I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.
I’ll always remember the ball,
bouncing up and down on his foot
in the park behind our house.
Those days he danced to the beat of Copa Mundiales.
My brother and I squealed,
“Kick it up in the air, Dad!”
He’d bounce it two or three more times, then kick it high above his head,
maybe forty feet in the air.
With our eyes glued to the ball, we chased until it landed in front of our feet.
We grabbed it with our hands like American boys,
then brought it back to watch him do it again.
In school, I told everyone my dad would’ve played with Maradona
if he didn’t quit Newell’s Old Boys.
Eran otros tiempos, he told me when I asked why.
Small town boys near the campo wanted to go fishing after school,
not take two buses to Rosario.
They played because it was fun to bounce the ball.
I wanted to be like him.
The immigrant plumber who worked 14-hour shifts
in dusty Newark basements
for Portuguese men who didn’t know he looked like Maradona once.
Like Maradona in the old videos I watch on YouTube.
Smiling wide with the ball bouncing, bouncing.
For years he trained me between work shifts at 16th street,
playing with middle-aged Arabs and Mexicans.
Hours we spent in that park, where he bounced the ball,
and he’d say, “I want it right here, hit it here,” and we’d stay there
until I did it right.
I wanted to bounce the ball like he did,
con amor like a lover, not like the English do.
“You must treat the ball with respect,” he told me.
I didn’t know what it meant then.
I’ve heard it said: Argentineans are born with the ball at their feet.
I don’t know if that’s true.
But I know my earliest memories were of him with the ball at his feet.
And the picture that still sits 26 years later
on a shelf he built in my old bedroom,
is evidence that maybe my story was different:
Maybe I was born with the ball in my hands.
Maybe I brought it to him, pleading:
“Dad, dad—do it again. Kick it high for me.”
I’m not sure why I got the urge to write about my dad this week. I probably saw someone post a photo online of them with their parents and it made me think of this picture. He’s on my mind a lot these days as I coach a soccer team for the first time. The way I act on the sidelines, and the things I tell my girls, remind me of him when he was at my travel team practices as a kid.
For years, I thought my dad was probably the best soccer player in the world who wasn’t famous. In high school and college, when I played with the old immigrants guys at 16th street park they’d always tell me to invite my dad. He’d never come, though. He’s an old, rickety plumber with tendonitis who smokes way too much for his own good.
When I was younger, he’d throw himself into some of my practices and marvel the kids with his moves. There was a jerk on one of my teams who was the best player on the team—the coach’s son—and he’d often try to embarrass the younger players like me. My dad, noticing this, asked the coach if he could run his own drill: a 2v2 mini-tournament. He volunteered to play with me, and suggested coach and son play together. My dad made the poor fella look so foolish that he ripped off his jersey and complained how it wasn’t fair. I’ll never forget my dad telling him in broken English: “The way I just made you feel is the way you make these boys feel every practice. If you don’t like it, stop doing it to them or I’ll keep doing it to you.”
That’s the kind of man my dad is. He’s a hard-nosed guy, but he tries to be fair—to an excruciating extent, oftentimes, for me. He never gave me an inch as a soccer player or as a son. He worked ridiculous hours for not enough money. If I made a mistake or was lazy, it was disrespecting him and the time he dedicated to me. It’s no surprise, then, that I’m such a perfectionist now.
My dad and I have rarely seen eye-to-eye on anything throughout the years. But, I know I wouldn’t be the man I am without him in my life; without those times he’d wake me up at 6 a.m. to go and work plumbing jobs with him when I was 14, and really I just wanted to go out and play with my friends on Saturday. After work, we’d go to a Portuguese restaurant in Newark sometimes and have the best meals while watching soccer games. It was his way of telling me: “I know you hate this, but I need you. I’m trying my best to teach you something. You’ll appreciate this one day.”
I have many more stories about my dad, and lessons I’ve learned from him. But, it’s not even Father’s Day, and I’m rambling. I feel very fortunate to still have this picture of him, though. It’s almost crazy to think it’s been in the same spot for more than two decades. I’ll never forget it, or the hundreds of days we spent together at parks kicking around a soccer ball together.