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“Michaels, what the heck are you doing here?”
The mere sound of Ron Arlow’s voice made Jeff Michaels cringe.
He had just pulled on a blue-and-gold gym shirt with MERION MUSTANGS emblazoned across the chest, and there was Arlow taunting him before he could even get out of the locker room. He took a deep breath and turned in the direction of Arlow’s voice.
“The same thing as you, Arlow,” he said, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. “Trying out for the team.”
Arlow smirked. He was at least five inches taller than Jeff, probably five foot six to Jeff’s five foot one. Only a month ago, Jeff’s parents had made a big deal out of Jeff going past five feet on his eleventh birthday.
Arlow was the jock king of the sixth grade at Merion Middle School. When teams got chosen in the schoolyard, he was invariably one of the captains. He wasn’t the tallest kid in the class—actually Clara Daniels was—but he was clearly the most athletic.
Jeff had known Arlow since the third grade, when Arlow had enrolled at the town’s elementary school. Back then, Arlow wasn’t that much bigger than Jeff, but the first time they’d played touch football during recess, Jeff had lined up on defense against Arlow and then watched helplessly as the new kid raced past him to catch an easy touchdown pass as if Jeff were standing still.
It was the same in basketball: Arlow was the first kid in the class who could make a three-point shot. And in baseball, he was the best hitter Jeff had ever seen and made playing shortstop look easy.
Jeff wasn’t bad at sports. He wasn’t as strong or athletically gifted as Arlow, but he knew how to play. He wasn’t the fastest player on any field or court, but he often anticipated where the ball was going and got there before the ball did. He never forced a shot in basketball—even though by the time he turned eleven he was a pretty good shooter—and knew how to find an open man.
Jeff had never formally joined a soccer team before, but he loved when his dad took him to see the Philadelphia Union, the city’s Major League Soccer team, and he’d played enough pickup games at school and in the park near his house that he understood it and thought he had a chance to be pretty good at it—if only because of his ability to see things before they happened.
For as long as Jeff could remember, sports had played an important role in his life. His dad worked at NBC Sports–Philadelphia as a reporter, and Jeff often went with him to games and had met some of the area’s most famous athletes, including Carson Wentz, the Eagles quarterback; Joel Embiid, the 76ers star center; and Jim Curtin, who had coached the Union.
He’d even met Rocky Balboa himself, when Sylvester Stallone came back to town for a dinner celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the most famous movie ever made in Philly.
The Hollywood star had been very nice when Jeff’s dad introduced him, but all Jeff could remember about him was that he was not nearly as big a guy as he expected.
The sixth-grade soccer team was brand-new at Merion Middle—as well as at other schools in the region. Previously, sixth graders had been allowed to try out for the so-called varsity team—made up mostly of seventh and eighth graders—in each sport. Only on very rare occasions did a sixth grader make a varsity squad. Apparently enough parents had complained about their kids not having an opportunity to compete for an entire school year that Merion had created a sixth-grade boys’ soccer team and a sixth-grade girls’ field hockey team. There would also be sixth-grade boys’ and girls’ basketball in the winter and softball for boys and girls in the spring.
Jeff was thrilled when he first heard there would be sixth-grade teams.
This was day one of tryouts for the soccer team. Fifteen kids would make the team. Realistically, Jeff figured his chances of making the cut were about fifty-fifty. There would be a basketball team in the winter. Jeff knew that would be his best chance to shine. His smarts and understanding of hoops would help him there. Soccer was more about speed and instincts. Jeff had average speed at best and wasn’t yet certain if his instincts for the game were any good, since he’d never played it formally—and certainly never eleven-on-eleven on a real field. Four-on-four pickup was a long way from what he was hoping to do this fall.
Still, he had enjoyed playing pickup soccer even though he’d never actually joined a youth team. He had always played flag football in the fall and baseball, starting with T-ball, in the spring, so compared to some of the other kids who had played in youth leagues in the past, he was inexperienced.
Yet another reason why he was somewhat skeptical about his chances of making the team.
About the only thing he knew for certain was that Arlow would be one of the stars on the team. But he wasn’t about to back down from his bullying.
As Jeff tried to walk past him to head from the locker room to the field, Arlow stepped in front of him.
“If you make the team,” he said, “it’ll only be because your old man’s on TV.”
Before Jeff could answer, another voice came from behind him.
“Shut up, Arlow,” Danny Diskin said. “Give the bully act a rest. We’ll all get judged by Mr. Johnston on how we play—nothing else.”
Danny was about the same size as Arlow. He wasn’t as good an athlete, but if a fight broke out, Jeff would probably bet on Diskin. Apparently, Arlow agreed. He waved a hand in disgust at Diskin and, rather than just move out of Jeff’s way, turned and started jogging in the direction of the door.
“Thanks, Danny,” Jeff said.
“I’d almost rather lose than play on the same team with him,” Danny said. “Come on, let’s go.”
They joined the rest of the boys making the walk from the locker room to the field where the sixth-grade tryouts would be held.
Merion was a big middle school with about a thousand students in three grades. Its athletic facilities were sprawling: a main field with artificial turf, lights for night games, a running track, and grandstand seating for—Jeff guessed—a couple thousand people. Surrounding it were a patchwork of practice fields crawling with kids. The boys’ and girls’ varsity soccer teams, which had been practicing for two weeks, were already at work with their coaches.
Closer to the main redbrick school building was a worn-out field—more dirt than grass—that was mainly used for gym classes when the weather was warm enough. Now, it would be used by the sixth-grade soccer team.
As they walked to their field Jeff kept looking around, trying to count how many players were there and figure out where he might fit in terms of ability. He guessed there were about twenty-five guys.
“It’ll be close,” he said under his breath as they made their way to midfield, where two men waited.
Both were sixth-grade teachers. Hal Johnston, the head coach, taught geology in real life. Jason Crist, his assistant, taught American history. Jeff was in Mr. Crist’s class and liked him a lot, even though the school year was only a couple of weeks old. He knew nothing about Mr. Johnston other than the fact that his friend Frank Rikleen—who was in his geology class—said he was very strict. Mr. Crist was strict enough, but he also had a sense of humor.
There was one other person waiting at midfield for them: Andi Carillo. She was in his history class and in his English class and was someone he rarely talked to—if only because he found her intimidating. She was a little taller than he was and had long dark hair that was now tied back in a tight ponytail. She was dressed like all the boys, in a Merion gym shirt and shorts. But unlike a lot of the guys, including Jeff, she also wore shin guards and cleats.
Mr. Johnston stood, arms folded, while everyone formed a circle around him and Mr. Crist.
“Okay, guys,” he said. “A few quick things before we get started. You all know Mr. Crist, I’m sure. Out here we are Coach Johnston and Coach Crist. Or, if it’s easier, Coach J and Coach C.
“We’ll have three days of tryouts. Jason, how many signed up again?”
“Twenty-six,” Jeff heard Mr. Crist—whoops, Coach C—basically confirm his earlier guess.
“Okay,” Coach J said, nodding. “Fifteen will make the team, because that’s how many uniforms we have and that’s how many players we’re allowed to have in uniform for each game. We’ll play ten games against other middle schools from the north-central Philly area. The team that finishes first will get to play in the league championship game against a team from the south-central Philly area. So let’s plan on eleven games, right?”
Text copyright © 2019 John Feinstein