I have a confession. We were one of those Sunday Soccer families! Can you believe it?
I remember that first moment of soccer that really took my breath away. Owen was playing offense and an opposing player wiped him out from the side. He was down for the count. When the other players realized that they had a man hurt on the field everyone took a knee.
The coach ran out to see if there was blood. Make sure all the joints still worked. He poked around a little bit and then carried a sniffling Owen off the field. He had simply had the wind knocked out of him, but it terrified him. At the tender age of five, he hadn’t developed perspective to know immediately that he’d be okay.
He developed that more quickly than I developed it. I still cringe every time he gets side-swiped, and I muster up all of my mother self-control to not run over and smother him with Mommy First Aid and fuss. But I do succeed in holding back. And he’s always survived.
I like that tradition of taking a knee. It’s a civilized and honorable thing to do. In little league soccer his character was developing under an intentional coach who was careful to instill sportsmanship along side of soccer skills. You cheer for your teammates. You do not cut corners in practice. You high five the other team and say, “Good game.” You shrug off bad referee calls, because life isn’t always fair. You play to each others’ strengths and cover for each others weaknesses. Owen was learning important lessons.
Owen is a scrappy player who is a fine physical athlete, but also understands the mental aspects of the game. He plays offense with the strategy of chess, making sure he’s at the right place at the right time in relationship to the players on the board. He’s not one to whine or complain, but encourages his teammates when the going gets rough.
I was not surprised when he was recruited for a “Select Soccer” team, the Raptors, at age 10. He’s that good. We didn’t know the coaches, but Owen wanted to give this challenge a try. So we invested in the club fees, multiple uniforms and warm-ups, and an intense practice schedule. Owen liked the physical challenge, but something didn’t seem quite right. The team spirit was different than we’d experienced in the past.
This coach liked to play a trick on the other team. The Raptors would come out in their warm-up suits. Then right before the game was to start they’d peal off the plain outfit to reveal the snazzy, satin uniforms underneath. Owen had to explain it to me. “The coach,” Owen said never looking me in the eyes, “wants the other team to think we’re a poor team who doesn’t know much. Then they won’t warm up so hard and expect so much. And we come at them hard in our serious soccer uniform and just take ‘em.” My response was, “And what do you think of this strategy.” Still not looking me in the eyes, “It doesn’t seem right.” “Owen, follow your intuition. I think we’re about to learn some hard lessons.”
I started becoming more aware of other inconsistencies with the soccer values we had come to expect. The referee was consistently chastised by the coach. Coach instructed his players to stretch when the other teams’ players gets hurt on the field so when the ball goes back into play the Raptors would have an advantage. Hazing on the team was overlooked. End of the game talks covered what went wrong and “if only you would have tried harder,” rather than uplifting the efforts and successes. Soccer was quickly becoming not so fun. I knew Owen was very frustrated, because he didn’t want to go to practice anymore.
Then there was final moment that soccer took my breath away. The game was intense. Tempers were high. The Raptors’ coach was yelling as much at the referees as he was at the kids. And then someone got hurt on the other team. The other team took their knee and the Raptors started their stretches. The Raptors’ coach yelled something out onto the field, and that is when I realized that Owen was taking a knee with the other team. The coach was yelling something to him. As soon as the hurt player got up and walked off the field, Owen also ran off the field to his coach. I could tell his coach wasn’t pleased and was telling Owen. Owen gathered himself up and said something to the coach who made a “whatever” motion with his hands and then motioned for him to stay on the line. He stayed there for the rest of the game.
The way home was even more somber than usual. I asked Owen what happened. He said that when he took his knee, the coach told him to get up and stretch, but he wouldn’t. When Coach pulled him off the field and asked him what he thought he was doing he said, “Coach, it is against my religion to stretch when someone is hurt. I have to take a knee”
Owen didn’t play much the rest of the season, but he did stick it out and finish the season with his team. He no longer plays soccer. He’s found other sports and coaches who support his religion and his spiritual practice of taking a knee.
Religious Education isn’t all feel-good warm fuzzies. Powerful religious education often comes in the face of adversity, in the face of speaking truth and compassion to power. And it happens on our knees.