The Beautiful Game
I was born Juan Jose Guzman and on my fourteenth birthday, I became Brian Jorge Osario. In our Latino community, paperwork was passed around and shared for all sorts of reasons. Brian was my twelve-year old cousin. I wanted to play travel soccer, move on to an academy program, and eventually go professional. I needed a U.S. birth certificate to play.
By all accounts, I was as American as the next kid. I said my Pledge of Allegiance every morning, wore my DC skater shoes, hung my pants low on my hips with an inch of my plaid boxers hanging out, and wore my baseball hat not quite cocked to the side. I was proud my English did not have an accent. Virginia was the only home I had ever known.
My mother was pregnant with me when she came from El Salvador on a work visa that ultimately expired, but we didn't leave. She spoke broken English when she arrived, but couldn't read it well and irrationally feared all American institutions that required paperwork, including the hospital. I was born in Aunt Rosa's bathtub. Early in my life, we lived with my Uncle Pepe. While my mother cleaned houses, my Aunt Rosa cared for me. When I was old enough, she was able to enroll me in public school. If there were too many questions about my or my mother's citizenship, we moved to another dumpy apartment or house and I went to a different school. She did not want us on anyone's "radar". My mother had a school zone map of the county where we lived taped to the inside of the coat closet door. Red dots on the map indicated all the schools I had previously attended. By the time I was twelve, the map looked like a Friday night bingo card at Fire Station 14.
Soccer was everything to me. It's who I was. I had the running commentary of the Scottish announcer, Ray Hudson, in my head for every game and practice.
It's the Cinderella story, the meteoric rise of the young boy from the suburbs of Washington DC. Wonderful balance on his run...a lovely ball back, the give and go, he dribbles through the defensive player, who looks like he's been stung and then, and then, goal! A sharp stinging finish into the upper left corner, a polished plate that almost took the goalie's head off...
Unfortunately, no one gets "discovered" in recreational soccer and is given a professional contract. To be seen by important people, I needed to make it to the travel level. I wanted to look like, act like, and be like the heroes of my favorite teams. I gelled my hair like Christiano Ronaldo, practiced free kicks that bent like David Beckham, and tried to imitate the fast and fancy footwork of Lionel Messi. I spent my free time shooting a ball into a chalk-marked brick wall that separated our townhouse community from the next.
We couldn't afford much in the way of soccer training. All of the good coaches trained travel teams. My recreational coaches told me I was talented and when my mother was able to attend a game, they told her too. My mother spoke to me gently and hardly ever raised her voice, but she was wary of coaches and when they spoke, her voice had an edgy tone.
"Excuse me Coach, what exactly are you asking me to do?" she asked, shifting her heels uncomfortably in her flip-flop shoes.
"Let a club coach evaluate him and hear what they have to say. What can it hurt?" Coach Camden said.
"So you are not asking me for more money right now? I don't want to raise his hopes and I cannot pay for more training." She turned to walk away, but Coach Camden continued.
"No, I am not asking for money, I'm asking for permission. The money will probably take care of itself. What if you don't have to pay? There are clubs that give scholarships to talented kids like Juan."
"I cannot get him to the practice field. We took the bus to the game today." Pride seeped into her voice and her chin rose slightly. "We are probably moving soon and will not even be on this team anymore."
My heart ached to hear her say those words "moving soon", because although I was a superior packer, I did not have "social mojo" as my cousin called it. When we left the building, I grilled my mother.
"Tell me you were just saying that to get the coach off your back in there. We just moved. I've only spent half a year at Creek Middle School!"
"Juan, I lost my job...don't worry, I found another, but I need an easy way to get there and our neighborhood doesn't have the right bus route. I'm sorry, but it's necessary. I need my brother's help or I would leave this area. This is where our family is and I need to stay close."
Tears formed like thick glass in my eyes, but I blinked them back.
Our new home was in an industrial area; scrap metal, iron works, and lumberyards surrounded our building. Ironically, in this area of run-down tin warehouses, I thought the air smelled new and promising. I liked progress and new construction materials smelled like improvement. Only three other apartments were in our tiny building. Minus the trains and dump trucks, it was quiet, and for the first time in my life, it was just my mother and I sharing space. We were close to a bus line that my mother could take to the Happy Hands Housework Company. It was also conveniently located close to an indoor soccer arena called "The Pitch". I would be attending eighth grade at a new middle school in the fall. Another red dot, Meadowbrook.
