On a recent Saturday, I watched my teenage son’s under-19 soccer team prepare to play for the final time. After all the woulda-coulda-shouldas of getting blanked in last year’s title match, they had now made it back to the championship game.
Here came the Ballard Huskies in red jerseys, white numerals, and black-and-blue thighs. Applause splattered from a handful of soaked umbrellas, disguised as nervous parents. The only dry thing in sight was the first-place trophy sitting under the entrance tent. It was hoisted in victory a few hours later by two players who demonstrated one of the classiest acts of generosity I’ve ever seen in sport.
What I know about soccer could fill a paper cup. I know what offsides looks like, if you point it out to me in a slow-motion replay. I know Pelé played for Brazil. I know if I brought my full 90 to a Sounders game, I’d hit 65 or 70. Maybe.
What I do know is that the two teams on Saturday at Ingraham High School were worlds apart. Literally.
With the exception of one Asian-American player, the Huskies were as white at Ballard. The Badgers hailed from Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood, by way of their native Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Our Huskies were raised on FieldTurf. Their opponents grew up kicking anything that resembled a ball in backyards of rocks and dirt.
The opening whistle sounded. I slugged down some hot coffee and hunkered down to watch. Size and speed seemed to side with the Badgers. Yet our Huskies held their own.
Both teams managed a few modest shots on goal. Then, in the 20th minute, our strikers converged on the opposing keeper. Confusion. Chaos. Gooaaallll!
Arms went up, and heads hung low. Even a 1-0 lead felt huge. As the first half ended, I thought it would be enough. I thought of that trophy. I watched our guys taking water and catching their breath on the sideline. If we could just hold on.
Then I noticed the Badgers. There was something about them — a buzz, a glad confidence. They grouped around each other like a family of brothers, bouncing up and down as if any one of them might score and extend the game they’ve been playing their whole lives.
Moments into the second half the Badgers brought it, brought new energy and slick footwork to bear on our defense and slid one in.
We were tied. For the first time I felt defiant. The match had now become personal. I didn’t want our guys, I didn’t want my boy, to lose.
The play grew rougher. A yellow card came out. The guilty Badger beckoned the ref with raised eyebrows and pleading arms.
Then the Badgers scored again. It was now 2-1, the other guys. I tried convincing myself it was only a game.
Fate sent a pass out beyond the opponent’s end line. A corner kick then sailed into red and white bodies swarming in front of the Badgers’ goalmouth — and in to back of the net!
Ignoring the puddles, I hopped around in circles like a poor man’s Gene Kelly, pumping my umbrella in the air, prancing in the rain.
When play resumed, a blur of white jerseys rushed back to defend. The Huskies brought the house. Shots wide, shots rebuked. The flurry ended. My coffee had gone cold.
Does anyone happen to know why victory waits around until the final minute? Does victory even keep score?
The field tilted, and the ball found a Badger on the run, left unattended, rocketing toward our goal. The only thing that stopped him was a foul in the box.
Badgers 3, Huskies 2.
We gathered at the center of the field for the awards ceremony. Before they brought out the trophy, two of our captains called each player by name to receive his second-place medal.
Then it was the Badgers’ turn. As the last medal was awarded and final cheers went up, I saw the unexpected happen: Two of the Badgers took off their first-place medals and, without calling any attention to themselves, draped them around the necks of Chuck and David, the two Huskies players they most respected. In that moment, it felt like all of us had won.
Mohamed Mohamed, the Badgers coach, said later, “Exchanging jerseys is part of Somali culture, but giving your medal to your opponent isn’t that common. For Ibrahim and Frahan, their medals were what they had to give. They gave what they could out of respect.”
Said Huskies coach Todd Shelton, “These two players showed me that when we play it properly, the game teaches us respect and admiration for each other’s play. With that simple, generous act, the Badgers schooled us in the best possible way.”
In the final minute of the final game day for this group of Ballard Huskies, Ibrahim and Frahan saved their best for last by giving us all the gift of true sportsmanship.
Mark Cutshall writes for a living and lives in Shoreline. By filling in one time for a Ballard Youth Soccer coach who had to leave at halftime, he compiled a career coaching record of 0-0-1.
Featured in The Seattle Times, January 5, 2015. Reprinted with permission.