My teammate, Mara, is the picture of youthful vitality, especially tonight, as the other players maneuver through the rain during our coed soccer league game. Now in my late 50’s, I’m the oldest member of the team and surely the only grandparent on the field. Mara, still in her mid-20’s I’d guess, is probably the youngest. Swift, fierce, and determined, she tirelessly whips from one end of the field to other, zipping off sharp passes along the way with an uncanny ability to get her foot on the ball, wherever it may be.
I played goalie on my high school team. In fact, my junior year I set a county record with six consecutive shutouts. But while I was good, with quick reflexes and a sure grip, I was never great—and I was never going to be great, because I was never fearless. The thought of taking a cleat in the jaw or a knee in the groin kept me from sprinting out of the box and bravely disrupting developing plays. On more than one occasion, I was a sitting duck, left to watch the ball, untouched by my human hands, whir past me into the back of the net.
I consoled myself by noting that there were advantages to staying put and patiently reading the onrushing action. And often there were: one of my defenders would sweep by to stymie the attacker, or a shot would wind up arriving right where I’d strategically positioned myself. In these moments, with the ball cradled securely to my thumping chest, I’d silently pat myself on the back for my restraint. But deep inside, I knew that self-preservation mattered more to me than heroic self-sacrifice, and not surprisingly, my serious playing career ended after one demoralizing day of college tryouts when I quickly realized that I was out of my league.
Many years later, however, I took deep satisfaction in coaching my two sons and daughter on their youth teams, and I continued coaching until my youngest reached a level of play that surpassed the limits of my instructional aptitude. It was only when she graduated from high school and our nest had emptied of children that I took up playing soccer again, invited by a younger acquaintance to join his team in an over-25 league, almost 40 years after I’d played my final high school game.
My agreement with myself was that I’d play in the field, not in the goal, because one of the main reasons to return to the pitch was to find another way to stay in shape and work up a good sweat. The problem? While my stamina was still solid and my feel for the flow of the game acute, never having developed any foot skills, my moves with the ball were easy to read and my shots unlikely to instill any fear in an opposing keeper. Even now, despite my decent speed, I’m dismayed at how quickly I’m overtaken by opponents on those rare occasions when I find myself breaking into the clear and dribbling downfield. Players seem to appear out of nowhere and strip me of the ball, leaving me to doggedly follow the play back upfield with a hint of anger and some derelict muttering.
Nevertheless, I greatly enjoy the games—the camaraderie, the intensity of the one-on-one encounters with opponents, the grunting impact of occasional collision, the darkening sky that’s sometimes penetrated by a white moon, and the opportunity to bear witness to the splendid athleticism of the younger players. It’s occurred to me that, approaching the end of my sixth decade of life, I’m not going to get any better at soccer—or much of anything that’s physical in nature, for that matter. Sure, from time to time I fantasize that I’ll join a soccer clinic or make some time to practice in between games, but I never do, and I’m pretty much certain that I never will.
The unshakable reality is that not only is everyone on the field younger than me, but almost everyone on the field is better than me, and it’s going to remain that way as long as I’m able to play. This would’ve been an intolerable thought in my younger days. Now, I’m not so sure. After all, week after week, year after year, I continue to play, even as my physical capabilities gradually diminish.
So on this early April evening, I find myself playing in a cool, feeble drizzle. The clouds obscure the stars and lie low above the trees that surround the park, and the wet, green turf glistens brightly in the white floodlights that line the field. I’m managing a little better than usual this evening: one pass of mine crisply arrives as planned right at the intended player’s feet, and at another point, I deftly poke the ball away from an opponent, preventing what would’ve been a shot on goal. But then I clumsily muff a crossing pass that skitters slickly toward me and that might’ve led to a score if I’d only been able to meet it cleanly and punch it forward—not an easy shot, especially in the rain, but hardly unachievable for a more adept player.
With a discouraged sigh, I turn to head in the other direction, hoping, as usual, to redeem myself by quickly getting back on defense. Yards ahead of me at midfield, Mara darts suddenly from the sideline in front of the enemy dribbler and steals the ball away from him, sending play back in my direction. I turn once again and clear out to the side to spread the defenders and give her a little more room to make a run down the center of the field. I sprint along the left side parallel to her, now open for a pass, but she knows enough to realize that the possibility of scoring on this drive will be higher if she has the ball than if I do.
A breeze crosses the wide space between us. Mara thrusts her head forward and picks up speed as another defender leaves me behind to converge on her. She glances over at me striding down the sideline, but our eyes don’t meet. And once again, I’m pretending to be 16, trying for just a moment to resist the current of time that so relentlessly carries all of us along. Can we ever elude the inescapable longing for an irretrievable past? What became of the man I once was and never again will be? Are we truly most human when we falter, or do we just tell ourselves that to escape the hard truths of our aging?
The rain is falling harder now, the breeze picking up, and I run hard toward the goal, my stubborn heart fluttering with wistfulness, with wanting, and with a whisper—something about the inevitable sorrow of growing old mixed with the sheer joy of feeling alive.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Brad Sachs, PhD, is a practicing family psychologist and the bestselling author of numerous books for both professional and general audiences.