Many times I watched the indoor training of travel teams in the late afternoon at the air-conditioned Pitch. On boring days, I observed fitness training with a team just trying to stay out of the oppressive Virginia heat. On the good days, team training was a scrimmage and I jumped in if someone was missing. I tried to absorb complex tactical plays and commit them to memory. I was fascinated with set-piece plays and the strategies to get the ball to one person's head or foot and into the upper ninety corners of the net.
From the corner kick, the ball soars into orbit...up and into the box. Guzman makes an adjustment and heads it into the net, bouncing it just past the keeper's outstretched hand and foot! The fans are on their feet, they are on their feet with scarves outstretched and waving, in praise of the newly acquired forward...
My mother had a constant fear of adults taking advantage of me and using me for information. She did not want me speaking to any adults at the Pitch. When I was a younger child, she grilled me about information I shared with adults. She didn't want them to know she was an illegal because in her experience, when they found out, the way they treated you changed. Even in the Latino community, you were treated "less than" everyone else, even those who had just received green cards. It was the caste system of the Hispanic community.
When the second summer session ended, I was exiting the building when the manager of the soccer complex stopped me at the door.
"Excuse me son, do you speak English?" I nodded and my mind raced to think of something I might have done wrong to deserve this adult's attention. "I have a coach that wants to talk with you about joining his travel team for the fall outdoor season." He held the door waiting for me to return inside.
"I'm sorry sir, but I need to get home." I shifted uncomfortably to my left leg.
"He's been watching you this summer fill in for other teams and wants to talk about some advanced training and player development." I held my breath, but my heart began to race and I had to let it go when my mouth leaked a quick smile.
"My mother is the only one allowed to talk to coaches off the field, sir." My Mother had taught me that politeness went a long way in the U.S. In the southern United States, "Sir" and "Ma'am" was required of anyone under the age of twenty-one, she believed.
"Can you bring her by then and I will give her the name and number of the coach?" I nodded and turned to go.
Knowing my mother's predictable reaction, my mind raced at the retelling of this encounter with an adult. She did not like interruptions in her routine. Routines were my mother's security. She worked hard to achieve some sense of normalcy for me in all of our movement. No matter where we lived, every apartment was set up essentially the same. Kitchen cupboards, bathroom medicine cabinets, and clothes drawers were arranged in the same order from place to place. In my room, in the second drawer down in the dresser, underwear was always on the left and socks on the right.
My mother had worked in the government in El Salvador before coming to America. She was an assistant to the director in the Department of Agriculture. I never knew who my father was, but I overheard my Aunt Rosa say he was the married DOA Director. I had guessed many years ago that he didn't know I existed.
I always felt sorry for my mother having to clean other people's houses. Going from an office job in the government to cleaning toilets and dirty sheets did not seem a step up any financial ladder, but my mother insisted it was a better life and that for me, America would be a better place. She was willing to sacrifice pride for the opportunities that America had to offer. Work was work, she said.
Although we rarely made any real mess—we didn't own much—I straightened up the living area and did the morning dishes, making sure there would be nothing for Mom to do when she got home. I even poured her a glass of sweet tea and left it sweating on the fold down table in the kitchen. I heard her key in the lock and the rustling of her reusable grocery bag. She was humming a song I did not recognize. This wasn't unusual, but it was a good sign.
I spoke too eagerly. "Mom, how was your day?" and bit my bottom lip.
"The same at the Williams', dirty dishes in the sink from the night before, underwear left on the bathroom floors, and their filthy dog peed on the carpet again. They need to get rid of that dog, maybe I will accidentally leave the side gate by the garage open one day." I looked at her with alarm. A dog was something I had always wanted but could never have. She flicked her hand away as if throwing the thought out.
"What is it Juan? You look like you are about to burst open!" She sat down at the table to the sweet tea, her bag and purse spilling softly to the floor. "Speak before you explode."
"Ok Mom. Before you say no, just listen." I shifted on my chair. "The manager of The Pitch told me that a travel coach wanted to talk to me about possibly training with a team in the fall for the outdoor season. I told him that only you could talk to coaches off the field, so he wants you to call there and get the number. I really want to try Mom, there might be a way we wouldn't have to pay." My mother looked into her tea as if the sediment at the bottom of the glass would give her the words to speak to me. She spun it casually on the blue placemat for what seemed like several minutes although I'm sure it was mere seconds.
