The Garbage Call

It all started the previous day. Things had been going pretty well, Brandon was at his first out-of-state soccer tournament in Zionsville, Indiana with his new team, and they had tied the top-seeded Zionsville club 2-2. For us, this was a little unexpected. Every time we’d traveled out of state in years past with his previous club, the Pekin Pride, we’d been annihilated at every turn. The tie was a small victory of sorts. In fact, that optimism had carried over into the 2nd game of the day against Warsaw, who was seeded slightly lower than Zionsville in our bracket. Brandon’s club, the Illinois Fire Juniors, was playing well. They led the entire game, and we kept looking at our watches hoping that the final whistle would blow so we could count our first tournament win. As we neared the completion of the game, everything fell apart. The IFJ, up 2-1, was called for a handball near the midfield mark, giving Warsaw a free kick. The kid taking the kick nailed it, and it inexplicably sailed through the entire offense and defense, took a bounce in front of the goal and found the back of the net. Warsaw had tied the match. As soon as the ball was returned to midfield for the kick-off, the game was whistled complete. The Warsaw team was ecstatic that they had come back to tie the game in the last second. The Fire Juniors were demoralized.

The draw put Warsaw in a much better position to advance out of the bracket than it did the IFJ. Both Zionsville and Warsaw had already defeated our next opponent, Michiana, and Warsaw had beaten them badly (8-0). One thing I don’t like about tournament rules is that they encourage “running up the score” against a lesser opponent. This is because of how tiebreakers work. If all three teams (Zionsville, Warsaw and IFJ) had one win, the tiebreaker would go to the team who had scored the highest number of tournament goals. To this point, we had scored four, Zionsville had scored six and Warsaw had scored ten. So the only way for IFJ to advance would be if, during the next day’s games, Warsaw and Zionsville tied with a low score and we won big. If Warsaw won, they would advance with two wins. If Zionsville won, they would advance with two wins. If they tied, and IFJ won against Michiana, the tiebreaker rules would be in effect and IFJ would need to have scored more goals than Warsaw. It would be an uphill battle. Even so, knowing that we’d nearly beaten Warsaw, who had destroyed Michiana earlier, gave us hope that we would at least get a win, and possibly multiple goals in the upcoming contest.

The next day started on a bad note. For Sunday games, Sara and I have make it a point to try to attend a church service with Brandon beforehand in order to impress proper prioritization. We think it’s important to put God first and this is one small way we can attempt to pass that lesson on to the kids. We had it all planned out. We would attend a church service from 9:00 to 10:00. The church was just up the road from the soccer fields. He and I had to leave the service a little early because it was running long, but could still arrive in plenty of time for the start of the game. As soon as we got into the car, Brandon opened his bag to change into his uniform and realized that he’d left his soccer shorts back at my in-laws house where we had stayed the night. The house was 17 minutes away. It was impossible to get there and back before the start of the game in 25 minutes, but he couldn’t play without shorts, so I messaged the coach to let him know that we’d be late.

We jetted up I-65 towards Lebanon as fast as I was comfortable driving in a 2012 Honda Odyssey and made it back to Zionsville roughly five minutes after the game had started. Sara met us at the entrance to the fields, and we told Brandon to run ahead so as to miss as little game time as possible. As Sara and I were approaching the field, we could see that Brandon was standing on the sideline waiting to be subbed in. We were relieved that he’d found the right field but that relief quickly dissipated as our eyes panned towards the game just in time to witness Michiana score a goal that flew just under glove of our goalkeeper. It was a lazy shot that he normally would have stopped, but somehow he just missed it. “That’s ok, it’s only one goal” we thought as we began to set up our portable chairs on the sideline. It soon became apparent that a thick tenseness hung in the air. Michiana had been beaten twice and was hungry for a good showing. Their parents and fans were being very vocal, though not in a disparaging way. Brandon was inserted into the game at the forward position. He mainly plays either forward or defender depending on whether the coach thinks we need a boost on offense or defense. Quickly after being plugged in, he had the opportunity to push the ball towards the opposing goal, weaving around multiple defenders en route to a close shot (as is his style). As he reached the corner of the post, he and two defenders went down in a heap and the ball rolled out of bounds. Brandon stood up and ran towards the field official with his arms outstretched to either side as if to question why no call had been made inside the box. I was concerned because I’ve rarely seen him question a call and have never seen him run towards an official to do it. I learned later that an opposing player had taunted him for missing the shot and he was trying to get a call for unsportsmanlike behavior. That play set the tone for Brandon for the remainder of the match. He’s not a dirty player, and in fact feels bad when someone on the opposing team gets hurt, but he does get a little chippy when he feels like he’s being treated unfairly. I also believe that drawing attention to himself early on resulted in higher scrutiny from the officials, but we’ll get to that.

The same official who ignored Brandon’s pleas for a call was very sensitive to being questioned from the sideline.  At one point, he turned around to face our coach, motioned with both of his arms (like an umpire in baseball giving the “safe” sign) and yelled “ENOUGH!” I didn’t hear what had caused that reaction, but he was clearly attempting to lay down a boundary. Those around me indicated that our coach was merely trying to get his attention for an explanation on a call, but was instead given the verbal warning.

