Derek Maul and coach Gary Deckert
... No, no, scratch that, I can do one better. How about this: Gather together your college soccer team from the late 1970's, then get on the field and play AGAINST a bunch of 20-year-olds who happen to be one of the best college teams in Florida.
Do you have that image? Are your knees starting to hurt now just thinking about it? Mine certainly are. This morning my right knee kind of crumpled at the grocery store and I half-way went down. A searing pain drilled itself into the joint and I grabbed at a shelf to stay upright... and I started to giggle.
Fitz and Maz
"Are you OK?" a woman asked. "And why are you laughing?"
"Long story," I said. "I'll just say 'IT WAS SO WORTH IT!'"
I don't typically go to college reunions. But a few months ago an email circulated, locating soccer players from my era (1976-1979). Someone suggested showing up for the alumni game and before we knew it 6-8 key players made the commitment.
Saturday noon over a dozen from my old team showed up as part of the crowd of soccer alumni. It was the largest contingent ever from one era and - more than anything else - it was a tribute to our coach - Gary Deckert.
Mark and Paul
Graciously, the younger alums let us take the field together.
The Moment: So imagine the scene. A bunch of guys, all in their mid-50s, facing off against Stetson University! Mark Berry said "Would you look at them! Were we ever that ripped?" Then someone pointed out that "ripped" had an entirely different meaning in the 70's!
We had a blast! And we actually lasted 15-20 minutes - which is a long time in a game that's fairly relentless when it comes to movement.
Who wants to play? Chuck, Fitz, Paul, Bob...
My definitive moment (of reality) came around ten-minutes in (a good five minutes after I ran out of endurance). I got the ball, made a fairly decent move, and found myself with some space 25 yards out. The goalie was off his line. My instincts took over and it was as if I was transported back in time to the same field, 33 years ago, poised in complete control of the game. I faked left, slid to the right, looked up and measured the top-spin chip that would flight the ball gracefully over the keeper and into the back of the net. I pulled back my right foot and struck the ball with confidence, anticipating that old familiar rush before standing back to witness my handiwork....
The ball barely reached the goalie, dropping softly into his waiting hands.
Together: So we left the main field for the younger guys and relocated for five-on five fun stuff, somehow managing to play for another 30-minutes or so.
Then it was the sharing of stories, catching up, re-telling old tales from college, talking about our lives and our work and our children and our mutual friends. We talked on the field, we talked out in the parking lot, we talked back in the locker room, some of the conversation carried over to a favorite local watering-hole, and we all got back together in the evening, over at Steve Doran's house, where we talked and laughed and ate together long into the evening.
What counts: I noticed something interesting. We shared old stories, of course, and we talked about life at Stetson in the late 70's. But the majority of substantive conversation (around nine-hours of it by the time we all said goodbye around 10:00 Saturday night) and what really reconnected us on my 55th birthday, was the fact that all of us are complete, well-rounded people with vibrant lives today, in 2011.
Fact is, while we had fun together 33 years ago, and we have that camaraderie of a shared experience (soccer is, after all, still "a kick-in-the-grass"), I like the middle-aged version of these guys even more!
They're concerned parents, committed community leaders, loving husbands and cutting-edge in their professional fields. They're thoughtful and intelligent, and they hold deep convictions. Some of them are men of deep personal faith; all of them are guided by values that are rooted in a profound social conscience and a real concern for the world we inhabit.
I hadn't seen even one of my friends in well over thirty years, and I may never meet them ever again. But I left Steve's house Saturday night with renewed optimism about the world and our future.
I've never been a pessimist, but there's no better antidote for night after night of bad news from around this war-torn globe than re-connecting with an otherwise random collection of people and realizing that this Earth is populated with so many good, decent, community-minded people.
So thanks, Gary, Chuck, Mike, Bob, Mark, other Mark, Maz, Eddie, other Bob, Steve, Marvin, John, Paul, Pepe... and anyone else I can't think of in this moment. Thanks not only "for the memories", but also for the belief. And thanks, simply, for being.
Your friend, who wishes you every blessing - plus grace, peace, hope and promise - DEREK