When Steve Urkel Played Soccer by Davon Loeb
In “When Steve Urkel Played Soccer,” Davon Loeb captures the excitement and rhythm of middle-school soccer tryouts, the new sports gear, the players internalizing shouted instructions (“trap with our chest, punt, trap with our thigh, punt, inside foot, then put it all together, head, chest, thigh, inside foot, pass, a rhythm”), their nervousness (“the knotted wings of some butterflies that were wrestling in our bellies”), and how the coaches have singled him out for success because he is Black. His failure is all the more shameful for being unexpected—getting hit by the ball, searching for his glasses, “fingers in the grass, a mix of dew, sweat, and panic.” Another blunder is followed by relative success and then more blunders. Making the team is a “big deal”: “In our small South Jersey suburban town, everyone played soccer, and not making the team was like being picked last in gym class or sitting alone in the lunchroom. This was my chance to be in…” We can feel the anxiety of outsiderhood, the pain of being publicly shamed, and how that is compounded by being Black in a “small town with almost no people of color,” where the white kids stereotype the kid with glasses as Steve Urkel. Loeb captures an indelible experience in all its sensory specificity and emotion (see his author’s note on the cinematic focus of attention involved in recreating memories and on finding memories that matter). —CRAFT
They thought I’d be the best kid on the team, made plans before the season started, me at striker or wing—using my speed to split defenders, Inside Scissors to a Step-Over, moving that ball from heel to toe like a dance, like the move was made for me—Might not need much coaching, just a couple drills—practice doesn’t always make perfect, especially when you look like me—and if they’d looked like me maybe they could have played in college. But this was middle school, the tryouts for the club team, and my parents had just bought me Adidas cleats and pull-up shin guards. I was ready to compete. I shouldered for space from the other boys, touched my toes to stretch my calves, doubled-laced my cleats around the midsole, and waited in the bulwark of boys for the whistle to blow. When it did, it pierced us like a flock of foraging birds. We released, leaving a stampede of three-piece studs, Gatorades, and the knotted wings of some butterflies that were wrestling in our bellies. The goalkeeper cleared the ball and it rose higher than the sun rises, filled the washed-out morning blue of the September sky that was still a little humid and heavy and wet. Tryouts began.
We started with traps. The goalkeeper sent another punt. We chased as the coaches yelled out different body parts—trap with our chest, punt, trap with our thigh, punt, inside foot, then put it all together, head, chest, thigh, inside foot, pass, a rhythm. It was a fight for the ball, only a couple kids each punt, hipping the less aggressive. It was like those kids were drawn to the ball—this magnetism to their bodies, hitting each marker without even looking. And in the distance, the coaches chatted behind clipboards, calling names and checking paper. The numbers began to dwindle, and the coaches waited for each of us to have a chance, sidelining those who had a touch. So, when the ball was finally kicked my way and there weren’t any kids for me to hide behind, I jumped, stretched my body, led with my head. Like a stone, that ball nearly toppled me over and sent my glasses tumbling to the field. Quickly, I searched, fingers in the grass, a mix of dew, sweat, and panic.
The coaches announced our second drill. Disc cones were placed at midfield, where one coach stood, and the other coach was stationed at the goal box. With the whistle in his mouth, the midfield coach called four kids to the goal box for the first wave of sprints, including me. I was shocked to be back on the field immediately after blundering my last attempt. But there I was feeling like the runt in the pack. We stood four feet apart, and were to sprint to the cones, run back to the starting line, and then to the opposing goal box. The same coach, still teething that whistle, asked if I could run without my glasses. High-pitched and my voice a bit broken, I responded—no, coach. We positioned, staggering our feet, tightening our laces—and some kid in the bunch that was waiting for the next wave said—run four-eyes, and a few of those kids shaped circles out of their fingers and stamped them to their faces. The whistle sounded, and we dug deep spots out the dirt and pumped our prepubescent legs as hard as we could.
After sprints, we arranged in groups of three. In these groups, we practiced inside foot, outside foot, and any other passing combination. Meeting in the middle and stepping five strides backwards, we formed a circle and rotated the ball. This wasn’t too difficult, just stuck with my right foot, smooth passes. A bit of relief settled my nerves, and I stayed on target, hitting my partner’s marker. For a moment, I was actually having fun—talking between shuffling the ball, things about school, the teachers we liked, the ones we hated. And I thought I might make the team; this was a big deal. In our small South Jersey suburban town, everyone played soccer, and not making the team was like being picked last in gym class or sitting alone in the lunchroom. This was my chance to be in, to be a part of something, like this passing-group—me, a kid with about the same skill level, and then the other kid who was much better than us both. This kid was a stud, wheeled the ball from foot to foot with grace, as if his feet were his hands—confident, accurate, ambidextrous. This wasn’t his tryout; he was grouped with us on purpose—as if to spread the talent, to make it look like a tryout. But we slowed him down and could sense his impatience, hear him sighing whenever our touch strayed slightly from his position. He huffed and puffed, and his anger took his breath.
