I was doing an interview about Panther Elite last night and just felt so much happiness when discussing the team- it was pure elation at just thinking about how far we come so far in such a short amount of time. I been trying to do this epic introduction to the team- but it’s led to me pressing and going against the mindset I preach. I let fear, doubt, and worry cloud my thoughts- thus leaving me paralyzed with my pen- or in-reality the fingers to my phone keyboard where I write most of the time these days. So now I am going to smile, relax, and write. You take your best shot when your most relaxed- and smiling subconsciously causes are bodies to relax. During high pressure situations a simply smile can increase your performance. So with a smile I hope this tale allows you to understand what it means to be Panther Elite and the love it is built upon.
On a cool crisp Sunday I sit next to my sister, niece, and nephew’s gravestone as the leaves paint a backdrop trinity of yellow, orange, and green as my dreams hover like lost leaves clutching to a branch now too cold to let it stay.
It’s my sister Tricia’s birthday today, and on her birthday I am trying to figure out a way to to honor her, and to benefit the refugee and at-risk students I work with and coach soccer to. I knew being closer to her and the kids would allow me to figure out the best way to forge ahead.
This year Tricia would have turned 48. In the past; birthdays and anniversary’s were brutal for me. In those days, when depression clung to my neck like two chains of sorrow and sadness, I always dreaded fall coming. In the past it was just the culmination of all my fears, repressed emotions, and the boiling cauldron of hate I kept bubbling in a dungeon locked in my belly over their murders. I ran from fall for over fifteen years, and then fate intervened this year and I became a soccer coach.
Now mind you when I first signed up to coach I had no clue what I was doing, getting into, or that it would spark this idea to help these kids. I became a coach because the middle school I work at was in desperate need for coaches so I jumped in. My experience with soccer ended in 6th grade, and It wasn’t a sport I watched or even was any good at playing. I had no connection to it so going into my first practice of tryouts I figured I’d just get my Ted Lasso on, and let the power of positivity propel me. For the record I have never watched that show- and my coaching style definitely runs the gamut of emotions from Bill Belichik to Phil Jackson to Pep Guardia.
I learn best from jumping right in- usually failing at first- and then finally excelling. I mean I failed at making Mac n cheese once when I was babysitting for Tricia and making food for my tattletale niece Gillian. She wanted microwaveable macaroni and cheese- which to most people is very easy to whip-up. Yet I was a jabroni and forget to put water in the bowl for the macaroni. Yes, at nineteen years old I screwed up making microwavable mac and cheese, which I think is nearly impossible, and yet I managed to ace that test. So I ended up burning the noodles and making the house smell awful like cabbage water that has been left on the dashboard of a car in the middle of July for weeks. As soon as my sister came home Gillian sauntered right up to her and sold me out, “Uncle Patrick made the house smell.”
When I was real young I was really close to Tricia, but as I got into my teens we would always fight. I knew how to terrorize and push her buttons. I perfected the annoying little brother role so well that one afternoon while watching MTV’s The Grind she got so enraged at me she broke the TV remote controller by chucking it at my head. Luckily, I ducked. But after she had Gillian all that changed and I become the go to baby-sitter, and was no longer the ten year old terror looking to torment my nineteen year old sister. Yet she did get her revenge because this team to most was a terror- on the field and off.
This is how my season started via posts on Facebook:
9/18: I am not saying I am the greatest soccer coach in the world- but my team is undefeated after our first game. After a dominant 2-0 pre-season- including a thrilling 2-1 win over a very physical and aggressive girls B team- we are now poised for a championship run.
9/25: Still undefeated as a coach after 10-0 and 8-1 victories on the pitch. I am not saying I am John Wooden yet…but there are some people saying loudly on the internet I might be the greatest Middle School B Team 2 coach in recent history. I mean I am humble as they come- but the internet doesn’t lie.
Our first game was on the road versus Wyndham Summit. On the bus the kids were blaring and losing their minds to Cocomelon- a YouTube kid’s show where this cartoon Cailui looking like family just redoes nursery rhymes and popular kids songs. When I was in sixth grade I was getting into trouble because my friends put on a mixtape I made during gym class and the lady gym teacher was not as impressed as I was that the Wu Tang Clan was nothing to fuck with. However the power of cartoon positivity did the trick to fire up the squad and we won 7-5.
