Recently Jenifer Levin, author of the 1993 novel The Sea of Light—a remarkable work of fiction that helped inspire me to write my own stories about lesbians, sport, trauma, and recovery—released a Kindle short, an essay entitled “Night of a Thousand Jeters.” For those of you who may not follow sports, the Jeter in the essay’s title is Derek Jeter, the long-time all-star shortstop for the New York Yankees. Levin, you see, is a New Yorker whose two adopted sons grew up playing baseball and, like many American boys, worshiping Derek Jeter. The essay is a finely wrought exploration of race, parenting, the growing gap in America between the rich and the poor, September 11, and, yes, Derek Jeter and what he has meant to her two boys as well as to so many others.
Like her classic novel once did, Levin’s essay has inspired me to write about similar themes, this time my own experiences with Derek Jeter and New York City. Separate experiences, however—like the Yankees shortstop, I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1980s, and found my way to New York in my early twenties. Unlike Derek, I didn’t stay in the city that never sleeps, partially because I’m a notoriously light sleeper but mostly because I could never imagine making a permanent home in a city where men still whistle at women and call us “Bitch” and “Baby” lazily, shamelessly; a place where you can walk blocks without seeing a single strip of dirt or grass unentombed in pavement; an island where the buildings have grown so tall that they sway in the wind, and airplanes crash into them. Though the city was exhilarating and mysterious, the complete opposite of dull, I just couldn’t ever seem to feel at home there.
I often compare living in New York City to smoking cigarettes: I knew it made me seem cool, and the rush was addictive, but in the end it really wasn’t good for me. So after a half-year of weekends staying with my girlfriend in her East Village apartment (more borderline slum than hipster haven in those days) and another six months of full-time Manhattan cohabitation, I called my parents in Michigan and asked if they would come pick me up. Dutifully they climbed into their powder blue minivan and drove seven hundred miles across the eastern United States to New York, where I showed them the sights for three days and nights before we packed up my meager belongings and drove out of the city, me at the wheel watching the skyline receding in the rearview mirror as we crossed the George Washington Bridge at sunrise on a Monday morning in August 1994. While we were over the Hudson, mingled relief and sadness swirled around inside my head. But as soon as the minivan’s wheels skimmed across the New Jersey shoreline, my sadness faded. I was free from The City, as its inhabitants refer to it—as if there could be only one.
Derek’s experiences in the Big Apple have been far different from mine, of course. He went into the Yankees farm system after high school, and broke into the Majors the year after I left the east coast for Seattle’s mellower environs. His athleticism and steady play, his smarts on and off the baseball field, fueled a steady climb to stardom until soon, after a few short years, “Jeter” was a household name. And not just for the New York boys and men who feature prominently in Levin’s essay, but also for the rest of the nation. According to Wikipedia, Derek “is the Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits (3,110), games played (2,426), stolen bases (329), and at-bats (9,868). His accolades include twelve All-Star selections, five Gold Glove Awards, four Silver Slugger Awards, two Hank Aaron Awards, and the Roberto Clemente Award. Jeter is the all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, and the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits.” All in all, not bad for a kid from Kalamazoo.
Back in high school, Derek had announced that he planned to play someday for the Yankees. Most people at Kalamazoo Central, I suspect, nodded and smiled at this declaration while inwardly intoning, Yeah, right, kid. But Derek proved any hometown naysayers wrong. He made it, big-time, and brought a West Michigan sensibility to his celebrity and sports star status that probably helped him keep from alienating the public like flashy Alex Rodriguez, his purported once and current close friend, managed to do.
Derek is three years younger than me, so he would have been a freshman in high school when I was a senior. I don’t really remember him from Kalamazoo Central, though I heard about him throughout his high school baseball career from my dad, a teacher at Central who knew Derek’s parents and, despite growing up a Cubs fan in central Illinois, follows the Yankees out of loyalty to the hometown wonder boy. But mostly I remember Derek from our American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) days, playing soccer on muddy, overgrown athletic fields around the city.
