple inches on all of us), broad chested, and extremely, eternally, passionate.

When the World Cup rolled around, he sat with us, bowls of chips and grilled hot dogs on our plates, bellowing about dives and passes, service and serious fouls. He emphasized how honest you have to be, how fair and just, how giving to your teammates. He seemed to know it all, and my brothers and I followed his words, playing (even in kiddy leagues) with an eye to pass, and a commitment to integrity.

My brothers were wingers, I was a sweeper but again...not a very good one. My clearest memory of playing was in an AYSO championship game for 12 year olds, misjudging an opponent's lob pass that bounced into a divot in our field (Montana parks...never exactly perfectly maintained) over my head and let the rivals back in the match. Afterwards, I owned the moment--apologizing to teammates and coaches; nobody really cared (we won--and we were eleven--after all), but I was proud of playing honestly.

I remember too watching my brothers play, both on traveling teams and in high school, and I remember my mother squirming beside me while my father complimented every sound pass and selfless play. And I can never remember any glimpse of fakery in their actions: no dives, no stalling, no shirking responsibility for chippy fouls. Just honest, genuine, play. Play with passion, play with honesty, play our father would be proud of

Thursday afternoon I met my dad in downtown Minneapolis for the opening match. We had burgers and wings, fries and popcorn, and a couple of beers. We oohed at every Neymar run, we shook our heads at Croatia's tentativeness, we were easily the most involved fans in the bar. But during a lull I asked him something I'd been wondering about, "where did you learn the game?"

I guess I expected to find that it was yet another talent he had. Something he'd picked up from friends in college, or that he'd learned while traveling abroad.

So I was a little surprised when he said blithely, "Coaching you guys in Great Falls."


"Yeah. I had no idea what to do. It wasn't on tv. I'd never played it myself. But you boys wanted to play, so I learned it with you."

Father's Day is a time we usually think about how parents nurtured a love in a game they already knew, teaching us something and helping us to improve. When I remember my father, I don't remember learning to be a great athlete (that's still a long way off for me), but I remember learning how to be a man, and how to be a Montanan man, living/playing with passion, living/playing with integrity.

That's why I love my dad, and that's why I still call this the "Montanan Hooligans" website.

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