Tricia also had horrible taste in music. Like, brutally bad. In her car she would play really cheesy Euro techno. The stuff you hear in 90’s aerobic classes-which was fitting since she was a personal trainer and was always in ridiculously good shape. Things that were not in as good shape though were my ears as this dreck pulsated them- however James and Gillian loved it- vibrating and bouncing up and down in their car seats with huge grins plastered on their faces. My sister also loved Barry Manillowe, and even went to see him in concert. Before she passed she was going back to school to get a nursing degree. She had always wanted to be either a nurse, or a school teacher. She really would been great at either since she was such an amazing mom, and person.
Speaking of amazing my team had the leading goal scorer in the league- a charming sixth grader from the Congo with immense talent that should had been on the A team had he tried out. In our first game he scored five of our 7 goals, whiles assisting on the other two. Luckily I worked with him during camp this summer and found out he was a ringer and snatched him up fast. You will learn in coaching that a talented player can make your life a lot easier by covering up any defects your team or you as a coach may have. And believe me I had and still have plenty of defects when it comes to coaching- but I think my ability to connect with players, and my Bill Belichick like love of history and strategy has me ever improving.
Things we also led the league in was getting yelled at by the referees for swearing, players being sent to PPR(where you get sent when you get kicked out of class),being in ISS( internal suspension), and coaches with red cards. Think a sober middle school version of the 1986 NY Mets meets Bad News Bears. I relate well to the kids that get into trouble a lot, and I made that abundantly clear a couple days after the dreaded anniversary of their deaths when I received a red card versus our top rival Shaker in a showdown for first place.
The first time we played Quaker we lost 7-3- it was our first loss and first time we had trailed in any game. My team fell apart as soon as we went down- arguing with the refs and themselves. We stopped hustling to plays and played abysmal team soccer. We had faced adversity and failed our first test, and I was determined that would be the last time this happened.
The rematch for first place was set for October 4th- but this year my brain was not locked into a cycle of despair over that previous horrible day- but rather in a YouTube k-hole of soccer formations and false 9 videos trying to figure out the best line-up and game plan to defeat Quaker.
The God’s of rain pushed the game back to Wednesday, and the rematch was an epic back and forth match. We scored early in the first half- but immediately gave up a goal right back to them as they tied it up one to one. Quaker was able to sneak another goal in late and we ended up losing 2-1.
Reflection made me realize that I was definitely more emotional and hyped up then usual for this game- first I really wanted my players to realize they were the better team and could beat them if they just played together. Also I think it was definitely a release for me embracing my new normal. One of the strangest feelings I think for those that dealt with anything that took away their spark for life, and had them living by a nightlight is how to live life with out the comforter of depression. For those blessed with never dealing with depression, or any debilitating mental health ailment, tragedy, or setback that destroyed your whole world view- this might seem like a very foreign concept. But when happiness has alluded you, either by circumstance, bad brain chemistry, or a combination of both, living a life without it can be terrifying to embrace. So when your biggest pressing worry is a B league middle school soccer game life is going pretty good.
But if you listened to a supposedly “concerned” Quaker parent my red card exit occurred after I had cursed out my players, then the refs- then like I was cosplaying 2Pac exited the field with both middle fingers in the air. I wish I was making this up- but they sent this to my athletic director and principal. Obviously they knew this Quaker mom was full of malarkey-but my AD, who is a really talented and successful coach, needed to bring it to my attention because of perception. Just getting a red card gives me a target on my back. It doesn’t help I am extremely loud, and animated on the sidelines- I pace a couple miles each game- but I never would yell or curse out a kid. I do loudly praise them for their hard work on the field- but I am also not changing my whole style cause some rich asshole doesn’t like me or my team- but I will definitely keep myself more in check from now on because I understand- regardless of reality- I need to be even more careful about my actions because people like that will prey upon it. Also I need to not be so damn stupid next time a situation like this occurs. I got thrown out arguing subbing rules during throw ins. I finally lost it when the ref let their team sub on our thrown in- and then the next play they had a throw in, and I had a sub waiting and I asked, “So can I illegally sub now,” and he goes no- and my last words were, “So I guess we are the only team that has to play by the rules now.”
The idea of the “rules” have always intrigued me. But the perception of me, and my team that Quaker parent had on me motivated me to realize how I could honor my loved ones by giving kids a chance to play indoor soccer come the winter months. A lot of the kids I work with deal with negative perceptions that are not their fault. Having options like this to learn and grow at a sport- while also bonding with and forming life long friendships with teammates is huge in a child’s development, and the perceptions others may have of them. Indoor soccer costs can be exorbitant- so that’s why I decided to make my a team in my sisters honor where price is never a barrier to play- a team that could become elite. A team that could provide a lifetime of dreams.