"I will talk to him," she said, and got up from her chair. For now, our discussion was over, but the next day, I peppered her incessantly about making the call. That evening, my Uncle Pepe came to dinner and afterwards took me aside.
"Your mother has asked me to talk with you about training with the travel team. We've been talking and there is only one way this is going to work. Come sit." He sat on the sofa and patted the cushion next to him.
"The coach that your mother spoke with is the best coach at FC Fairfax." He lifted his hand to stop my question. "Don't get too excited yet. She's agreed to a few training sessions. That's all. Nothing is permanent until a scholarship comes through. Your grades were good last year, yes? It's August, and if by September no money is there for help, your training ends." He clapped his hands and spread them into a shrug. I moved to the edge of the couch cushion in anticipation.
"When do I start?" I asked.
"Tomorrow afternoon at The Pitch. Travel soccer requires a birth certificate so you'll have to use Brian's. From now on, at soccer, you will go by Brian." I looked perplexed at my Uncle who had moved to stand.
"Just do as you're told. I will be at the first practice to see how things go. Meet me tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. at The Pitch." He handed me a small wrapped package. "Feliz Cumpleaños Juan. Open it." I tore at the package paper. It revealed an orange shoebox with a white Nike swoosh on the outside. My hands started to shake as I opened the lid. Inside were cleats in a violet color. I cupped them in my hands. They were extremely light and looked expensive. "But how?" I stammered as I bounced them up and down.
"Your new coach gave them to you for the outdoor season." Uncle Pepe clapped me on the back, kissed my mother on the cheek as she was washing dishes, and left.
I had never had new cleats before. These were Mercurial Vapors, the cleats worn by Ronaldo. My mother was a magnet for hand me downs and I had always worn someone else's toss outs. The hand-me-downs were fine, but felt foreign. I took off my street shoes and tried them on. After a break-in period, they would fit perfectly. Looking down, I hardly believed they were on my feet. I kept thinking I was going to wake up any minute and fall out of bed trying to run with the ball at my feet. I clicked around the kitchen floor with them, doing phantom kicks, and running in slow motion. I didn't have a full-length mirror in my house, so I went into the bathroom and put my foot on the counter to look in the mirror.
The ball is still loose. Guzman takes control...dancing through the defense, it is absolutely spellbinding...he's magnetized the ball and shoots it into the right side panel...it was stitched to his foot and he embroidered the box!
I did not sleep well that night and it was not because Uncle Pepe had given me his son's name to use. This I gave not a single thought. In my game show, how I got on stage was less important to me than opening the door with the best prize. There was nothing in between my current situation and my dreams now. My heart would not slow down and my head was crawling with too many ideas. I saw myself in magazine ads wearing the brands of my heroes. I saw my teammates raising me high into the air after a World Cup victory. I thought about my signature goal dance, a cocked rifle shot into the air, and how everyone would think it was the coolest thing they had ever seen.
The next day while walking over to The Pitch, I kept repeating "I am Brian" as if it would embed itself into me in the short distance. I met my Uncle Pepe at the door and was introduced to Coach Hahn and he in turn introduced me to the team. I sized them up as they sized me up and I was happy to be one of the taller ones. We started a scrimmage and it was a thrill to work with teammates that had equal skill to mine, even if they were younger than me. I even got a high five from Ben, the team captain, who assisted me in a goal. An easy thread, up through the middle, and a simple tap to the corner of the net. Coach Hahn clapped me on the back at the end of practice and told me I would receive the FC Fairfax scholarship for the year. "Brian, welcome to the team. I look forward to coaching you," he said.
As the weeks went on I did however, have issues with remembering and responding to my new name. I was also noticing some nasty comments on the sidelines. While I was on the field near the sidelines, I started to hear people say things. Things like, "Did he drive himself to practice?" and "is that a full mustache?" I was so involved in the training (and my ability to impress) I didn't realize the obvious age difference between my teammates and me was such a big deal.
