Jace’s little legs carried him across the freshly mown grass as fast as they could, his faded, red net jersey trailing out behind him as he went. A mass of red and blue jerseys chased after a soccer ball, and Jace was chasing them. Had he been older, he might’ve considered hanging back a bit, ready to get control of the ball should it come flying his way out of the scrum or even to play defense if the Blues got hold of it. But he was six, and such long term strategy was a bit beyond him and his teammates. At this age, soccer was pretty much a big game of “get the ball”.
He arrived at the multicolored tangle of boys and girls just in time to watch the ball go flying out toward the red goal. Panting hard, he stopped to watch the others go after it again. This was not a new experience for Jace; he was almost always last to the ball, and on the rare occasion when he did get near it, his first instinct was to simply kick it as hard as he could. His coach and his father both had tried to tell him why this was a bad idea, but he was always just so excited to be part of the game that all rational thought disappeared in anticipation of the big moment.
“Jace!” The boy turned to see his father standing on the sidelines, pointing. “Don’t just stand there. Go!” With a deep breath, Jace started running again, his little shoes flapping against the grass.
Where the other parents sat in their lawn chairs and cheered, Jace’s dad was always on his feet, giving mid-game pointers. Their coach had given him a talking to after the second game, meaning that Jace had been forced to listen to a string of reasons why his coach was an idiot on the drive home. Jace didn’t think his coach was an idiot, but knew better than to say so.
Jace finally caught up to the other kids. Little arms were busy trying to hold other players back, while tiny feet kicked at the ball, trying to set it free. Jace poked his head around, looking for a hole, any chance to dart in and give it the boot. He waited… waited… There! Jace plunged face-first into the crush, his foot pulled back, ready to release the thunder. But someone on the other side had beaten him to it, and the ball flew straight up into Jace’s face. Blood gushed from his nose, turning his faded jersey true red. He started wailing, and the ref blew his whistle. The game stopped, and everyone watched as Coach walked him off the field, a wad of tissues pressed to his nose.
Coach kneeled down in front of him. “Hey, you’re okay, buddy,” he said, his voice gentle and calm. “Here, tilt your head back, and pinch real hard, just like this.” He guided Jace’s hand up, showing him where to hold. Letting go, he asked, “Feeling better?”
“He’s fine.” Dad’s voice, all seriousness. “Aren’t you boy?”
“Yes, sir,” Jace said between sobs.
“Looks like we had a little accident out there,” said Coach. “But he’s — ”
“Yeah, I guess we did. How long ’til he can go back out there?”
Coach’s eyebrows went up. “Well, that depends. Jace, do you want to keep playing?”
No. Before he could even start to reply, his dad jumped in with, “What kind of a question is that? You can’t win if you don’t play, and Jace’s a winner, like his old man. How long?”
“Mr. Sutherland, it’s just — ”
Exasperated, Coach said, “We’ll keep him on the bench until he stops bleeding, and then for a few minutes afterward, just to make sure we don’t put the other kids at risk.”
Anger tightened the skin around Dad’s eyes as he said, “At risk? What, you think my kid has AIDS or something? Where would he even get something like that, he’s six.” Dad stalked off toward his spot on the sidelines, muttering, “Pervert.”
Jace sat there, thankful for a moment of peace. He started to think maybe he didn’t like soccer that much, after all. Maybe my nose will just keep on bleeding, then I won’t have to play anymore. But there was still a lot of game time left, and ten minutes later he was back on the field. This time Jace decided to go and stand over by the blue team’s goal, away from his father’s glowering scowl. The other kids were bunched up on the other side of the field, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to go home.
And then, a miracle occurred.
From out of the chaos, the ball came bouncing his way. His sorrows were punted away as he realized he was going to kick the ball. Eyes wide, he pulled back his foot to deliver a masterful blow, not realizing that the ball would fly back toward his own team’s goal. But Jace was six, and not a very good kicker. He clipped the ball, sending it skidding toward the Blue team’s goal. Fortunately for Jace, their goaltender was also six, and had more interest in diving in the grass than stopping the ball. A second later, his teammates were there to clap him on the back and say, “Aww man, I coulda done that!”, because they too were six years old.
It would be the only goal their team scored that day. Unfortunately, the other team would put in three by game’s end. That didn’t matter to Jace, though. Not only had he gotten to kick the ball, but he even scored a goal, the only one on his team to do it all season. After the trophies were handed out, Coach pulled him up in front of everyone and had the team give him a round of applause. They even took a selfie together for the team’s social media pages. He was a winner.
With a beaming smile, he ran up to his dad with trophy in hand. “Dad, did you see? I kicked the ball! And it went in!”
“I saw that, kiddo.” He ruffled the boy’s hair, and the two of them started back toward the car. “That’s why I wanted him to put you back in. He doesn’t see your potential like I do. I told you your coach is an idiot. I oughta be runnin’ this team.” Jace looked at the ground, unsure of what to say. He knew it wouldn’t be good to say that he liked Coach, and it definitely wouldn’t be good to say that he didn’t want his dad to be the coach. So instead he held up his trophy and said, “Look, I won this!”
“Won it, eh?” His father gave him a skeptical look. “Let me see that thing.” Jace handed it over, proud of his accomplishment. “Pee-wee soccer participant,” he read aloud. “This isn’t for winners, son. I mean, it doesn’t even have your name on it. Everyone on your team got one of these, and so did the other team, even though they did win.” His dad detoured to a trash can, lifted the lid, and tossed it in. The metal lid clanged closed with a hollow finality. “Trophies are for real winners, son. You can keep the ones you earn.”
Jace did his best not to cry, because that would just make his dad even angrier. But he was six, and it was hard. Silent tears rolled down his cheeks as they pulled out of the parking lot, leaving the soccer field for good.