AYSO teams in Kalamazoo were co-ed and organized by neighborhood, which meant I played on the same team with the same kids my first six years in the league. A few weeks before I finished fifth grade, however, my parents bought a house across town only a block from Hillside, my future junior high school. Cut off from my old friends in the university district, I spent a lot of time on my own the summer after we moved, and took to exploring our new neighborhood with my dog Bandit at my side and a soccer ball at my feet. There were no pro women’s soccer leagues to aim for in those days, nor even, then, a shot at the Olympics, but I loved the game passionately and wanted to be ready for fall when, for the first time in my soccer career, I would be the only girl on an AYSO team made up of boys who had been playing together, entirely girl-less, for half their lives.
That first summer in Westwood, I had some idea of the hazing I would be subjected to from my soon-to-be teammates. Boys, in my experience, had no compunction telling girls we couldn’t do something because of our supposedly limiting gender. But my mom was one of those wonderful, bra-burning feminists of the time, and taught me early on not to tolerate such pronouncements. In fact, when I landed in the principal’s office in second grade for beating the snot out of a boy who had tried to take away my soccer ball at recess, telling me I couldn’t play because I was a girl, my mom demanded to know what the miniature chauvinist’s punishment was to be for stealing my ball and delivering said discriminatory statement. The male principal stared at her, nonplussed, and finally stuttered out that there was to be no punishment for the boy, who I had sat on and punched until he sobbed for mercy. In that case, my mother announced, she refused to accept my suspension for fighting. As far as she was concerned, I was being persecuted by the school administration for being a girl who had stood up to a sexist bully. Until the boy who had started the fight was suspended too, I would be in school the next day as usual, as well as every day after that. And taking hold of my hand, she swept me out of the office while the principal gaped after us in amazement.
Pretty cool, my mom, right?
By the time we moved to Westwood, resistance to my soccer-playing tomboy ways was nothing new to me, neither in adults nor other kids. Over the years, I had learned that the best way to silence the opposition was to do something so well they couldn’t help but respect you. Most boys I knew were simple in that way—if you were good enough at soccer or riding bikes or climbing trees, you could be one of them. Or at least, be treated like one of them. Determined to prove myself to my new teammates, I worked hard on my soccer skills that summer, shooting against the outside wall of the junior high’s gymnasium and setting up dribbling courses on the empty playing fields. Come fall, those same fields would be the site of my new AYSO team’s practice sessions and home games, and I wanted to be ready.
After only a few weeks of hanging out at Hillside, I was approached one afternoon by a trio of younger boys as I kicked my ball against the gym wall. They rode up to me on their single-speed dirt bikes and demanded to know what I thought I was doing. One, a kid with blonde highlights in his dark curls and unmistakable brashness in his green eyes, was clearly in charge, and puffed out his chest in front of his buddies as he challenged me, a much older girl.
At first, I was mildly amused that they thought they ran the ’hood. They probably still had to be escorted by a parent or older sibling to the bus to Northglade, the lower elementary school cross-town. Meanwhile, I had taken to riding my ten-speed the mile to Westwood Elementary where I would soon be a sixth-grader—a senior in elementary school terms. But my amusement quickly fled when one of the boys snagged my soccer ball and they all began to taunt me with the usual: “You suck! Girls can’t play soccer!”
I tried to take my ball back, but each time I caught up to one small fry, he would toss the ball to another. After only a couple of rounds of keep-away, I lost my patience. Who did they think they were, telling me what I could and could not do? I grabbed the closest one, the ringleader as it turned out, by the shoulders, hooked my foot behind one of his ankles, and pushed. He crashed to the ground, and all laughing and taunting ceased as he squinted up at me, a bigger kid who must have seemed suddenly, unexpectedly threatening. In our world, girls didn’t normally resort to violence. Most, especially the ones as small for their age as I was, would have run crying for help in a situation like this. But I wasn’t most girls, and my dad, not the tallest man himself, had taught me how to take care of myself. The push-pull move was his, and came in handy throughout my childhood.
