Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Prosthetics aren't allowed in soccer

It's a Saturday and while most of the planet is rejoicing in the free time away from work with family, friends, pets or other, I am headed to Alta Dena for a date with the AYSO referee school. I put it off for months pissing and moaning inside and out to be quite frank: "I played soccer for years and years. I know the rules of the game. Geez." Etc. Etc. Etc. On I go rambling and mumbling about the glory days of youth soccer when shin guards were for wussies and your socks were low. The names were different too: Rumblers, Hawks, and some obscure name from a Dutch team. Now it was filled with superheroes and cuddly stuffed animals or puppy dogs of some breed. Are the kids of today in today's over-massaged-everyone-wins-nobody-keeps-score-everyone-gets-a-trophy-world-of-soccer turning soft? Or are the parents who fear their kids will suffer if they encounter a sliver of disappointment the one's to "blame"? Hold on. I am truly over-thinking this. Soccer is different these days. I recall those days when I would play against teams who would bite into onions to get fired up and kids had longer locks than my feather-haired sister. When running until you couldn't stand it anymore was a drill and when the snack at half-time was orange slices and water and not candy and cake-like creatures.

I am reliving my past. Boo. Onward.

So it's different these days. All things in sport change. Look at a game like baseball where players make way too much money, brand themselves individually, get in way too much trouble, train too little and play for the money (mostly) than for the love of the game. Replace the word "baseball" with any other team sport and the same holds true. Except for soccer. Well maybe Beckham plays for the money, but for most I truly believe their is a passion. Even the American guys. The Euros, no question.

So soccer. Here I am on that fateful Saturday in a room full of the same people. All looking a little down but at the same time we're all here for the love of the game, err, because we had to choose an area where we could donate time to AYSO. It sounds bad, but deep down inside I had a slight desire to be a ref. The word slight became the word "no" as I sat and begin listening to the chubby, mid-50's man who began spouting bad jokes and fumbling with his presentation. This was going to be a long one.

The master of ceremonies. We'll call him Steve has been a ref for about 10 years. Cindy, his wife, was an AYSO "high-up" managing the district office. We were "introduced" to his daughter and son who were now teenagers and "really good" players. Of course they were. Smart too. Saw that coming. This was Steve's moment though, so he immediately went into the beauty of the game. And for a brief, fleeting moment he had me. He captured my imagination and ran with this for, well, not long enough. Soon Steve was knee-deep into examples of his ref skills and moments when he was calling a U-14 game and something happen. Nothing significant but to Steve an offside call in the final moments of an "any Saturday, any time" game was a mind blower. Jokes were interspersed here and there. I must say that soccer jokes aren't funny but Steve's awkward delivery and cherub-like demeanor made them bearable. Courtesy laughs were flying all over the storage space. The worksheets we were working from were also classic. They were corporate, for beginners, outlining the game and things you couldn't do on the field. Things were flowing but slowly. I was beginning to curse my decision to ref. I could've been that dad setting up the simple goal, or the one passing out snacks at half-time. Instead I went to the upper echelon and I was real uptight. At this moment. On this day. With Steve as my teacher.

Things pick up a little when the kid two seats down from me, raises his hand every two seconds. He's about 13 and is a little off kilter. He stutters and twitches as if he's completely nervous. He's ref'd before so he's knows the game. Kinda. He strikes me as a massive whistle blower with a short attention span. I think he's going to blurt a profound question about some obscure rule, but instead he recites a similar situation as Steve where the ball went out bounds but it was questionable whose ball it should be. He said it was raining and muddy all day. He said it was confusing. Then he stopped. He just stopped. We all sort of stopped. Steve picked up telling "Roger" that he made a good call, whatever it was. Who cares. This kid now bugged me. He wasn't done though, he had 7-8 more of these "interruptions". All of them were similar.

The crowd for me was a mix. You had mom's who all looked sporty, looked like they jogged a lot, had sporty sport watches and sport hair. You know the hair-do that is just pulled back or covered with a USC or UCLA hat. They are all business and they chose to be refs! The dads, on the other hand, are the typical South Pasadena/San Marino guys. Saturday is golf day perhaps so sweat pants and a USC shirt is the garb. Mix that combination with a set of Nike cross trainers or New Balance running shoes and you have typical Saturday dad who wants to be at home on the couch or on the course. So I am surrounded by aggro soccer moms and JPL or CalTech dads. Smart, keen, unaware of the beauty of the game of soccer. I can sense that.

