Why we play the games

From 2009 through 2018, I played in a co-ed recreational soccer league. We played every Sunday evening, May through October. Up until the last couple of years, it was the highlight of my week, but slowly over time I kind of lost interest in playing. Giving up every Sunday night for an entire summer and an entire fall just became too much of a time commitment.

But before that, those games were something very special. I’d ride my bike up to Rosebrook park by the shopping mall about three miles from my old house. We would kick the ball around for an hour, probably lose, and then cap it off with some beers on the sidelines while watching the later games, all before a quiet ride home through quiet Sunday night streets in middle America, a little buzzed on beer and laughs and physical exertion, then a late dinner and off to bed to start the work week.

In 2009, when I first started playing, I was unemployed. Nine years later when I hung up the cleats, I was divorced and living 15 miles away from that little park by the highway. Those years were packed to the gunwales with events and change, but they passed in a blink of an eye, just like they always do. Those Sunday nights were first highlights, later a melancholy reminder of loss, later a time gone by. I think of those bike rides home along the trail by the railroad tracks, over the interstate, the sun sinking low and fat in the west, and feeling as if all was going to be okay forever. Now I can’t think about them without feeling sad.

**

Today was the last day of the English Test summer. And while some pundits might (justifiably) call the summer “wasted“, I can’t help but disagree. Despite the logistical and financial challenges involved in holding Test cricket matches in the middle of a pandemic, they were able to pull it off. Cricket at a time when we needed it the most.

I thought about this a lot as England played out the useless and unnecessary overs of the second Test against Pakistan. There was no reason to play those overs. The game was gone, simply gone, there was no chance of any result. But out they came anyway, to play the out the game, to finish what was started. Because that’s cricketers do: they play cricket, no matter the situation, they play cricket.

It felt meaningless, sure, but all cricket is meaningless. Just like all my rec soccer games were meaningless. But you still play the games. You still bowl the useless 5:30 p.m. day five overs. You still celebrate when you score a goal on a 42 year old goalkeeper who last put the gloves on in high school. You still play the games, because that’s we do. All of us. Professional, amateur, and everything in between. You find meaning and you go about your day.

Playing Test cricket in the middle of a pandemic was probably a little irresponsible. There are few people who would disagree with that notion. And the reasons the game went ahead had very little to do with the importance of sport, and everything to do with the almighty dollar. But I guess in the end the why here really doesn’t matter. The games are being played, and therefore have meaning. To some, that meaning was distraction when it was needed most, to others it was a chance for cricket to figure out an attack that could win overseas, and to others it was a chance to solidify a place in history.

But for me, they played because that’s what cricketers do. All cricket is meaningless. This summer was no different. But that doesn’t matter. You still play the games, because otherwise there is no meaning to any of if, or anything at all. That is not to say that without sport humanity loses its northern star, but any time meaning of any kind is allowed to leak out of the world, it is a loss, a loss we can’t replace. I took an odd, almost warm, comfort watching day five of the second Pakistan Test. Life was carrying on. It was no different than the joy incarnate to a rec soccer league game and the beers that follow with close friends on the sidelines of a beat up old soccer field. You’re there because you’re there, and that’s all that matters. There is joy in simply participating, and when it comes to professional sports, even spectators participate.

**

This post has been banging around in my head for a couple of days, maybe even a week. There was something about that day five that stuck with me. As said above, there was a comfort in it that I can’t really explain. Watching all the meaningless cricket I would have thought would have left me a little cold, but the opposite was true.

And then I started writing today, at my kitchen table, where I have written for over two years now. And I thought about those rec soccer games, and that maybe there was a connection there, an explanation. Every kick of the ball, every delivery, has meaning, just like every interaction has meaning, weight. Every breath. We get out of bed every single day, an action so simple it happens without a thought, but it’s an action that provides meaning, in this case a hope for a better day than we had the day before. Each kick is a chance to be better, to deliver magic. You have to play those overs, otherwise what’s the point of it all?

But then I started writing and thinking about those bike rides home on those Sunday nights for all those years. May through October. Up the trail past Snelling and the strip malls. Down Hamline by the golf course, cutting through the library parking lot, then west toward home, pulling into a driveway, dusk, lights on in the kitchen.

My life is different now. Perhaps better. But that does not diminish the power of those memories of times gone by, and their lessons on time and its passing. And those memories don’t exist if we don’t play the games.

It’s easy to assign meaning in hindsight, and some might say a little lazy, but I think it’s okay to look back at memories of a house and a time and a dog and a person, at memories worth cherishing, and realize that those memories don’t exist if I don’t play in that silly little Sunday night rec soccer league. We play the games because that is what we do, and later we give them meaning. Just like those overs on day five, which while meaningless, meant something.

Every moment is a chance for a memory. And every memory is a reminder of what has been lost, and that reminder is a cue to open our eyes, and hold on tight to what we have. Many people will not remember much about that second Test match, but I will remember a pandemic, and cycling home on Sunday nights, and a fresh start, and a summer spent realizing that maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay.

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