In the same groups, our coaches announced another drill before we could take a break. To mimic real action, we had to juggle and pass the ball as a group without hitting the ground for forty-five seconds, using our heads, chests, knees, and feet. Once each juggling-group finished, we’d break on the sideline. We were to practice the drill for a couple minutes, and then when ready, call one of the coaches over to time and evaluate us. The stud juggled by himself—popping the ball on his foot, holding it between midsole and ankle, and then up to his knee, other knee, head—as if a playing a game of keep-away. A coach nearby demanded a team effort, said we would not leave the field until all three of us worked together. So, trying to anticipate the stud’s next movements, I sort of just stared openmouthed. When it skirted my way, I made awkward attempts at the ball by lunging too late or flicking the wrong foot. The coaches crossed things out on their notepads.
The rest of the field emptied. We reset every time the ball hit the ground, which was often—either when sent to me or the other kid who was just as bad. I heard the swish of a coach’s wind pants before I saw him walking over. His shadow hovered over me, cross-armed, imposing. Start the juggle, he said. The rest of the kids, who were off the field, watched me like watching a car accident. I started, using my toe to prop the ball, and then focused on the center of my cleat to keep the tempo—tap; it floated—tap, and then again. A little harder, and it popped above the waist. I jolted my knee prematurely, and the ball ricocheted, completely missing anyone in my group. With a quick frustrated sigh, I said—did I do that, and jogged for the ball. When I returned, the stud in my group chuckled to himself and repeated what I said—but it sounded differently, high-pitched, nasal, obnoxious—did I do that. He snickered and said it again—did I do that. He elongated that for what felt like an entire minute.
We never completed all forty-five seconds and were finally directed to the sideline. I sat slumped on the low-rise bleacher, full of disappointment and dejection, my body rounded over, taking on its sadness. And in between the chatter, who was probable to make the team and who wasn’t, a chant started, low at first, only a couple kids, and then loud enough for me to hear it—did I do that, with the same obnoxious emphasis on that, pulling the t comically. They teased more, ridiculed in unison—did I do that—did I do that—a record on repeat. Gap-toothed smiles, glints of braces, red-stained Gatorade tongues, these boys were bellyful in hysterics.
I squinted the last drops of sweat and hid my face in my shirt, pretending to dry it off. Some kid, his voice reaching higher than all of them, said I looked just like Steve Urkel—he has the same glasses…annoying voice…he’s Black too. Did I do that—the kids agreed with the mockery. And the hurt I felt—punched my gut, that caved me in, that kneeled me over. And in that grass and dirt stained shirt, sometime after the final whistle blew, and mini-vans started to arrive, and the grass was dried, and our bodies cooled, and those kids carried on—did I do that—like I was some kind of dirty joke—and in my shirt covering my face, I broke in half, and I cried, and I couldn’t stop.
What I couldn’t understand then was that when my coaches saw me, the body of a brown boy, they saw athleticism; they saw action—something that does—that jumps higher, that runs faster, that would give them an advantage; we’ll get the win this season. As a kid, I didn’t recognize the narrative associated with my color; I only recognized the need to fit in, to be a part of that team. While I was disappointed in my performance, my coaches were disappointed I was not the naturally gifted ethnic athlete they hoped for—I was a clumsy, overanxious, and rail-thin kid whose legs tangled and who couldn’t keep up with the soccer ball—as un-Black as those white kids. And to them, the kids parked on the sidelines, still holding their bellies in laughter, to them, I became nothing more than a caricature, just a parody of a person from TV. They were kids from a small town with almost no people of color, a town where it really didn’t matter if you thought or believed or even said that all Black people look alike.
How I wished to become the all-star Black athlete the coaches wanted, to hear those parents cheer while I drove that ball down midfield. I imagined how I’d breach the defense when dribbling from foot to foot in high speed as if on fast-forward, how I’d wind my muscular leg and rocket that ball like my toe was a hot ignition, how everyone would scream—GOAL, and the crowd would roar and the bleachers would shake, how I’d rip off my jersey and slide across the field, grass and dirt spritzing, and then they’d say—he moves just like Ronaldinho.
I didn’t move like Ronaldinho, and I never would. I preferred reading books and drawing comics to running and kicking balls. I liked my cartoons on Saturdays and not watching sports. I didn’t mind wearing glasses because it helped me look smarter. I knew I wasn’t white but rarely thought of it. And yet, what I did want, on this soccer field, on this beautiful day, at this tryout, was to fit in, but instead I did the complete opposite and was reminded just how different I was. That maybe I did look like Steve Urkel—that maybe we were alike, and when those kids saw me, they imagined him, they saw me running in high-rise jeans, suspenders, giant red-framed glasses, saddle brown shoes, and a cardigan—stumbling down the field. They imagined my lanky legs in some cartoonish tangle, like a human pretzel. They imagined me defending two players while they lobbed the ball over my head, and, like a monkey, I’d sprawl, whoop, and jump. They imagined line-driving the ball smack into my face, just to see me fumble for my glasses. And maybe in their imagination or in real time, I said—did I do that again, and how that laugh track would signal and how those kids would roar and finger-point at the brown kid who did not make the club soccer team.
DAVON LOEB is the author of the lyrical memoir The In-Betweens (Everytime Press, 2018). He earned an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Camden. Davon’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and is featured in Ploughshares Blog, CRAFT, PANK Magazine, University of Nebraska Press, Pithead Chapel, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Besides being a writer, Davon is a high school English teacher, husband, and father living in New Jersey. Currently, he is writing a YA novel. His work can be found at davonloeb.com and on Twitter @LoebDavon.