Now Steve brings out the holy grail of ref paraphanelia: the backpack of ref stuff. Meanwhile two other refs enter the room. One is a teenager with a slight mullet and he too has a nervousness about him. He fumbles with the soccer ball attempting to show skill but doesn't have it at this moment. The other is a lurch of a man with a cul-de-sac hair head, short, thin, also nervous. Steve pulls out 4 whistles. He needs four and explains why: "Just in case I am on a field with other games around me I can choose a different sounding whistle. That's why I have four." He stomps around like Mussolini as if his 4-whistle setup is genius. It's not genius but it's smart. Steve has captured my attention again. He moves on to the cone-like bits. "I use these to mark spots on the field that may be of danger. Not to the kids, but to me! I need to know that I won't hit a sprinkler or a puddle when I am running up and down the field." God forbid Steve looks out for the little gremlins. Again he paces around. Another good tip but certainly not earth shattering. His fellow refs nod in agreement. They whisper to each other either saying Steve's a jackass or Steve stole my line. Not sure. Who cares anyway, Steve's on a roll. More things come out of the bag: extra shin guards, tape, gauze, stopwatch, etc. It's all there. Steve is certainly prepared.

More recall comes forth. Apparently being a ref is powerful. Steve has and has had the ability to stop games because of parents or aggressive play or lame coaches. I am intrigued by the power and Steve's perception of power. Steve's in it for the power. He fooled me. Steve moves on and Bob, the Chief of all refs in this area of AYSO steps forth. It's Steve's boss. Bob gives the seal of approval and begins his awkward spiel about power and certain calls and more scenarios. He recalls similar fouls and calls and results. Name dropping people in the AYSO who we don't know and who carry titles that make no difference to me. I am annoyed by Bob but his uneasiness in presenting makes me giggle. He makes no eye contact, has bad jokes, drops things, but he's wearing the black and whites stripes. He's the man in this small region of the AYSO ref world. Section whatever, district who cares. While his awkward stance makes me laugh he also scares me. I think to myself "I would not want to ref with this guy." His lack of eye contact intimidates me. I don't want him to call on me. The kookie kid a couple doors down is oblivious to Bob. He doesn't give a rats ass if Bob is the "big cheese" he's gonna give another ridiculous example of his little sisters game a year ago. Then he stops when I am expecting more. He throws Bob off. Silence. Lunch time.

After lunch we head outside with the master: Bob. The Chief of Refs essentially repeats many of the same things he explained inside. He tells us to not go "All Barney Fife on anxious and annoying parents." He giggles. I giggle. That's genius. Never heard that before. Probably never will. Touché Bob!

More examples follow. We get into a discussion about knee braces and it's a serious one. No knee braces that have metal on them are allowed. "They could tear a kid up real easy," says Bob. No arm braces either. Then the bonanza of all questions. Not from the quirky teenager with the twitch but from a USC-clad dad who asks about prosthetic limbs. "What about a kid with a prosthetic leg or arm?" We all shutter. Stop. Wrinkle our lips as if to say either: A) Take that Bob!; or B) That's a serious, though-provoking question that should be answered. Bob hesitates. He twitches that twitch as if he just saw a naked woman appear at his front doorstep or a ghost or whatever scares or shocks Bob... Maybe eye contact. Bob puts his hand to his chin, rubs it, massages it. We all stand still, wanting to go home. It's that time. But at the same time I am intrigued by what Bob will come back with. The twitchy teenager is twitching but seems to be thinking about unicorns and lemon drops. Bob has an answer, you can tell by his ref stance and his eye contact that is now fixated on the genius-question-asker's New Balance shoelace. "Well. Well. Hmm. Don't prosthetic arms usually have hooks on the end? So, uhh, no I don't think that's allowed. But, but, wait a minute. Wait a darn second. It's the kid's arm right, so we have to let him play. Oh geez, you know I am not sure quite frankly. Hmm." Then New Balance dad replies "Well is there someone you can ask?" Oh great. Game on. "Well yeah, I should ask someone, but that someone is me. I am the person to ask." Oh snap! Silence. Nervous laughter. Bob makes brief eye contact with New Balance dad and for a brief moment super-ref is human. Twitchy kid has his arm raised. Nothing comes of it. What a day.

In the end it was entertaining and come our first game I was no longer needed. Sandy the super mom who knows too much about ref'ing had someone else. I soon became assistant coach of the Rotten Banana Rockets. A flock of cute, round faced kids including my son Luke who love the game, run around in a pack, make incredible contact with each other, which ultimately makes me and the coach laugh. I love this game!