There's an old Jerry Seinfeld joke about all the millions of guys in this world who really believe that they COULD have been professional athletes...IF they had really wanted to. An apple is rolling off a table, you catch it before it hits the ground. "Yeah, I always had it. I could'a played pro ball."
The joke rings true to me, mostly for reasons I'm not sure I want to admit. I've been trying to decide if I want to admit this about myself; at the ge of 13 I felt I had to make a very important, life-changing decision. The decision has gone a long way toward shaping my life ever since, but I've hardly admitted it to anyone. You could call it slightly embarrassing, but whatever. I've admitted enough embarrassing stuff already in this blog. It will hardly hurt my reputation to admit one more embarrassing thing.
At the age of 13 I sat myself down and had a serious heart-to-heart talk with myself. I felt I had to make a decision; which of my two options in life did I want to commit to? What were these two options in my life? I had only two. I was sure of it. Nothing else was in the mix. Did I want to commit to a life in professional sports? Or did I want to commit to a creative life, writing, acting, comedy?
I had to make this decision at 13, I felt, because either decision was going to require 24/7 commitment from me from this day on. If, for example, I was going to be a professional basketball player, I told myself, I was going to have to eat, sleep, breath basketball every moment from now on.
My first love in sports, of course, was always soccer, but these were the years before MLS, and even if there were professional soccer teams in the U.S. it was obvious that professional soccer was less stable than professional basketball.
Sometimes you don't actually make the choice, though. Sometimes the choice makes you. A creative life was an easy decision to make. It came and chose me. The decision was made. My choice in life was clear.
Nothing would ever be the same for me.
And that Jerry Seinfeld joke hangs over me to this day.
If you've ever read George Plimpton's old book from the 1960s, Paper Lion, where he (as a writer, not really as an athlete) takes part in the Detroit Lions training camp, goes through the whole pre-season drill, and writes brilliantly about the experience, then you may get some sense of where some of my athlete-turned-writer impulses were going to take me.
In the Fall of 1994 Major League Soccer was building up to its debut season the following Spring. I was living in L.A. and open tryouts had been announced for L.A. that December.
This was my chance...NOT my chance to become a professional athlete - I had made the decision at 13, you remember, not to go down that road. No, this was my chance to be George Plimpton, to write a book about trying to make it through the tryout process for the new professional soccer league.
At some point I would be cut, I assumed, but I thought I could make it far enough through the process and gain just enough experience, and anecdotes, to fill my book.
I was working out every day, getting myself into the best shape of my life. I had contacted the league and received a letter form them which began, "Dear prospective player..." Yes, it's true, somewhere in these boxes I have lying around, I still have a letter from MLS referring to me as a "prospective player." (I take pleasure in these little things in life.)
Then it all vanished. MLS postponed everything for a year. Instead of debuting in 1995, the new league would (and did) debut in 1996. Open tryouts were cancelled. My whole book idea withered away.
Eventually I got over the disappointment. I moved back to Seattle the following Summer, kept busy writing, and hardly thought about my book-about-soccer idea....until March of 1996, when I saw a small item in the Seattle Times announcing that the Seattle Sounders would hold open tryouts the following Saturday.
I stared at the announcement. My brain did summersaults.
Seattle Sounders were not going to be part of the MLS debut season. They were defending champions of something called The A League, the league that eventually became USL (the second tier of today's U.S. soccer pyramid).
As defending champions, though, and it still being a month before MLS would debut, the Sounders could legitimately claim to be the #1 soccer team in America.
I had to go.
The day went pretty well. I don't think I embarrassed myself. I scored a goal against the Sounders young goalkeeper, a guy named Marcus Hahneman, who would then spend several years in England playing for Reading before coming back to retire after another stint with the MLS Sounders.
Sometime around 2003 or 2004 I remember watching a Manchester United game on television. They were playing against Reading, and of course ManU at that time featured a precocious young Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo made one of his signature runs down the wing, beating several players along the way, lined up a dangerous shot, fired blisteringly at Reading's Goalkeeper, Marcus Hahneman, and...failed. Hahneman easily blocked the shot. I looked at the TV screen and said out loud, "What's the matter with you, Ronaldo? I scored aginst this guy."
Anyway, back to the day I was on the Sounders training field.
I didn't make the team. If I remember right, they only took two guys from the tryouts to move on to preseason camp.
As the day ended I found myself walking alongside the Coach. I wasn't expectig to make the team, I told him. I just wanted a chance to write something about trying to play professional soccer.
"It's a good idea," he said, treating me respectfully.
We agreed that, with MLS about to start, and the Sounders not being a part of it, maybe this idea could be revisited next year or the year after. The Sounders thought at that time that they would be in MLS within a year or two. In the end it didn't happen for another 13 years, in 2009.
My soccer book idea never came together. I've since spent my whole adult life playing in recreational amateur leagues, both in Seattle and back here in L.A. I've managed to play in some pretty good leagues. I've played with and against ex-professionals. I'll be out on a field later tonight, after posting this.
For one day, though, I felt that I was a Seattle Sounder.
The Sounders have a recurring feature on their youtube channel called, "Once a Sounder." Once a Sounder, always a Sounder. I know you guys usually feature former players. You go to Newcastle, England and chat it up witb Deandre Yedlin. You sit down with Mauro Rosales and talk about all the goals and assists he had with the team.
I know I was never officially a member of the team...but, hey...there was one day...All I'm saying is....you know, Once a Sounder....(Shut up Jerry Seinfeld, mind your own business).
September 14, 2019