As soon as Karen Bradley heard her husband and son arrive home, she ran down the stairs and yanked open the front door. Unable to control her excitement, "Joey," she fired at her son, "guess who called?" She left no time for an answer. "Your new soccer coach! Frank Schnur: that's his name. Doesn't that sound like a real soccer coach? Huh? A nice German one – huh? Doesn't it?"
Karen took a breath, but only for a second. "And guess what else? Your first practice is Wednesday. Isn't that great?"
Joey, her seven-year-old son, rolled his eyes and turned away; he watched his father disappear downstairs into the garage.
"Oh," Karen went on, "this is gonna be such fun. The first game's in two weeks! Aren't you excited? Huh?"
Finally there was a slice of quietness, and Joey slipped in. "Who's on the team?" he asked. Seconds passed; words swirled in Karen's head; her eyes darted back and forth. Joey spoke again: "Do you know if Karl is on the team?" Karl was Joey's best friend.
"The Sharks!" Karen said, "that's the name of your team. Isn't that great?" She looked through her son, far off into the distance. "The Sharks…" she whispered dreamily, a warm smile forming on her face.
Wednesday, at the first practice, after introductions, Coach Schnur asked if any parents wanted to volunteer as Team Mothers. Karen and another mother stepped up.
When Coach Schnur had the children passing balls back and forth in distinct lines, Karen chatted with her new friend, the other Team Mother.
"What do I do as a Team Mother?" she inquired. "Do I bring oranges and water? To practice? Just games?" In deep thought, her eyes bounced to her son, another child, then the coach.
"It's not a big deal," the other Team Mother replied. "We bring water to the games, and we take turn with the oranges. On alternate weeks you bring them. Last season I was—"
Karen cut her off with an assault of more questions: "Do I tell the children what positions to play? I don't know how to play soccer. Do I carpool? Do I need to keep score?"
Minutes later the other Team Mother slipped away to the solitude of her car, where she chatted with another parent. And Karen continued to watch practice, thinking how much fun the season was going to be. She was a "soccer mom." She even had a mini-van to go along with it.
When her son approached to kick the ball, she hadn't noticed but she innocently stuck her foot out as if she was the one kicking. She was really getting into it. Another child trapped the ball and passed it to Coach Schnur. Again Karen's foot went out. Too excited by the occasion, she'd forgotten she was wearing her good shoes, until arriving home, when she looked down to find them caked with mud.
For practice the following week, Karen wisely put on sneakers so not to dirty her shoes. Maybe she'd even kick a ball, she thought. Oh, but just one or two. "Hee!" she giggled. Arriving at the field, she lugged three large, brand new water coolers to the sidelines. There was plenty of water to go around. In fact, when practice ended, two of the coolers were dumped into the grass.
The night before the first game, the other Team Mother phoned Karen. "Could you cover for me?" she asked. Of course, Karen said sure. Then the other Team Mother asked, "For the rest of the season?" Karen stepped into the role, the one and only Team Mother.
Karen woke up early the morning of the first game. She filled three coolers with water and sliced a box of oranges into plastic bags. Before loading the car, she set Joey's freshly washed uniform on his bed and told him to get dressed.
Joey was playing a game on the computer. "But, Ma," he replied ridiculously, then flashed a look at the clock on the wall, "it's only 10 … we don't have to be there until 12."
"We don't want to be late. Now go get dressed. You can return to the computer later."
Karen arrived at the field with her son at 11:30, a whole half-hour before necessary. She wanted to be the first ones there so she could set up. Except for two seagulls attacking a McDonald's paper sack, the parking lot was empty. There was not another car, not even the groundskeepers with the nets and flags.
From the driver's-side captain's chair, Karen popped the side door open and looked at Joey. "Okay, you grab the oranges and bring them down to the field. And I'll get the water." Joey hopped out and slid open the side door, when he stopped. Not once but twice he looked at the bags of oranges, his eyes blinking with each bag he counted. He blinked five heavy times. The oranges were so heavy he took three bags and headed for the field. "Joey," Karen called, pointing to the opposite side of the field. "Take the other side, that's the good one. We don't want the sun in our eyes." Like an obedient dog, Joey went to the other side.
Other parents began arriving with their children a short while later. One commented on the bags of oranges, which – heavy, laden with rind – threatened to collapse the legs of the table, "Got enough oranges there to feed a small army." Karen smiled. Another parent added jokingly, "You mean a large army." Karen's head swelled as if her son had just scored a goal.
The Sharks went on to win 5 – 2. Karen was excited.