The other boys helped the blonde kid up, soccer ball forgotten, and they all backed away, picking up their bikes and shouting curses and threats at me as they retreated, careful not to turn their backs on me, the girl who did not act like a girl. I waited until they were out of sight, and then I picked up my ball, tucked it under my arm, and walked home, troubled by the afternoon’s events. I had been minding my own business, and my would-be harassers had more than deserved what they’d gotten. But still, I’d humiliated the little ringleader in front of his friends, and I knew the fear and hatred I’d seen in his eyes as he blinked up at me from the dusty blacktop would not sit easily.
In the weeks that followed, I kept away from Hillside, kicking my ball against the side of our garage and roaming the miles of woods behind our house, always careful to keep an eye out for neighborhood boys and other perils. In the woods, with the ready availability of rocks and sticks and beyond the reach of watchful adults, mild harassment could quickly turn into serious bullying. I didn’t worry too much, though. I had Bandit, a large, outwardly sweet dog who, I knew from experience, would turn vicious if she sensed I was in danger. But still, that summer afternoon encounter shadowed me.
The blonde kid and his buddies didn’t forget, either. Whenever they saw me around, they yelled insults and threats, albeit from a safe distance. My dad was with me once, trailing behind and hidden by a hill. He sent them off with a dangerous, glowering look (a good skill, that), then asked if there was something I wanted to tell him. I just shook my head. What would my father do, call their parents? My enemies would turn legion if I got tagged as a tattle-tale. Besides, it might come out that I’d knocked one of the kids down, and then I would be the one in trouble.
Fall finally arrived, and with it the AYSO season. The good-natured coach, Mr. K, gathered the team together at the beginning of the first practice to introduce me and to let it be known that I was to be treated with respect. I chewed my lip as I noticed the inevitable eye-rolling and snickers that accompanied this pronouncement. Any new kid would have been hazed, of course, but the girl who had dared to invade their brotherhood? Over the next hour and a half, my new teammates tripped me whenever the coach wasn’t looking, whispered snide comments about my body and abilities, laughed at me when I got flustered and performed badly. By the end of practice, I was thinking seriously about quitting. I missed my old team, with its handful of girls and the boys who were used to us–sure, they might not always want to pass to us, but at least they didn’t knock us down or taunt us about our non-existent breasts.
When I told my dad I wasn’t sure I wanted to play with the boys in the new neighborhood, he counseled me to give it some time and shared with me tales of his own trials and tribulations as a short-ish boy playing basketball in his tiny Illinois hometown. The way to beat those who thought you couldn’t do something, he told me, was to show them that you could. If I still wasn’t happy by the end of the season, we could talk then about other options. There was always the new girls’ league that was about to start up, he added. At that, I stopped my whining and resolved to work harder than ever at the next practice. After all, I knew I could play soccer. Soon enough, they would, too.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to ignore the hazing that came from nearly everyone on the team, except Matt, the coach’s son. But gradually, as I demonstrated that I could perform just as well as everyone else (and better than some) in practice and in games, making not infrequent good shots and solid defensive clears, the boys started to quiet down, their taunts becoming grumbles, their snickers soon stopping altogether. It helped that Mr. K didn’t tolerate any harassment in his presence, and that his son, a friendly, popular kid I would have had a crush on if I could have managed it, defended me against the would-be bullies. By the middle of the season, my teammates had begun to accept me not as one of the boys, exactly, but as a possibly worthy girl. My dad was right—acceptance in this case only took time and perseverance.
The passage of time, unfortunately, had not been quite as effective in smoothing the ruffled feathers of the neighborhood boys I had pissed off. They showed up at a few of our home games that fall, and would perch on their dirt bikes at one end of the field or the other, wherever I was playing, yelling jeers and taunts just out of earshot of the adults on the sidelines. They hated me, as they often shouted; and P.S., I sucked at soccer—naturally. I was a girl, wasn’t I?
One warm Saturday in October, my stalwart anti-fans showed up to heckle me during a game vital to league standings. We were the underdogs coming in, expected to lose to a top-tier team that had beaten us earlier in the season on their home turf. Their star forward was a talented boy who seemed to effortlessly speed down the field, weaving through his opposition like Pele, we all agreed. To top it off, he was a good sport and friendly, too. Everyone liked him, and he wore his skill modestly, unlike other semi-godlike players we had encountered. One boy from my old team had crazy skills, but was such an obnoxious ass that any respect for his athletic prowess could be elicited only grudgingly.
