Harkes at The Wall, Part 3: Football, life and everything in between

We often use Shankly’s life and football quote for explaining the importance of football in our lives, but sometimes, life and football explain each other.
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli

I did not enter parenthood gracefully. There were complications, and my wife and I nearly lost our son during the birthing process; I found out later that I nearly lost her too. She needed an emergency procedure to save the baby. So, while she was being prepped for surgery in the operating room, I found myself alone in a hospital hallway. I sat on a bench with my head in my hands, unable to process the preceding hours or what the next few would hold. Finally, a nurse led me into the OR. My wife was already there on the table, and I sat near her head. Her arms were stretched out in a Christ-like pose to give the doctor room to rescue our baby.

This is my body broken for you.

I shook from the cold of the room, a crisp clinical cold, and my wife was shaking from the loss of blood and anesthesia. I saw fear in her eyes as the doctor went to work, and I hoped she couldn’t see it in mine. And then our son was born.

It wasn’t like the movies, and we waited, waited to hear his cries. Something was wrong. We had worked out ahead of time that if there were any problems, I was to go with the baby. So, I followed a crowd of nurses to the darkened neonatal intensive care unit. It was warmer there. The danger passed, and suddenly I was left alone with my son. My son. Unable to hold him, I patted his back and softly sang the songs he head been hearing in utero for the last nine months. I wanted him to recognize my voice and know he was safe with his dad.

I wasn’t prepared for parenthood. Sure, I put together a crib and installed car seats, but I wasn’t ready for the feelings that come from having a child. They’re bigger and more complex. And harder. What do you feel, for instance, when three years later a different doctor tells you that your son’s brain doesn’t work the same way it does in others? There is pain.

But there is joy too. Perhaps the greatest joy is being able to see world again through the eyes of a child. To see their faces when they are introduced to something magical like snow or as grand as the ocean. Or football.

My son, now four years old, knew about the game. He had an intellectual understanding of it from a children’s book explaining the rules I got him for Christmas last year. He often joins me watching matches at home. He likes to sit with my arm around him just so, following the figures on the screen move the ball from end to end. I was surprised at how excited he was when I asked if he wanted to go to a match with me.

I figured non-League football was the way to ease him in, and there is a semi-professional team a short drive from our house. Even a short jaunt with children, however, requires planning and packing. I brought snacks, water, a change of clothes (just in case…), a coat, a mini-ball, and safety earmuffs. The last item was especially important. One of our early clues something was different for him was how distressed he would be at an event with a public address system or sudden, loud noises. It was later that we learned about sensory processing disorders. I knew a football match would be a challenge for him, but I also knew how brave this little guy was.

We arrived at the playing fields a little after kick-off. It was one of those warm, overcast days we get in Washington where the rain, which would be a gentle relief, threatens but rarely falls. The gray provided a pleasing backdrop to the green of the half dozen football pitches of the complex. There was a nominal admission fee, but, as we arrived late, the woman taking tickets didn’t bother with us. There was plenty of room on the aluminum bleachers, and we sat down in an unoccupied row to watch the match.

The level of play was low, but understandable given the level of the league. The home side, however, was clearly well-drilled, moving as a unit and executing their game plan. This is in no small part down to their manager, a former national team member and holder of MLS scoring records. A midfielder shouted at his fullback for launching a long ball over the top rather than keeping possession; it resulted in a goal. “Jump Around” by House of Pain played from the lonely speaker across the pitch. It caught my son’s attention. Thankfully, the noise traveled from a far enough distance to be a source of intrigue rather than anxiety. The PA excited him because “it sounded like Iron Man.” He has never seen Iron Man, but he seems to have a pretty good approximation of him.

From that point on, it was the sounds that delighted him: the whipping of the linesman’s flag, the thump of the goalkeeper’s punt, and the referee whistling for infringements. Especially the fouls. After a player was chopped down near the sideline, he told me he wants to be a member of the red (away) team when he grows up. I asked why, and he told me it’s because of the fouls. Apparently I am raising a Roy Keane.

Halftime came, and it was a busy time for all the kids. A pack of them scurried out to one of the goals to play an impromptu match until one of the substitutes jogged over to warm up and scattered them. My child was too busy getting down to the music to join the others. “Getting’ Jiggy Wit It” came on, and I can assure you he did, indeed, get jiggy with it.

After all that excitement and dancing, it was impossible for us to remain in our seats, and we ambled over to one of the unoccupied fields. I kept half an eye on my son, running and kicking his ball, and half an eye on the match. The home team scored another goal from a ball over the top, and the visitors’ manager was furious. “How many times is it going to go over your heads?! F****** drop!” My little guy was out of earshot, chasing his ball. It was a relief to know I was not going to have to explain how he picked up any new vocabulary words to his mother.

The rain and an approaching bedtime signalled it was time to go around the 75th minute. I was worried my son wouldn’t leave without a fight, but he followed me to the car obediently. I strapped him into his car seat, and he said wistfully, “I wish we could stay.”

“Me too, buddy, but it’s almost bedtime.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep,” he said. “Can we play soccer when we get home?”

This kid. He knew what buttons to push. “Sure, buddy.”

“I will do some fouls.”

So, we went home, kicked the ball together, and he launched into some wildly illegal tackles on me.