Karen arrived with Joey at the field for the next game, this time a mere fifteen minutes before anyone else. Joey, like before, lugged the oranges to the sideline, this time only two bags, and Karen the water. After setting up the folding table, spreading a tablecloth over it, and placing the water and oranges on top, Karen ran back to the car. She returned carrying two six-foot flag posts wrapped in canvas at one end.
"What's that, Mom?" Joey asked.
"You'll see!" Karen unraveled the poles, stabbed one into the ground and the other five feet away. Across the top was a banner. "Go Sharks!" it read in hand painted blue letters shadowed in silver. In the top corner was a little shark fin.
"Nice sign!" A voice called from behind. It was the Coach Schnur with his son in tow. Joey and the coach's son ran onto the field kicking a soccer ball. "Shows good team spirit!" he said while admiring the sign. After a long silence he added, "You really get into this, don't you?" Karen beamed with confidence.
When other parents finally arrived, they all commented on the sign. "Did you paint that yourself?" one asked. Karen nodded proudly. "You painted that!" another exclaimed.
To Karen's surprise, a few children didn't show up for the game. But it didn't matter, as they won, making their record 2 and 0.
The following Saturday, Karen was driving to the next game when she noticed, Joey, sitting next to her in the passenger seat, unusually quiet. "Is something wrong?" Karen asked him. He shook his head unconvincingly. "Aren't you excited? You're playing the Cosmos today?" He remained silent and looked at her in bewilderment, as if there was something she was missing, something he knew but she didn't.
"Did I forget something?" she asked.
Joey shook his head. He had nothing to add, until five minutes later. "Mom … can you, like, I don't know, like—"
"What is it?" Karen interrupted. "You can tell me. Huh? What is it?"
Joey stared out the driver-side window. "Can you" – his voice was low – "like, not embarrass me today?" His eyes dropped to his lap.
"Embarrass you? Don't be silly… I'm just the Team Mother?"
"Yeah," Joey whispered, "just the Team Mother…"
"What's that? What did you say? Huh?"
The Sharks went on to win, pushing their record to 3 and 0.
The following week, the Sharks played The Strikers, the other undefeated team. During the game the ball suddenly popped free. Joey got to it first and kicked it toward the Striker goal.
Karen, on the sidelines, couldn't control her excitement. She ran along with the play. "Go-go-go, Joey!" she cheered. "Go, Joey, go!"
Joey, chasing after the ball, stopped cold and shot a look to the sidelines. Just then, a defender booted the ball away.
As Karen watched the ball clear out she missed the dreaded look in her son's eyes and the embarrassment sprayed across his face. He kicked a chunk of grass with his cleat – she missing that, too.
The ball carried down the other end of the field. Karen ran along with the play, and as she did inadvertently bumped into Coach Schnur, knocking his clipboard to the ground. She hadn't noticed. "Move up, move up!" she advised the defense. "Pull 'em off sides! Come on, Greggy. Move up!" Greg's father eyed Karen.
The goalkeeper collected the ball and booted it out, where players from both teams swarmed it. A hawk circling above, Karen eyed the play and screamed encouraging words, "Go-go, Joey!"
The ball squirted free. Darren kicked it across mid-field; Joey chased it down, dribbled, then shot on goal. The keeper deflected it with his hand. But it slipped behind him. Then, Billy, the center forward, ran in and booted the loose ball into the back of the net. Score!
"Yes-yes-yes!" Karen shouted. "Alright Sharks!" She danced in circles. "Way to go Sharks!" She did the hokey-pokey. "Woo-hoo!" She put her left foot in and shook it all about. So excited, she ran onto the field and celebrated with the boys, who dropped their arms and stared at her in disbelief. She continued running over – leaping, cheering with joy – she didn't stop. Joey, his face a Crayola Red, hung his head, as if he missed a penalty shot and lost the championship game for his team.
Karen waltzed across the field as the referee, who she hadn't noticed, gawked at her. In such disbelief, he forgot to record the goal. No one noticed. Parents from both sides and the players on the field stared at her as if she was crazy. She hadn't noticed. She ran up to Billy, who scored the goal, and her son, who assisted, and forced them into a celebratory hug, and then finally skipped back to the sidelines to congratulate Coach Schnur. The Sharks scored!
Over the ensuing weeks, the Sharks went on to an undefeated 9 and 0 record. The 10th and final game of the season was against the 8 and 1 Whitecaps. Everyone knew, if the Sharks lost, they would end the season tied for first place with the Whitecaps; and if they won, they'd be alone at the top.
Karen sliced her oranges, filled her coolers with water, and arrived at the field only five minutes before they were supposed to – at her son's suggestion. Two cars were already in the parking lot: the groundskeeper with the nets and a player from the other team. No Sharks had yet arrived. Minutes passed. More cars arrived, none Sharks. Much to her surprise, only seven children showed to play. And with seven being the minimum, they had just enough players to play and not forfeit.
