The boy’s father wanted him to play soccer because he’d played the game as a kid growing up in St. Louis, but the boy didn’t think it was much fun. There was a lot of running around and unlike basketball the ball stayed in bounds and they didn’t call a lot of fouls so you had to keep running all the time. Plus you played outdoors in the fall wearing shorts, and he was always cold. He was the only white kid on his team, and he let the other kids control the ball on offense before the season started, hoping he’d end up as the goalie. He did, and he turned out to be good at it, but sometimes he wondered whether it was because the other kids on his team were so good they kept the ball at the other end of the field all the time.
He was working on his physical education merit badge at the same time, and he had to run a half-mile every day. The Scoutmaster didn’t care how fast you ran, you just had to run it, so he didn’t have to compete against somebody on another team and run fast; you just had to plug away at it, which he didn’t have a problem with.
The other kids would look at him as if he was crazy when he ran eight lengths of the field before a practice or a game. “Man, whatta you workin’ so hard for?” the little kid named Charlie would say.
“Same as you’re gonna be doing once the whistle blows,” he had said, “running up and down the field.”
“That’s different,” Charlie had said. “It’s fun to run when you goin’ after that soccer ball.”
The boy didn’t think so; he’d rather take it slow and steady. Slow and steady wins the race, he remembered from the Aesop’s fable where the tortoise beats the hare. That was fine with him, that’s how he wanted to do it.
When he’d finished his 880 yards he caught his breath, then started to hang out with the other kids while they waited for their coach. A caramel-colored boy named Dennis—nicknamed “Posse”--was dribbling a ball back and forth between his feet.
“Kick it to me,” the boy said.
“This is Posse’s ball,” the other boy said. “You want it, you got to take it away from me.”
The boy thought Posse was strange. He had two nicknames—he was also called “DJ”—and he talked about himself as if he were a third person. It was always “Posse” this and “Posse” that. The boy thought it sounded conceited.
“C’mon—try and take it away.”
He didn’t think it would be too hard. He figured he would just run up to the other boy real fast and bowl him over. He wasn’t good at dribbling himself, and he recalled that that was the way other kids seemed to take the ball away from him.
“Unh-uh, that ain’t gonna do it,” Posse said as he easily side-stepped the other boy’s rush. “You can’t take the ball away from Posse that way.”
The boy regained his footing and made another rush. “Whoa,” Posse said. “You must be new at this. Posse been playin’ for a long time, Posse’s good.”
The boy tried again, and again Posse sidestepped him and dribbled past him, then turned around to taunt him.
“C’mon man, I’ll make it easy for you,” Posse said. He stopped and stood with his feet close together, as if at attention, with his ball beside him. “C’mon.”
The boy decided he would try to fake Posse out; he’d act as if he was giving up and slowly start to walk past him, then reach out and kick the ball away.
“I give up,” he said. “You’re too good for me.”
“Naw, man, c’mon. We supposed to be warmin’ up.”
“I should take some shots in goal. You go ahead and dribble around, unless you want to take some kicks on me.”
He started to execute his stratagem but just as he flicked his leg out Posse blocked his foot and pushed the ball ahead. He was laughing when he turned around, the big hole where he was missing a front tooth like a gap in a picket fence.
“You can’t fool the Posse—nobody plays possum on the Posse.”
The coach blew the whistle from the middle of the field where he’d been meeting with the other coach and the referee. All the boys gathered round him for instructions.
“Okay, everybody, this is just a scrimmage, but we’re gonna go at it like it’s the real thing,” the coach said. He was a big man, heavy in the middle, who’d learned to play soccer when he was in the Army in Germany. He had told the boy he had to choose between soccer and basketball, and the boy had said no I don’t, my dad said I could keep playing on my school team.
They put their hands in the middle of a circle, did their little chant and then yelled “Let’s go!” The boy went off to his goal and hoped the game would be an uneventful one.
He stood there in the cold without much to do because Charlie and Posse and Kenny and the others kept the ball down at the other end of the field, as usual. He had to handle one rush when a big white kid he knew, the son of the doctor in town who always walked to work like some kind of oddball, broke through the fullbacks. He got to the ball before the kid could kick it, but the kid landed on top of him and he was heavy, a year older than him. He threw the ball back up to one of the fullbacks who kicked it up to Charlie.
He’d had the wind knocked out of him so he was glad that Charlie was able to clear it out past midfield, and he stood there, breathing heavily in and out, while his coach and the other coach stood talking behind him, their clipboards held under arms crossed over their chests.
“Naw, he’s a good kid,” the other coach was saying. “I was gonna draft him ahead of you but I thought he was too undisciplined. He skipped a couple of practices on me last year.”
“He’s been all right for me,” the boy’s coach said. “I’ve tried to emphasize the positive things he does, and it seems to be working.”
The two men were silent for awhile, and the boy wondered whether his coach was ever going to ask him if he was all right after the older boy on the other team had fallen on them.
“Naw, I’ll tell you what,” he heard his coach say. “You take a white boy and you buy him a helmet and a nice uniform and he thinks he’s a football player. You take a black boy and give him a pair of shorts and a soccer ball and he’ll play for you—you know what I mean?”
“I sure do,” the other coach said. “Makes all the difference in the world if you’re hungry.”
The boy turned around to look at the coaches, who looked back at him for a moment, then downfield. He promised himself as he turned back around that he wouldn’t turn out to be the kind of boy they were talking about.