I have been coaching recreational soccer for the last eight years. I add the disclaimer “recreational” so that no one confuses me for someone who knows what they are doing.
But based on my record, one might assume I did. In my sixteen seasons as a coach, my team has won nine championships… and I have the plastic trophies proudly displayed to prove it. (Before you ask why a 45 year old man is displaying dime-store trophies from youth soccer, I should probably acknowledge that these are the first and only “athletic” awards I have ever received… unless you count a 74th place ribbon from a high school cross country meet that my wife has tried, unsuccessfully, to throw away on multiple occasions.)
Lest you start to believe that my natural gifting as a coach contributed in any way to this accumulation of hardware, I should point out that I had a distinct advantage over my opponents in each of those seasons… I was either Adam or Will’s dad. (Phil Jackson may not seem like as much of a “genius” if you take away the six championship rings he won with Michael Jordan on the team.)
But this season was going to be different. I didn’t have any of my four sons on my team… I had Ellie, my youngest daughter.
That’s right. After years of coaching the Black Death, the Grey Ninjas, and the Blue Sharks; this season I was coaching the “Pink Predators.” For the first time, I was coaching a girls team.
took this beautiful photo, and purchased this pink hat.
I love Ellie like crazy. She is one of the greatest blessings I have ever received from God. She is smart and kind and funny and truly beautiful. She has so many natural talents… but no one would assume that soccer is one of them.
For context, let’s talk about player size. Ellie was born with HIV (which sounds far scarier that it is in real life… see Six Pills a Day: A Cure for My Ignorance Regarding HIV), but a pesky result of that virus is that she is not able to produce enough Human Grown Hormone. She’s tiny. Every night, my brave girl gives herself a shot of HGH in an attempt to someday catch up to the first or second height percentile. In fact, Ellie’s older sisters had to rig a complicated cinch-up system with ponytail holders to make her pink #3 soccer jersey not drag below her knees.
I told myself that I wouldn’t coach Ellie any differently than I had coached our boys… but as I built my spreadsheets before each game (and those who know me will not be surprised to learn that the Pink Predators have their own file in Excel), I made some different choices about where to play Ellie. Where Adam or Will might have been in the middle of the field, Ellie tended to be on the outside. Where the boys were more likely to be at Striker, she was more likely to be a Defender. And where the boys would each play at least one quarter a game as Goalkeeper, I never put Ellie’s name in that slot.
Which brings us to halftime of our fifth game of the season. I looked down and was happy to see that the spreadsheet had “Katie” (not her real name) scheduled to play in goal. Katie is the right profile for a goalie… she’s tall and athletic and aggressive. But there was a problem: Katie did not want to play in the goal… and she made this very clear.
In an attempt to leverage my brilliant skills as a child psychologist, I asked if she would rather play in goal or sit on the bench that quarter. To my shock, she huffed, “bench.”
After working through the initial stages of grief, I said, “OK. Who would like to play in the goal this quarter?”
Twelve girls staring intently at their cleats so as not to accidentally make eye contact with me… with one exception, the beauty in jersey #3.
In the middle of this sea of girls trying not to get picked was my tiny daughter with her hand straight in the air and a big smile on her sweaty face.
I would like to say that I jumped at the opportunity, but I didn’t. I pretended not to see her hand and asked again, “Anyone interested in being goalie?”
No movement from the masses except for some extra emphasis as Ellie held her hand as high as she possibly could (which, as I have already established, was still not very high.)
I had never considered putting Ellie in the goal. Frankly, I was scared for her to go in against much larger players… but she was not.
At that moment, I was reminded of how amazing this little girl is. Regardless of whether or not she was built to play goal, she was willing… and that is more than I could say for the other Predators.
So, with one eye squinted into a face of questionable resolve, I said, “OK, Ellie. You’re in goal.”
She squealed with excitement and enthusiastically put on the jersey and gloves.
As she ran out onto the field, I took a deep breath and prayed… praying that she wouldn’t even see a ball come her way over the next 12 minutes. Praying that her brave trip onto the field would not turn into a trip to the ER.
My gut clenched up a little more when I saw who the other team had at Striker… we’ll call her “Megan” (because “Goliath”, though accurate, doesn’t feel kind.)
Despite qualifying (allegedly) for an Under 10 team, Megan towers over the other kids in the league, and she routinely humiliates even the best defensive strategies.
Megan is a legend.
Within the first minute of the quarter, my worst fears were realized: Megan was running free on a breakaway. My eyes got huge as she blew past my defenders – straight toward our goal and my daughter.
Just beyond Megan, Ellie was in ready position with a shockingly bold look of resolve.
Seconds later, Megan took her shot and exploded a size 4 ball at 600 miles per hour towards my 40 pound little girl.
I closed my eyes and prayed again. I did not open them until I heard the cheers from the parents’ side of the field, assuming that Megan had scored a big one. (I assumed that they would not have cheered if my daughter had been killed.)
But what did I see? Elizabeth Grace Jutt holding the ball, having stopped the shot of the largest, strongest, most talented soccer player in the world.
Holding the ball… and smiling right at me. I could be wrong, but I think she may even have winked.
As amazed as I was by my goalie, I was almost as amazed that the 12-year-old referees didn’t card me for unsportsmanlike behavior when I howled with joy and leapt ten feet in the air. I never celebrated any of those nine championships as much as I did that one stopped goal.
She then punted the ball surprisingly well down the field… and then did a cartwheel back to her spot in goal. (Did I mention that girls’ soccer is different?)
Ellie continued as keeper for the entire second half and did not allow a goal, securing a big win for the girls in pink.
As I reflect back on that day, I am struck by Ellie’s courage to go into that goal… and convicted by my fear that almost didn’t let her.
I have started to realize that I spend much of my life like the other eleven girls in that halftime huddle: knowing that I am being asked to respond and choosing to keep my eyes firmly on the ground, afraid of what might happen if I answer His call.
I suspect most of us have experienced that moment when we hear God’s voice and choose not to respond. I spent years avoiding eye contact when Jesus first invited me into a relationship with Him, I have let countless opportunities pass to pray for a friend or coworker in need, and I can’t say that I ever raised my hand very quickly any of the five times He whispered a call to adoption in our hearts.
If I had not married so incredibly well, I shudder to think of what my fear might have cost me.
But because God (and Anne, in many cases) never gave up on me, I do have a few examples when I said “yes”… and they represent most of the things that matter at all in my life.
On those rare occasions when I finally raised my hand, including five years ago when I said yes to adopting Ellie, I felt His joy. His pleasure. His great love for me.
In those moments, I recognized that it is far better to be in the game playing the position He asked me to play than sitting “safely” on the bench… regardless of the outcome.
Because whether Ellie knows it or not, my overwhelming pride in her was not contingent on whether she stopped that goal. My pride was complete as soon as her hand went into the air.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9