Before the big game, Mr. K gave us a positive, encouraging speech, as was his custom, and wished us luck as he sent us onto the field. I was starting at left defensive back, one of the least desirable spots. By specializing in an unpopular position, I had found I could maximize my playing time in a league known for its motto, “Everyone plays.” In my day, all AYSO team members were guaranteed a minimum of two quarters of playing time per game, thereby ensuring that girls and the genuinely less talented couldn’t be summarily benched. Still, one of the dads-turned-coach in my old neighborhood had refused to give me or the other girls any more than the required two quarters, even though his own son was a mediocre soccer player more interested in art than sports. Years later, my dad ran into this sexist dad-coach in downtown Kalamazoo and told him off for those long-ago transgressions against the girls on our team.
Pretty cool, my dad, no?
The all-important game started out that humid October morning inauspiciously enough with the star player from the other team dribbling untouched through all of us and scoring, and then smiling winningly at his teammates as they clapped him on the shoulder and jogged back to the center circle for the second kick-off in less than five minutes. On our side of the field, shoulders sagged and feet dragged as we started off again. He was just too good. There was no way we could stop him.
But we weren’t slobs exactly, ourselves. Matt, the coach’s kid, was a solid center midfielder, and distributed the ball well. The core group of boys on our team had been playing together for years, and they were good. Not great, like our all-star opponent, but above average and schooled in soccer strategy. We managed to hold our own and even get back a goal to tie the game before halftime. The remaining seconds were ticking away, and I was already thinking longingly of water and orange slices when suddenly, one of my teammates stumbled over the ball in the midfield. Before he could recover, an enterprising member of the other team stole the ball away and launched it over everyone’s heads down the field for their all-star to run onto.
It was my side of the field, which meant it was up to me to stop the champion goal-scorer. But he was too fast. He beat me to the ball, paused to get it under control, and continued toward the goal. His pause, though, gave me just enough time to narrow the gap. Time slowed, and instinctively, without even thinking about it, I lowered my shoulders and extended my leg in a slide tackle like the kind I’d seen executed by World Cup players in static-filled transmissions on Mexican television, the kind of tackle that would eventually become my signature play and that I would execute in the coming years against opponents on fields from San Francisco to Oslo.
My timing was decent, and I struck the ball from the side, sending it off my opponent’s legs and out over the end line for a goal kick for my team. We were saved, I thought as my momentum carried me into the other kid, knocking him down. We’d both been moving quickly, and he went down awkwardly, apparently not having expected me to catch him let alone execute such a tackle. As he struck the ground, the wind came rushing out of him in an audible whoosh. I extricated myself, scrambling to my feet as the referee blew his whistle and bore down on us. The boy I had tackled was flopping around on the ground, tears squeezing out of his open eyes as he gasped futilely, unable to get enough air. After a few minutes, he finally recovered and rose to limp off the field. But before he did, he wiped his eyes and shook my hand. It was a good tackle, and we both knew it.
The referee did, too. We took our goal kick, and the whistle blew again. Somehow we had managed to squeak out of the first half with a tie.
At our bench, my teammates all slapped me on the back and talked about my sweet slide and chortled over the way I’d made the other team’s best player cry. But not too loudly. After all, he really was a good guy, not to mention a great soccer player. I stood among this cadre of boys I had only known a matter of weeks, inordinately glad I had listened to my dad and stuck it out. Otherwise, I never would have experienced the near-perfection of this moment.
With newfound confidence—the best player on the field could be stopped, after all—we started the second half all brash and bold. The game see-sawed back and forth, neither team managing to finish. Then, with only fifteen minutes left, one of our strikers was tripped up near our opponents’ goal, close to the end line in the left corner. Coach K hollered for me to take the free kick—I’d been taking most of the corner kicks from that side of the field lately, floating the ball in near the goal for my teammates to run onto.