Throughout fall training, I was treated like the charity case that I was. The manager, coach, and one other parent rotated duties picking me up for practice, bringing me home, and shuttling me to games. I had little to say to them in the car. I answered questions politely and carefully and often wore headphones plugged into a small MP3 player to look occupied. Coach Hahn mostly talked about professional soccer games and professional players, and I had a wide knowledge base on the subject.
In the rankings, my team was a Division 1 State Finalist. They were placed somewhere between 15-20 in the national rankings. They held that ranking for two years before I was brought on. Many players played multiple positions, but I held only one, forward striker. It was obvious to me that the strength of my kick was what got me a look in the first place. I was also an excellent dribbler and could kick it out beyond my opponent and run on it, putting me one-on-one with the goalie. My job was to receive the ball up the middle or from the wing, and put it in the back of the net. I was good at my job that whole fall season.
Overcast skies moved into Virginia, followed by the constant rain of winter, which occasionally would turn to snow. I concentrated on school and my new friends there. I could be myself, Juan Guzman, and it felt comfortable. No one on my team attended my middle school. Unfortunately, one of my opponents from a rival team did.
We had a pre-season spring tournament coming up and Coach Hahn seemed to be casting a wary eye in my direction. I didn't know what I had done, but I was getting a lot of verbal attention at practice and in the car.
"So, your given name is Brian? That isn't a very Hispanic name." Coach Hahn asked me on a ride to practice.
"Yes sir. My middle name is "Jorge". My mother wanted my name to be more American."
"Why? Most Latino-Americans have 'Latino' names. It doesn't make them less American."
I looked out the window and shifted my seat belt in and out, snapping it on my chest. "I don't know, it's just my name."
"Just curious. Do you know if you were born in a hospital?" He asked.
I lied. "I don't know, coach." I wanted to jump out of the car and weighed the possibility of doing so at the next stoplight.
That was a horror show of a tackle...to stay alive, Guzman needs to double his efforts. Is there any magic left for the men in red? Can they possibly score with so little time left?...
"Do you have any pictures? There are some people who are asking questions about your age Brian. You are twelve right?"
"Yes." Plus two, he thought, and no we don't have pictures.
We arrived at the field and there was no more name or age discussion. No doubt, I felt rattled. I wanted to talk to Uncle Pepe and find out what was going on. Someone was hiding something from me. Swallowing hard, I placed my bag and water bottle on the sidelines and was getting ready to step on the pitch when the team manager asked me to sign a get-well card for Ben who had broken his arm skateboarding. I panicked. What was my name again? While she suspiciously looked on, I struggled to write "Brian" in cursive. I had not practiced this.
"It's ok Brian," her voice softened, "all the boys have to think about writing in cursive, they don't teach it in school anymore. But you better get good at it for signing autographs!"
Practice played out as usual, fitness, drills, and scrimmage. My ride home was uneventful with the manager. Mom was in the living room watching a Mexican soap opera. She looked up at me.
"Are you hungry Juan?" she asked.
"Always. Are there any leftovers?"
"I'll heat up the chicken taquitos from last night. What's wrong?"
"People are asking me questions about my age, they don't believe I'm twelve. What's wrong with Brian's papers?"
"Nothing is wrong with the papers." She said closing the small microwave. "They are just jealous you are such a good soccer player."
"I feel like you are hiding something from me. Why couldn't you just have had me in a hospital like every other illegal? I'd have my own papers and this wouldn't be an issue!"
"I have nothing to hide from you Juan. I did what I had to do at the time. Nothing can change what happened. I've done everything for you. Come eat, I've got a glass of milk here too." She fumbled and spilled it while placing it on the table. "Oh no! Let me get a rag."
I ate in silence, thinking, letting Mom empty my soccer backpack and clean off my cleats in the sink.
Our team went on to win the tournament championship game in penalty kicks. Mine was the winning kick. No matter what the situation, the winning goal in any game was the best feeling I had ever felt or would ever feel.
He will have to carry a large load in this PK shootout, but he will have some broad shoulders to help. Truly, there have been flashes of magic from Guzman...he has exhausted and extended himself throughout the game...has it been enough?...He steps up to the ball, the keeper is in similar PK ritual, bouncing between the pipes, clapping his gloves together...no matter, Guzman blasts the ball between the pipes!...
In my euphoria, I forgot who I was supposed to be. I heard my name and I turned around.
