brown and white bear plush toy
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Monday morning

My body is yelling at me as I sit in front of a lower cabinet, scrounging for first aid supplies. An ankle wrap and some tape for the “Compression” part of the “RICE” treatment for Achilles pain. Something to put on a blister on my toe.

I’ve also snagged the aloe vera, as the discomfort on my skin mocks me. I worry about skin cancer to the point of paranoia. My body is riddled with dermatologists’ divots — to be fair, a couple of those moles really were suspicious, and one was some weird thing that could’ve developed into something nasty had I left it alone for many years. I’m on the “every six months” program.

So how did I end up battered and burned on Monday morning? It was a combination of rookie mistakes on my part, worn-down artificial turf and a no-show the day before as I walked out on a soccer field in a yellow ref’s shirt for only the third time.

Working backwards …

Game 3

Damn it, where is that ice cream truck? 

For 40 minutes, I’d been hearing that distinctive music — enticing but a little creepy. And I had it all planned. Hand the flag to the center ref and tell him I’m just dashing to the parking lot. Snag my wallet from my car, dash over to the truck, grab a bottle of water or whatever else he had for sale, then back for the second half.

I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I had signed up for two games. This was my third.

On the field, I was getting better, more confident in my possession calls on the touchline and in good position for every offside call.

But my planning sucked. The day had also evolved from “fall weather in Scotland” to “late summer in Virginia” — much sunnier and warmer than I expected. The Weather Channel is pretty good at showing a nine-foot storm surge with CGI, but why do I trust it for weather forecasts?

My water supply was gone. I hadn’t brought sunscreen, thinking I’d be running the sideline for two games on a cloudy day. A fellow ref brought out some sunscreen when the clouds parted for Game 2 of our mutual acquaintance, and he graciously let me use it when we looked around before Game 3 and did not see anyone coming to replace me.

So as the music played, and I made friends with the parents whose view I kept blocking, I had the halftime plan in my head.

And then … the truck was gone. So was the cart someone was wheeling around with various frozen things.

Five minutes into the second half, I hear the music again. There it is, back in the parking lot. “NOW it’s there!” I exclaimed. The parents got a kick out of that.

“Boy, he does a lot of running,” I overheard from those parents.

“Yeah, and he was here for the last one, too.”

And the one before THAT. 

“Wow. Glad he stayed.”

The parents had every reason to be happy. They had traveled a good 90 minutes to an elementary school tucked into a Northern Virginia neighborhood with a turf field strewn with plastic bottle caps and cigarette butts. For Game 3, I switched from AR1 to AR2, covering the parents’ sideline, and I discovered tons of rocks under my feet. The turf itself was rather hard along this sideline, and I could feel it in my calves. My watch told me I had already run or walked or side-shuffled close to four miles on this field. For Game 3, I didn’t even bother to run my timer, which also plotted my horizontal motion in a messy red line thanks the magic of GPS. I just looked at my watch when each half started.

I could also feel my ears starting to burn. Not because people we’re talking about me. Because I had forgotten to put sunscreen there, and the approved black baseball cap doesn’t cover my ears.

It’s OK. You can’t get melanoma from one afternoon’s lapse. Here comes the white team again. Geez, I wish that kid wouldn’t yell “Ref!” Unfortunately, he’s right, so I’d better raise the flag. 

Tweeeet! Thanks, ref, for not overruling me there.

In my five-game career as an AR, I had never raised my flag for a foul. Now I was watching U16s, who were cleverly trying to foul while shielded from the ref’s view. Come on, guys. Don’t insult my intelligence.

At least this game is relatively easy. The technically skilled but tactically naive team invariably has one defender lolly-gagging his way up the field, so I can gently walk along the line to stay even with him. And the attackers just let fly with long-range shots, so I’m not trying to watch seven people at a time to see if anyone fails to time a run and veers offside. The long-range shots are brutally effective. The big keeper has made a couple of great saves and fumbled a couple of hard shots into the goal.

At least these parents are happy. The dude who asked me about an offside call in the first half seems calmer now. OK, here we go … run. Whoa … MOVE! 

I knew the area — sort of. Twenty years earlier, when I moved to Northern Virginia with my fiancee, we lived not far from this field. It was in the middle of a bunch of big apartment complexes. The nearby high school, recently renamed “Justice High School” in an awkward but necessary rebranding from “Jeb Stuart High School,” is 50% Latino. I was actually hoping to head out after my second and supposedly final game to one of those places — Peruvian, Bolivian, Salvadoran, all good — that extract more flavor from chicken than the Southern deep-fried cuisine with which I’d grown up.

Maybe a lot of the kids had massive extended families. Or maybe a bunch of people from the neighborhood figured a U16 soccer game was their best entertainment option at the moment. Or maybe they wanted the field after us. In any case, there were plenty of people along the fences and on the field. And I mean on the field. While the parents were sitting back on the dirt in their chairs, a few dudes were standing on the narrow strip of turf between the touchline and that dirt. Had they stayed just to the edge, they’d have been OK. But no. They weren’t paying attention, and I came close to running over them multiple times.

I don’t speak much Spanish, but I finally waited for the ball to be at the other end and shouted at them: “GUYS! DEFENSA AQUI? (pointing to roughly the top of the box) ME AQUI! (pointing to where they were).”