The first half ended and the score remained 0-1. Both teams were going after it hard, and it became fairly apparent that we were not going to score the 8-10 goals required to advance out of the bracket. Still, the Fire Juniors focused on trying to get their first tournament win. They’d have to score at least two goals to do it. Brandon started the 2nd half as a defender. He was taking, and dishing out a lot of physical play. Not long into the 2nd half, Brandon and an opposing player were both kicking towards a bouncing ball, and the other player missed the ball and kicked Brandon in the ankle, just under the shin guard. Brandon went down wailing, and it was difficult to tell how badly hurt he was. One of the parents went out to see if he could help, and quickly waved me over. When I got out onto the field, I could see that Brandon’s eyes were closed and tears were streaming out. He had difficulty answering my questions about whether he could stand up on his own or if he needed my help. The official made a radio call over to the medical tent requesting that they send someone over. As I helped Brandon off the field, the obligatory spattering of applause started trickling in and I heard someone behind me yell at the officials to get control of the game. I was too focused on whether Brandon was putting any weight on his ankle to figure out where the complaints were coming from, but I assumed that it was someone from our side. Honestly, I thought it was a good no-call. Both players were going for the ball and there was no intent to foul that I could see.

I got Brandon over to the bench and took his cleat off. His ankle looked swollen through his socks but it was too difficult to tell if he was injured or just hurt. The medical person arrived in a golf cart, put him through a quick examination, and eventually had him stand up and sprint to the end of the field and back. He was able to run full speed without much difficulty. It still stung but he was obviously, thankfully ok.

After a few minutes, Brandon was inserted back into the game as a defender. He never sits on the bench very long. He wants to be out there on the field and his coaches seem to recognize the spark he provides to the team, even though he may not be the best player out there. Things progressed much as they had, there was some shoving and jostling. Brandon got away with pushing someone with his elbow, a fact that the Michiana parents in the crowd decided to draw attention to with disapproving yelps. The next game scheduled for our field included a girls’ team from Michiana, so as the game wore on, more and more Michiana fans began to trickle in and set up camp behind us, seemingly engulfing us with cheers for the opposing squad. They soon outnumbered our parents two to one. They began to feel their first victory was near, no doubt frequently checking their watches as we had done the day before. Then, in the middle of the field, Brandon intercepted a Michiana forward heading towards the goal. He slowed the kid down enough that another Michiana player converged on them. In the tangle of six legs, Brandon went down, and one of the opposing players fell over him. The ref blew his whistle.

It’s at this point that things get a little fuzzy for me. The events over the last 24 hours – the disappointing finish against Warsaw, the frantic trip back to Lebanon for the shorts, the chippiness of today’s game, the injury, the official grumping at our coach, the ever increasing support for the opposing club around me and the building urgency to score a goal and avoid defeat had all served as slowly building steam within the pressure cooker of my chest. Unfortunately, the release valve was opened as I watched, in slow motion it seemed, the grumpy official who had ignored Brandon’s earlier plea for fairness reach into his back pocket and pull out a yellow card, which he then held aloft in the direction of my son.

Shocked, I jumped out of my seat and yelled in his direction “WHAT’S THE YELLOW CARD FOR??” A similar question emanated from the IFJ bench as our coach demanded an answer. As the grumpy ref sauntered towards our coach, I pointed my finger accusingly in his direction and proclaimed “THAT WAS A GARBAGE CALL!” Fortunately, the official didn’t hear me because he was too busy giving our coach a yellow card warning, as well. Brandon was so upset by the call that he removed himself from the game, unable to understand what he’d done wrong. No explanation was forthcoming. As I turned to start pacing the sideline, I noticed a single, unmistakable sound directly in front of me. I raised my eyes and saw a Michiana fan sitting just off the corner of the field, applauding as the rest of the crowd hushed. It wasn’t a weak clap, either. It was a slow, loud deliberate clap, intended to convey strong agreement. I whipped my finger in his direction of the clapper and concentrated my ire directly onto him: “THAT WAS A GARBAGE CALL, SIR. A GARBAGE CALL.” He stopped applauding and as I turned to resume my pacing, I saw him rise out of his chair out of the corner of my eye. It seemed like my words echoed across the silent field. He was a little taller than me, and weighed about 300 pounds. He was probably at least 20 years older than me, and a veteran by the looks of his baseball cap. This action snapped me out of my fog, slightly. I don’t invite physical confrontation, ever. The last thing I wanted to do was escalate this situation with a 65 year old combat veteran at a youth soccer game. So I turned my back to him and walked the other direction in an attempt to diffuse things. I think some of the bystanders talked him into sitting back down. The dangerous moment had passed, but I was still shaking.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve often wondered what happened to the young, fiery competitor that used to occupy this body at swim meets, and early in my IT career when I would “pop off” in a meeting without a thought of consequence. I’ve chalked it up to becoming wiser, more patient, and more understanding. This incident had confirmed that the passionate, fiery, sometimes half-cocked and arrogant person of my youth is still in there. He’s been beaten down and buried under endless corporate policies and fatherly obligations, but it is possible to raise him under the right circumstances. I’ll be honest, it scared me a little. On one hand, it’s nice to know that 20 years of extreme adulthood hasn’t extinguished all of my passion. On the other hand, this was not the example I wanted to set for my kids, and not the kind of person I wanted to become: a 43 year old who loses his temper at his kids sporting events. If somebody were to ask me if what I did was wrong, I’d say yes. Justified and understandable, maybe, but still wrong. I should have been grown-up enough to let the coaches and officials handle the situation. Fortunately, those who know me understood how far out of character my outburst was. Matt, another IFJ parent and someone who I’ve known since I moved to Illinois, posted later on social media: “I got to see Ben get mad. First time for everything!” It could have been worse, I admit. I could have said something besides “garbage”.