"Where is everybody?" Karen wondered aloud to the parents as the game was about to kickoff. "How come we only have 7? The Whitecaps: they have 14!" It was true. Every player on the other team had showed.
Coach Schnur still hadn't arrived, causing Karen to pace nervously. When she veered by the other parents, they turned their backs, steering free. And when she marched toward the children, they looked away, refusing to make eye contact. None of this she noticed, but Joey had.
Suddenly a loud whistle sounded, as the referee blew his whistle, signaling game time had arrived and captains were due at midfield for the coin toss.
But where was Coach Schnur? He still hadn't arrived! Karen knew every team needs a coach play, so she assumed the role; somebody had to do it, right?
After huddling the team, giving out positions, and a coach-driven single cheer, Karen went to the sidelines. "I can't believe Coach Schnur hasn't arrived," she complained. "How could he do this to the children?"
Few parents on the sideline looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
"How could he do this?" she whined again while, without mistake, enjoying her new role.
"Rumor has it," an anonymous parent called behind her back, "he couldn't put up with the Team Mother."
Karen laughed at the joke then turned her attention to the kickoff.
Greg's father spoke to the rumor, "He wasn't kidding…"
Waltzing down the sideline, Karen hadn't heard. She hollered at the defense to get back.
The Whitecaps went on to demolish the Sharks 8 to nothing, prompting an extra game the following week to determine first place.
Immediately after the game, Karen called Coach Schnur with the details of the final game. "Thanks," he said in a distinct, low voice, "but I can't make it." The line went dead.
Shucks, Coach Karen had to come through again. And she did. Early that week, she called everybody on the team to make sure they knew the time and place of the game. And on Friday, the night before the game, she called again with a friendly reminder.
"Drink your orange juice," Karen directed Joey the morning of the big game, "then go get dressed. We have a big game today." Joey turned his shoulder and walked away.
Thirty minutes later, Karen walked into her son's bedroom. He was not dressed. "Come on, get dressed." On the way out, she stopped and turned, the demanded, "Now!" Sadly Joey looked up. "I said, 'Now!' Get dressed!" He didn't move. "What's the matter with you? Don't you listen to your mother?"
"I don't want to…"
"What do you mean you 'don't want to'? Come on now, get dressed."
Joey looked away. "I said," – he hesitated – "'I don't want to!'"
"Why don't you want to?"
"I just don't feel like it." Joey's voice was on the verge of tears. "It's no fun anymore."
"Don't be silly," Karen said and turned for the door. "Now get dressed. We're leaving in fifteen minutes."
As usual Karen arrived at the field early with Joey, oranges, water, and an abundance of enthusiasm. Setting up shop on the sidelines, she watched players from the other team trickle in. But with ten minutes until game time, she grew worried – Joey was the only Shark. "Where is everyone?" she wondered aloud. "Do you think they forgot?"
Joey, clearly disturbed, offered his opinion, "No!"
"Then where is everyone?"
Joey snapped. "You don't get it, Mom, do you? It's no fun anymore."
"There you go again, talking nonsense. Of course it's still fun. We always have fun."
Just then, Alex Harris and his father arrived. Karen was relieved. "Thank God you came. Do you know where everyone else is?"
Mr. Harris looked up the sideline, across the field, and finally at Joey. "Yes…" he said, shaking his head.
Karen looked expectantly at him. But he said not another word. "What do you mean?" she asked.
Rather smartly, Joey chimed in, directed at his mom, "Why don't you play the game. That's why no one's here. You yell at the ref. You tell us what to do. You do everything for us but play the game. That's why no one's here.
"I keep telling you, Mom. But you don't listen. It's not fun anymore. It's not fun for me. It's not fun for anyone. Why do you think Coach Schnur let you be coach? Because you were already doing everything he used to. You wouldn't let him coach. Why do you think Mrs. Menovich stepped down as the other Team Mother? Because you did everything! There was nothing left for her to do.
"I keep telling you … but you don't listen."
Karen looked across the field, where the other team gathered in full force, then back to her son, who embarrassed looked down at the grass. She looked sadly at the water table, at the quarter oranges, and then inward.
Mr. Harris and his son turned and walked back up the hill toward the car. The referee stood, waiting patiently for the Sharks to arrive. The Whitecaps practiced shooting on net down the opposite end of the field.
Joey filled the silence. "You never listen to me anymore…"
Mr. Harris, within earshot, turned. "Mrs. Bradley," he said, "you should listen to your son…" With that, he walked away.
Copyright 1999 by Thor Kirleis
March 7, 1999