I said goodbye to Misha after the game last night.
It was the last game of the season, the championship game of the faculty-staff-grad intramural soccer league. Our team, the Illegitimate Sons of Pele, had just lost 1-0 to a team of law students out on the field behind Stepan Center.
We went through the ritual of shaking hands on a good game — it was even sincere — then it was over to the matted muddy grass on the sideline to change out of our cleats and haul on jackets and coats. It was cold.
Further down the sideline, under the beams from the skyscraper light towers, the law students were celebrating. The lone female on their team stripped off her shirt to expose her gray sports bra, Brandi Chastain-style. A teammate tried to squirt her with a water bottle, but she nimbly dodged the stream.
Although we kept our underwear private, the Illegitimate Sons were hardly glum. It had been a good season, all seemed to agree. Four wins, three losses. Runners-up for the title (and the T-shirts that go with it). Misha, one of our best goal scorers, had played the entire title game, while I — at our captain’s prudent decision — only shouted encouragement and dubious instructions from the sideline. Misha was just finishing changing his jersey and I was turning to head to my car when we noticed each other.
I’d learned earlier in the season that this would be his last game with the team as he’ll have earned his graduate degree by the start of the next fall’s new season. So a goodbye seemed in order. We closed the distance between us in a couple of long strides, heads inclined in self-conscious pal sentimentality. There was a handshake and a dignified, masculine hug with mutual hand-pounds to the back. It was an appropriate enough set of gestures, I suppose, for two people who have known each other for four years. But it was also oddly overly familiar.
The fact is, if I hadn’t just now clicked open my e-mail in-box and glanced at the “CC:” line on an old mass-mailing to team members, I couldn’t have told you Misha’s last name, which is Korobeinik, or his real first name, Mikhail. I knew he was from Russia. And that he was a graduate student in some area of engineering. And that with a soccer ball at his feet he can make people look like pier pilings. But that’s about it.
I’m pretty sure his mental dossier on me is at least equally thin. Like the rest of the team, he knows my name and my face and what I can do with a soccer ball, which is practically nothing. But no doubt many of my teammates don’t know what I do at Notre Dame.
I suspect only males can appreciate this kind of comfortable obliviousness. And I’m here to say obliviousness is underrated. I may see these guys only once a year for a half-dozen games, but these fleeting, minimal-obligation rendezvous have put me literally on a first-name basis with a diverse lot of characters. This past year and in seasons past I’ve played atrociously beside guys from, among other places, Bulgaria (two players — Maxim and Ivailo), Chile (Gerardo), Russia (Stas and Misha), Sri Lanka (Chamindra), China (Donglin), France (Franck), Egypt (Amr), India (Ajit and Deepak), Lebanon (Ramzi), Venezuela (Jose and Henry), Australia (Greg), England (Jason), Spain (Diego). Not to mention a large number of equally congenial and skilled Americans like Keith, Neal, Steve, Josh, and this year’s captain, Adam, who’s from Alabama. I guess. That’s what the campus phone book says.
I became a member of the Illegitimate Sons a year or two after I came to work for Notre Dame simply by asking at the RecSports office if I could join a team, any team. Having cheered and helped coach some of my son’s youth-league teams I had an itch to play. I called the first captain whose name I was given, and the unsuspecting Jose Rodriguez said, sure, come on out.
Four seasons later my soccer skills haven’t improved noticeably, but I’ve had fun and, importantly, no crippling injuries.
Seriously, one of the great things about a great university is it brings great people together to learn and work. In their off hours many play. It’s another chance to meet.
Most of the guys I’ve met playing soccer have been graduate students, and, regrettably, that means saying goodbye to a few at the end of every season.
Or not. No need to get gushy about it.