They backed up for the last few minutes. The whistle blew. I went to midfield, fist-bumped everyone, handed my flag to the ref and dashed over to the ice cream truck. Water would’ve been the most sensible call, but instead, I had the best Coke I’ve ever had.

Game 2 

Don’t let this coach hear you breathing hard.

As I kept running back and forth in front of one team’s bench, I got self-conscious about my own breath, worried that I might undermine my authority. The last thing you want is to be a few yards behind the play when you have a close offside call and then hear some coach mock you for being out of shape and unable to keep up.

But this coach was chill. It helped that his team scored four goals in the first 10 minutes and eventually won by double digits. They had skills, possibly honed in pickup ball on this very field. And they were tactically astute, with center backs meticulously organizing throughout the game.

This league doesn’t do club-vs.-club scheduling, but they pair up teams where they can. Game 3 and Game 2 featured the same two clubs in different age groups.

Let’s not paint this as far-flung Virginia club vs. inner-suburb Latino club. I’ve seen too many people make that mistake. I remember one of those know-it-all youth coaches touting himself as the champion of underserved kids, but if you gain a reputation as a good coach, you’ll attract plenty of overserved kids, too. He posted footage of a game in Annandale, to which another know-it-all coach chortled about the team showing up blasting hip-hop and sticking it to those lily-white suburban kids. Annandale High School is 16.12% white, and half the street signs are in Korean. If I had any tie to Annandale, I would’ve showed up at the next game against that coach blasting Gangnam Style.

What I’m saying here is that it’s Northern Virginia. It’s diverse. The “Latino” club had some African coaches and a few white kids. The far-flung Virginia club was reasonably mixed as well. Our three-man ref crew was Northern Virginia in a nutshell — me, a clearly experienced Latino center ref and a Korean gentleman who joined us for Games 2 and 3.

And the games couldn’t have played out much differently. Game 3 was a rout for the visiting club, as the hosts simply weren’t up to speed. In Game 2, the home team ran circles around the hapless visitors, who used to play in one of those “elite” leagues.

Game 1 

Do they know I’ve never been a center ref? Does it show?

I knew this might happen. I’d asked the assignor earlier in the day. “Hey, we don’t have a full crew here. If no one else signs up, am I supposed to hand the flags to some volunteers and work as the center ref?”

I was assured first that they were working on it, then that they had found someone. But I had a feeling that the new guy was probably coming from elsewhere. And parking wasn’t plentiful at this place.

People were already looking at me. “Hey, ref, do you need us to check in now?”

OK. Calm down. Speak with authority.

A team manager pleasantly but firmly thrust a game card at me. Fortunately, it had some of the info I’d been seeking on my phone from the league site, telling me what I needed to do to check the rosters. They don’t teach us this stuff in ref training, but it went just fine.

12:27 p.m. No sign of another ref. Let’s get this moving.

I’d been meaning to get a new whistle before I debut as a center ref in a couple of weeks. The only one I have is the engraved whistle my team gave me many seasons ago. I don’t use it in practice. Not even sure how it sounds.


OK, that worked.


The coin toss went smoothly. We’re trained to catch the coin in mid-air rather than have it drop and sit at a weird angle on the ground, and I managed to catch it cleanly.

Teams got in formation. And …

Hey, someone just walked up with a big bag. Is that …?

Yep. The ref had arrived.

We drafted a parent to run the other line. We were all set.

This was the inner-suburb club again, but the visiting team wasn’t the same club as in Games 2 and 3. It was a massive exurban club, and they quickly took a 3-0 lead.

But the hosts chipped away. 3-1. 3-2. Finally, in the second half, 3-3. And 4-3. At least one of those goals was a close offside call that clearly rattled the parent volunteer, who was doing pretty well as far as I could tell from the other side.

The crowd was into it. The players and parents for the next game were there already. A few parents were fussing with the center ref. “Ref!” from the visitors. “Arbitro!” from the hosts.

Exurban Club piled on the pressure. They were clearly trying to get it to one talismanic goal scorer, a small-ish and skilled African-American kid with a big smile who kept drifting offside.

Crap. This kid’s going to score the tying goal, and I’m going to have to put up the flag right in front of his coaches. 

He did score the tying goal. But not like that.

They got a corner kick. With a couple of big guys, they seemed to have a good chance. But they couldn’t direct it on goal.

Then this kid rose up, parallel to the ground, as if on puppeteer’s strings.

No &*@$ing way. This is U13 soccer. This league is one level above rec soccer in the alleged pecking order of local leagues. The pathway from here to the DA is like all the flooded, washed-out roads in North Carolina. This kid couldn’t POSSIBLY unleash an actual bicycle kick.

He unleashed an actual bicycle kick. It sailed over the keeper into the upper corner.

What just happened? Am I … supposed to do anything? That was legal, right? Did I just see a bicycle kick in a youth soccer game — at a theoretically low level?  

Yes, I did.

And the place exploded. Add up all the different factions there, and it was easily 150 people. Plenty of senior-level clubs would envy the crowd here.

A couple of minutes later, riding that momentum, the visitors got a tap-in for the 5-4 win.


I couldn’t resist swinging over to Columbia Pike to see where I used to live. They’ve expanded the townhome developments, and they’re selling new ones for $600,000. You can’t walk anywhere. You get maybe one bus an hour.

I think the other neighborhood is better. You can walk places, and you just might see a spectacular soccer game. And a dehydrated, sunburned, exhausted and happy assistant ref.



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