I jogged toward the corner, still feeling the adrenaline rush from my first ever slide tackle. When I reached the spot the referee indicated, I placed the ball on top of the grass and backed away, holding my arm up as a signal to the rest of my team. Just as I got ready to drop my arm and move forward, my small cadre of anti-fans, perched on their bikes only ten feet off the end line, started up their usual insults.
Whatever, I thought, and ignored them. Dropping my arm, I ran the few paces to the ball and struck it neatly, intending to place it in front of the goal for Matt or one of the other boys to head in. Only the ball seemed to have a different plan. As I watched, it arced toward the far side of the goal, looking like it was headed out of bounds. At the last moment, the ball dipped, changing direction slightly to zip into the far upper corner of the goal where it smacked the back of the net resoundingly.
A stunned silence overtook the field. We were only eleven, after all; dramatic goals were rarely scored at our level. Then my teammates all started cheering and ran over to pound me on the back some more. I decided then and there not to admit the goal had been an accident, the result of bad aim rather than superior ability. The boys on my team didn’t ask. Probably, they didn’t care.
Behind me, as I jogged back down the field for kick-off, I heard my neighborhood nemeses call my name one more time. Reluctantly I glanced over my shoulder, only to see them slapping hands and pointing at me.
“We know her,” I heard one of them boast to a nearby adult. “We know her!”
The rest of the half slipped past quickly, my teammates and I elevated by the kind of energy that a goal, no matter how lucky, often evokes. Our passes were crisp, our teamwork exemplary, and the other team barely even broke the center line, let alone forced a chance on goal. When the final whistle blew, we jumped around like we’d just won the World Cup. Nothing like beating a team you—not to mention the rest of the world—didn’t think you could.
Afterward, on the sidelines, we dug into chocolate chip cookies someone’s parents had brought, washing them down with Kool-Aid as we relived the salient moments from the game. Whenever one of my teammates complimented me, I borrowed a page from our all-star opponent and smiled modestly, shrugging as if executing a slide tackle or scoring a goal on a banana kick wasn’t that big of a deal. But, of course, they were.
As I left the field a little while later with my parents, I noticed the neighborhood boys on their bikes watching me. I met the ringleader’s eyes, and we nodded at each other. Hatred and fear had faded, finally, and we could look on each other now with something akin to respect. We had each proven we were worthy, in our own way—he by sticking up to me even after I’d knocked him down, me by showing that I really could play soccer, a fact my teammates had come to appreciate even before that sunny autumn day.
I never forgot those months of trial by fire on the soccer field, and would, in fact, use that season’s lesson on perseverance when it came time to play as a puny fourteen-year-old in an Under-19 girls’ select league, and again when I went out east for college and tried out for a coach who hadn’t seemed very interested in me when I called him up over the summer. Later he told me he had assumed that because I was small, I would never play college ball, not even at Division III. But the first day of try-outs, I slide tackled a senior starter and stole the ball away, cleanly. That tackle, my college coach said, made him sit up and take notice. A few weeks into my freshman season, I was starting at left defender, a position I held all four years.
For me, there was to be no pro career, no legions of fans, no grand awards of which to speak, but it was a good, fun, solid Division III soccer career nonetheless, one I look back on fondly and even, at times, a little proudly. There are awesome moments that stand out—somehow, they seem to mostly revolve around slide tackles—and others I would rather forget, but I know I gave my best whenever I took to the soccer field. And as some of you know, I met my wife on my college soccer team, so I have the beautiful game to thank for my current domestic felicity, too.
These days I have to admit I miss soccer, but most evenings I get a chance to relive a little of the sweetness when my daughter Alex, now fourteen months old, and I leave the dinner table, grab one of the tiny soccer balls given to us by family or friends, and practice our skills in the long hallway that graces our small house. Alex squeals and laughs and runs unsteadily toward me, her arms outstretched as I dribble backwards over the laminate wood floor, and I am happy for reasons that have nothing to do with perfectly-timed tackles or dramatic game-winning goals.
How could I be anything but? I’m one of the lucky ones, and don’t I know it.