|Ezra, looking to pass.|
|Olivia, hoping for a goal.|
Over the past two seasons of Gloucester Parks & Recreation soccer, Ezra has had an extraordinary run. His teams went undefeated, 19-0, and won two straight championships in the 9-11 age group. It's all the more remarkable considering that from the spring season to the recently concluded fall season, the coaches changed and most of the players changed, with the only thing unchanged being the results.
Last Saturday, the Green Lightning, expertly coached by my good friend Omar Torres and his excellent assistant coach Brian Hudgins, won a grueling tournament in heart attack fashion -- the opposing side hit the crossbar or post of the Green Lightning three times in the match -- beating the vaunted Orange Crush 2-1. It was the third 48-minute match within the span of about 5 hours for the Green Lightning, of which Ezra, now 11 years old, was co-captain.
Ezra played his heart out. There are several things about Ezra I truly admire about his play on the soccer pitch. His heart, so big. His effort, unparalleled. His speed, among the tops in the league. His skill, again among the tops in the league. He plays hard but cleanly, doesn't talk trash to opponents, but lets his game do his talking.
He scored around six goals or so this season, half of them with his left foot even though he's naturally stronger with his right foot. Yet his play on the defensive end of the field is perhaps the strongest part of his game. He's relentless and time and again he ran down offensive players and stopped attacks seeming headed for sure goals; during the first game of the tournament following one furious sequence near halftime that left him hobbled, Ezra had to be carried off the field by a coach after taking a cleat to his achilles tendon. He returned to action after halftime.
While championships are a thrill -- in the spring season I coached Ezra's team the Gray Wolves that won the championship in sudden death penalty kicks over Coach Omar's side -- my enduring memory of this season had nothing to do with trophies, or goals, or hustling plays.
It has to do with Ezra's little sister, Olivia, and what it would have meant to him for her to score a goal. Ezra and Olivia have a special bond. It's always been so sweet to see how close they are and how much they enjoy being together. When I talked to my kids this summer to see who wanted to play soccer this fall, Olivia said she wanted to play so she could be on Ezra's team. She's taken to ballet, but even though she's only played one season of soccer, she wanted to spend her late summer and fall with her brother.
On the field at the start of the season Olivia was quite timid. Imagine a ballerina flitting down a soccer field and you've seen Olivia play soccer. But over the course of the season, she became emboldened. She started going after the ball, backed down less from the action on the field and started kicking it more during the games. By the end of the season, she really wanted to score a goal. It seemed an improbable thought ... but not to Ezra.
Coach Omar wanted her to score a goal as well. He would put her and Ezra together on the front line and tell her to just go get in the box in front of the goal. Ezra will find her. Many times Ezra passed up chances to work the ball in for his own shot at a goal to try to get a pass in to Olivia so she could score. He would run down the flank with the ball, his head up, looking for his little sister in her pink soccer shorts. He would dodge defenders, circle back, probe the defense, holding onto the ball waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect pass, always hoping it would happen.
It never did happen. Olivia had a shot or two, but it never quite panned out. Yet Ezra never stopped trying. And Olivia was so excited and tickled her older brother was trying so hard to help her score a goal.
I can't recall if it was Coach Omar or another parent who saw what Ezra was trying to do and described Ezra as a "gentleman." I like that. Ezra, the gentleman soccer star.
And that's how I see him.