I looked to the sidelines, thinking is was my Uncle Pepe, that he'd made it to the game, the smile still on my face, my teammates hopping on my back, my eyes searching. For whom, I don't know. They landed on the face of a man I recognized. He was wearing the coaching shirt for the opposing team.
"Juan Guzman?" He asked, and then smiled. The Metro Soccer League investigation had begun.
The next few days spiraled completely out of my control. I know there were several phone calls from Coach Hahn, all ignored by my mother. I would look to her face for explanation, but saw nothing. Uncle Pepe and my mother had heated discussions I wasn't allowed to participate in. My mother's eyes were bloodshot and puffy. On Tuesday, I got dressed for practice, but my ride didn't show. When my mother came home from work she slumped into the chair in the living room, her black hair falling out of her French braid and frizzing around her face.
"Take those clothes off." She said. "You're not going to soccer anymore. You have been removed from the roster." I looked at her incredulously.
"Why?" I was working hard to keep my voice from cracking while tears started to well in my eyes. I blinked several times. "What did I do?" I honestly didn't get it.
Paperwork was going to take me from the team? It's just a name.
"You aren't who you say you are." She looked down at her hands.
"But I didn't say who I was, you and Uncle Pepe did."
"You pretended to be someone you aren't, someone who is twelve and not fourteen. I wanted you to have the best and so did Uncle Pepe. We wanted you to be able to open the door to your future, just a tiny little crack."
Guzman was butchered from behind. That was an awful display of soccer. The slide tackle took out his ankle and his knee has bent in a horrible way. It's a red card for sure for the defenseman. They'll have to remove Guzman from the pitch and they'll be no way telling when he will be able to return to the game... horrific loss for the team. Who will replace the ringer Guzman?
The stage floor door gave way under my feet and I could feel myself sliding down a long suffocating tunnel. I couldn't eat and stayed home from school for a week. I slept until my back ached.
There was a trial of sorts, but I did not attend the hearing, nor did my mother. We were sent papers stating that I was no longer eligible to play travel or academy soccer in the state of Virginia—ever. The league disciplinary committee stated they found it hard to believe that no one really knew me. That with all the car rides, tournaments, and practices, no one knew how old I was, or what my real name was, or where I went to school.
The committee didn't understand that youth travel soccer is business. I had learned this much in a short time. There isn't a lot of chitchat that goes on between players. The competition is fierce and the bullshit slung has to do with soccer ability and bravado. It has nothing to do with life off the pitch.
It was revealed in the letter from the committee, that my picture was seen in the yearbook at Meadowbrook, under the "8th grade" heading.
I do regret that the team was punished severely. They lost their Division 1 ranking in the state and had to forfeit the entire spring season. Being only twelve, they will recover their ranking within a couple of seasons. Still I felt bad, they were ok.
Coach Hahn lost his position with the team and was suspended for the entire season of coaching any team in the league. I didn't really care about this. Coach Hahn was proud to have acquired me and I couldn't stop feeling like his piece of property on the team. With everything given to me, (I found out that even the shoes were purchased by an anonymous donor), the only ownership I ever felt was after a beautiful unassisted goal.
We are now on the "radar" of the U.S. Immigration Service after an anonymous tip. We've been on the run for over a year, living with distant relatives in North Carolina and Florida. My mother is not enrolling me in school anymore, so I'm doing the day labor gig to help out, sometimes even cleaning houses. When I don't get picked up for a job, I spend a lot of time in the local library, surfing the Internet for the latest soccer scores from around the world, I've even kept up with the boys from FC Fairfax. They went on to win the State Cup the following spring season, without Coach Hahn and without me.
I'm working hard to make myself "legal" now. I know a guy that can get me a near perfect copy of a birth certificate with my real name and a social security card for $250. I need it to get a better and steady job when I turn sixteen.
About soccer, I won't lie; it hasn't been the same. It's been hard for me to admit I'm not as good as I thought I was. I don't really know who I am or who I'm going to be now. I still play in the adult recreation league in Florida. They take anyone, with no questions asked. We play on Saturday nights. You can smell the seasoned meat, grilled vegetables, and warm tortillas when you park at the field. I'm the little one with the mustache and the fancy feet. My teammates call me JJ.
When I play, I no longer hear the voice of Ray Hudson. I've tried to get it back, but I just can't hear it.