As that dream grows the frost tickles the windows, and outside a chimney billows stacks of warmth to the sky. A squirrel chases some haphazard snow-flakes, while a shivering sun reflects off the frozen front lawn. Through the main window the tree is sparkling with lights, ornaments, and this ugly joker ornament that has been a family tradition started many decades before. It is green and I think it is supposed to be an elf. But this is an elf Santa definitely beat with the ugly stick. That’s something I hear Santa is fond of. Yes, I am serious. I once read this book that exposed that the North Pole was really just an elaborate sweat shop, and one of Santa’s ways to make the elves work long hours for no pay was the threat of beating them with either the ugly stick, or the dreaded wand of abuse. It made him an extremely effective foreman, which is necessary when you are making enough toys for all the children of the world. And since he brings happiness to so many kids worldwide everyone just ignores this little know fact about his workshop. This is 2003 and the last Christmas my sister was alive.
Since I last left you my vague idea of an indoor soccer team to honor my sister, niece and nephew has blossomed into The Panther Elite Soccer Club that’s been featured on the cover of the Sunday Monitor and WMUR’s Chronicle- and the most dangerous team heading into the playoffs where we lead the league in goals and are 5-2-1 since everything settled down from the original debacle that began the season.
Then It was November, we were 0-4, and the only success I was having was making sandwiches for the players after the game. Chicken, turkey, or hamburger(what some players nicknamed roast beef) on a small sub role with cheese. I am my sister making lunches for her kids- my kid’s just happen to be over a baker’s dozen of soccer players who don’t always have enough food at home. So I hit the grocery store on game days, and then to the mom and pop soccer shop Suley’s to buy three pairs of indoor soccer shoes for the game tonite, plus a new pair of goalie gloves, goalie jersey with the padding for my rec team goalie- the goalie gloves I bought him from Dick’s he wore through in a month from all the practice he does at the park by his apartment complex. I find the perfect jersey; the one with the special padding on the elbow to help cushion his dives on all the goals he will stop this season, and a new pair of gloves to grasp on yo any shots.
Then I was much better at making sandwiches then winning games. My sandwiches worked well together- the cheese spilt in perfect halves to evenly cover the sub roll, the meat nestled in between the cheese- as the bread engulfed it all in a warm hug. My team had yet to gel so perfectly then.
But change was on the horizon, and overcoming rough starts is something my team and I have in common. My players come from all over- Nepal, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, and beyond. Some have arrived as recently as 2019-others as far back as 2012. The Assistant Manager- my nickname because his brain sees soccer better than his body allows him too right now- lost his brother in a car accident this past summer. Sometimes he speaks as he is still alive- even though he understands he is dead. I get it- sometimes it’s just easier to think of that person as still alive because their presence still burns so hard in your heart. These players come from families with intense trauma. They have witnessed their family killed, raped and kidnapped. So my goal is to make lasting new memories from them. Whether the pure enjoyment they get from sharing my phone to play their favorite songs on the way to and back from games. Or gorging on the whopper pies, cookies, or jaw dropping chocolate covered pretzels with the morsels of chocolate just kissing the salt and covering the pretzel all so perfect that my mother expertly baked for them-we have become a family, and he’ll 99 percent of my players live in the same neighborhood.
After the newspaper story came out my smallest player, who I am pretty sure is so strong he can carry twice his body weight, and can also charm you with a smile even when when he is being mischievously naughty, asked “So, Coach your brother killed your sister.” I told him yes, and he looked at me perplexed, “Why not you too?“ So I told him, “My brother was suicidal, and she went over to help him. But his brain was broken- like he wasn’t himself because he was sick. So he didn’t mean to kill them it just happened. And that’s why he didn’t kill me. He didn’t mean to kill anyone.” “Ohhh…ok.” Fully satisfied with that answer he got into line simply stating, “I am going to get breakfast now Coach.”
The interaction was unique in he didn’t react in the typical American student fashion- the idea of murder of family was not a unique concept to him and he was more curious at the why he did it. He also approached to ask me very straight forward in the same way he would ask what time the game was- or was he starting tonight. Trauma confronts everyone in life- our reactions to it are the only thing within our control. While past tragedy may bond me with these players- intense hope is what unites us to propel forward- be it the pitch or the scattered roads which forms the puzzle to our lives.
Part 2: Coming soon! All about how session 1 ended and the playoffs!