I couldn’t sit back down. I was too fired up. So I folded up my two portable chairs to give my hands something to do. Brandon came over to our side of the field, still crying, begging us to take him home. For once, he didn’t want to be out on the field. I walked him back over to the IFJ bench on the other side of the field, making sure to glare at “clapping guy” as we both walked past. I wanted my eyes to say “See what you were applauding? A kid moved to tears without explanation. A little kid. How do you feel about that, Mr. Clapper?” but he didn’t seem to react much to my nonverbal berating. On our walk over, I talked to Brandon about cheering on his team from the sideline. At this point, I was unclear as to whether he had been kicked out of the game or if he was just out temporarily. A yellow card is usually just a warning, but this tournament seemed to have a special set of rules (no headers, no questioning the officials, etc.) so I wasn’t sure if he was still allowed to play. I sat him back down, and hung out behind the bench for a few minutes. I don’t know if parents are allowed to do that, but I didn’t care. I gave him a little pep talk and when there was a break in the game, coach turned around and asked if he was ready to go back in. “Can he go back in?” I asked. “Yeah, of course!” exclaimed the coach. “Whenever he’s ready. By the way, I didn’t think you did anything wrong, Brandon. I got a yellow card, too. Only I deserved it!” I left Brandon in good hands.

When I reached the parent’s side of the field, I looked back over at the bench and saw that the coach was sitting next to Brandon, pumping him up and helping him get his head straight. Before long, he was subbing back in on defense.

The rest of the game proceeded as before. Brandon went down to the turf one more time after a knee to the ribs (which was called), but the team was pressing too much. Shots were being taken but none were serious threats to score. The pressure was too much for the Fire. That one little dink of a score would be all that Michiana needed to eventually win the game, 0-1. After a good first day, the wheels would fall off and the IFJ would finish 4th in a 4 team bracket, the only team without a win.

I was proud of Brandon after the game. He was the first player from his club to run down the parents sideline giving high fives, his head still held high. Other Fire players had to be coaxed to follow protocol, running slowly behind, many with tears running down their faces. The agony of defeat was still fresh. Last place hurts. Some of the Michiana moms were sympathetic, crinkling their brows and commenting on how hard it is to lose. I appreciated that.

I picked up the chairs in preparation for the long walk back to the van. I looked at Sara and she was peering into my eyes, looking for the husband she’s known for almost 20 years. “What?” I asked. She grinned a bit and said “I’m just waiting for you to come back down a little.” She was right, I was still angry. Partially about the game and partially at myself.

I stewed over my actions a good deal over the next 12 hours. Long after Brandon had forgotten about it, I was still replaying the series of events in my mind. A few hours after the game, I wrote up an apology for my actions and sent it to both the coach and the other parents. I also apologized to Brandon, though he was unaware that I had said anything to the official. I promised that what they saw wasn’t me, and that it wouldn’t happen again. I hated that I had to write those words. Usually when I hear an actor or political figure issue an apology with the words “those actions do not represent me”, I scoff a little. Of course your actions represent you, they were YOUR actions! But now I was no better than those I’d scoffed at. I was an old man yelling at an underpaid, overzealous youth soccer official. I was in violation of the club’s parent agreement that I’d signed, but that wasn’t the reason I felt bad. I felt bad because I wasn’t who I thought I was.

I still think the yellow card was wrong. I think it was wrong that no explanation for the card was given. I think that the official had decided early in the game that he wasn’t going to take anything from the sidelines. I think that Brandon drew attention to himself early by questioning the no-call on the taunting, and again (through no fault of his own) when he got hurt and the crowd yelled at the official to “get the game under control”. I think the official was looking for a way to send a message that he was getting the game under control, but he was going to do it by carding one of our players. Kind of a “you want me to get the game under control? How’s this for control?” brand of vindictiveness. And I think Brandon was an easy player to focus on because he was playing defense hard, and matching aggressiveness with aggressiveness. Not to mention that he wears some spiffy red sports goggles that cause him stand out from the crowd. This whole situation became a very unfair environment for Brandon, which makes me even more proud when I think of him emerging on the other side with his head held high.

The only question I still wrestle with is this: What is the more valuable lesson? That sometimes life isn’t fair and you’re just going to have to keep fighting, or that your dad is here to fight for you when things get tough? I suppose both are important, but if I’d been able to think rationally in the moment, I might have chosen the other route.