The phone rings.
"Dan," the timid voice on the other end of the line whispers, "you didn't forget to call me, did you? I didn't make it, did I?"
No, you didn't, I try to explain. I mumble too much and stutter too often, trying desperately to keep talking. I do not want the 12-year-old boy on the other end who needed every ounce of his courage to call me to think I hear him crying.
This was a really tough team to make, I tell him with feigned heartiness. In any other town you'd be on the team for sure. Just keep working hard, and next season things'll probably be different. You'll improve, some boys will move—you'll see. You'll get another chance. Don't give up. You were close. Thanks for trying out. I know you gave your best.
"Yep," is all the devastated youngster can manage to say.
The youth soccer teams I coach have given me innumerable thrills over the past few years: there were state championship seasons and great trips to sunny Florida. We toured Virginia, Canada and Europe. I had the opportunity to participate in the making of a soccer movie and our team had the honor of performing before 75,000 fans at Pelè's farewell match at Giants Stadium in 1977. The highs have been many, but everything—all the good times I've had with my teams—is negated at the beginning of each season when I have to deal with the reality of trimming the 40 or 50 boys who show up at tryouts to a manageable squad of 18.
The cutting process is an agonizing one. I go home following the final tryout, examine the notes I've taken on each boy and try to figure out which combination will give me the strongest team. The easy part is deciding on the top eight or 10 players whose skills and grace would be apparent to anybody—even to someone who had never seen a soccer ball in his life. Similarly, the eight or 10 least talented boys aren't hard to cut. They usually realize they don't have much of a chance, and they won't be crushed if they aren't selected. At least I like to think so.
It's the large number of borderline players, from among whom I must select the last eight or 10 members of the team, who cause the deepest moments of doubt. So many factors come into play: was the boy on the team last year, and if so, do I reward him for his loyalty and work, or do I give his spot to another boy who is not as good now but might improve more with some coaching? What about the youngster on the 10-speed who showed up late to both tryouts: do I penalize him for it, or do I take into consideration the fact that his parents never drive him anywhere and he has to ride his bike all over town? How about the small, quiet kid I've barely noticed but who seems just as skillful as a larger, more outgoing boy: do I take the extrovert, figuring he will fit better into the team concept I'm trying to develop, or do I go with the introvert, hoping the experience will be beneficial to his growth and maturity? There is one boy whose parents have badgered me to make certain I choose their son. Do I surrender to my natural instincts and judge the boy as harshly as I judge his parents, or do I capitulate and choose the poor kid to avoid trouble with his folks—for both of us? All these variables, and scores of others, influence my final selections.
At the last tryout session I had told the kids that I would call those who had made the team by 9:30 that night. My calls are met with shrieks of joy—and often profuse thanks. Don't thank me, I counter, you made the team on your own.
But my happiness for the boys who make the team is tempered by the fact that there are a dozen or so kids waiting all evening by their phones, jumping to answer it every time it rings, sitting dejectedly back down when they don't hear my voice, fearfully watching the clock as the final, desperate hour approaches. One calls me at the stroke of 9:30, just to make certain I haven't made a mistake or misplaced his telephone number.
How can I tell a 12-year-old boy he hasn't really failed, when he's just been rejected for the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world? I can't. I wish I could somehow come up with the right combination of words to let him know that I still respect and admire the way he gave his best. I want to tell him that he is nothing less because he didn't make the cut. But I can't. I resist the temptation to fib, to say that he was the last one cut, because that may make him feel worse than if he was the first one. So I only tell him to keep working hard, to practice on his own whenever he can, to play in the recreational league and to try again next year.
When I hang up I ask myself whether I've treated the boy as fairly as I possibly could, and I wonder whether I've killed forever his love for the game. I scrutinize and rescrutinize my lists and toy with the idea of giving him another tryout. But that wouldn't be fair to him or to the team; it is only my way of putting off the inevitable. I cross his name off the list, and I hope I haven't ruined his entire year.
Two days later I see him in his yard, kicking with a friend who did make the team. "Hi, Dan," he yells happily. "See, I'm practicing. I'll make it next spring. I know I will. When's your first game? I wanna come watch." I smile to myself. Boy, I hope he does make it next season.