Sunday morning I woke at 5 A.M. in a hotel next to a highway in the middle of Virginia – crying. I tried muffling the tears so as not to wake my daughter Agatha, who was sleeping in a bed on the other side of the room. But the emotion washing over me was too intense and completely unexpected. I simply didn’t understand it. Then, illuminated by the parking lot lights streaming in through the window, I saw her standing next to my bed. Choking back tears, I reassured her that everything was ok and that I was just overcome with gratitude. Which was true. But I imagine seeing your father weeping at 5 A.M. must have been a moment for her. A human moment when she saw me as less of a father, and more as a vulnerable human being. I’ve definitely given our daughters a human father during their lives – one who isn’t afraid to show emotion. But this was different. This was my soul splayed out.
On Friday I drove north from Charlotte to rendezvous with her outside of Blacksburg, where she was set to play in the last road soccer tournament of her life. She is a senior and plays on NC State’s club soccer team. She had the talent to play at a higher level, but when her club passed her over for promotion as she entered middle school, she decided to quit club and try different sports. She tried tennis and after a two sessions the coach pulled me aside to ask whether she’d played before because she had the talent to be an amazing tennis player. After a few games on a softball team, the coach begged her to give up other sports to play softball. Basketball was the same. And in 8th grade, she won the Charlotte summer league championship in breaststroke in a heat against year-round swimmers. A natural athlete, Agatha continued to play rec soccer while she was away from club, and also for her middle school team – which won their division against traditionally much stronger schools. But her decision to give up club soccer set her back amongst competitive players. And so when she returned to club her freshman year of high school, she had to start over. No one knew who she was. I watched her work her ass off and fulfill her promise as an extraordinary player – leading her high school team in scoring her junior year when they played in the state championship game. She was on the rise in club too – steadily moving up in leagues during those three years while also starting to get noticed by recruiters. Then came the concussion. It was a club match with college coaches in the bleachers. She sacrificed herself before halftime deflecting a penalty kick. Standing alongside her teammates, she jumped straight up into the path of the rocketed ball – which hit her head and ricocheted high into the air and out of bounds. She went to a knee. She never went to a knee. She stayed in the game and even scored in the second half. On the ride home the headache started. The concussion kept her out more than a month – during a period when her club team was being showcased in important tournaments for college recruiters.
She managed to make it back for the final tournament, but by that time most recruiters had already made up their minds. She got a couple of offers from smaller schools, but decided she was going to go to college where she wanted to live. So it was off to Tampa – where she reached out to the head coach there (on the coach’s recommendation after seeing her play) only to be ghosted. So she played for Tampa’s club team and lead them to a surprising record against much larger Florida schools. Then Covid hit and she transferred home to NC State. In the three years playing club at State, Agatha has become a team leader. She has fun, but deep inside her is a fire that wants to compete. Hard. And she does, but because of a coach who constantly substitutes, this team never fulfilled its potential. And it bothered her.
On Saturday in Blacksburg, she had a game at 8 am vs. UNC Wilmington. It was a driving rain, and I figured they’d definitely hold off until the line of storms passed. They didn’t. I was 10 minutes late. As I walked up, she took a crossing pass in the box and buried it in the back of the net. I yelled out – partly to ensure she knew I was there, and partly because yelling out is my natural reaction when she scores. She looked over, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up. It was a moment. Her team went on to win 6-2 and she scored two goals and had an assist. The next game was 30 minutes after the first one – versus Duke, who had fresh legs and dry socks. About halfway through the first half, a Duke player made a move just outside the box and took an improbable shot that barely made it over the keeper’s fingers for a score. The sun came out and Duke had a stiff wind at their back in the second half – making clearing the ball easy. Thanks to hyper-substitution when the girls couldn’t find their rhythm, State never did. Duke won 1-0, but there was still a game against UNC at 6.
Only, there wasn’t. Moments after kissing me on the cheek and leaving for the night game, she returned to the room with news that her team was forfeiting the second game because, somehow, the way the tournament stacked up with most other teams playing Friday – even if they beat UNC, they wouldn’t advance to the championship round on Sunday. The team took a vote and “forfeit” won by a single ballot. It crushed her. And then I got upset because I know the fire in her heart. It was a club game her senior year. The last road tournament of her career. A chance to beat an arch rival they’d split with the previous two years. One of the last chances she had to play in front of her biggest fan.
But it wasn’t to be, so we found some food and watched the Final Four and called it a night.
And then all the emotion from all the years of watching her play and taking her to tournaments and living out of a suitcase in refurbished Best Westerns and Fairfield Inns came rushing up at 5 AM out of nowhere. All the games in freezing temperatures. All the long drives to soccer practice four nights a week for years. The blistering heat. The life lessons. The bruises. The joy. The heartbreak. All the miles we traveled together bonding over a sport I didn’t know the first thing about until she was born.
I thought about her first goal at Pearl Street Park in Charlotte as a 4-year-old with her jersey below her knees. I thought about the time when she was 10, she found a gear inside her she didn’t know she had – and lead her team to a tournament championship. She was so proud of that medal. And I thought about standing on the high school field with her during Senior Night.
17 years. A lifetime for her. A privilege for me. The emotion I was feeling Sunday morning wasn’t sadness for something ending – but gratitude for that thing happening at all. And the beauty of this thing happening was overwhelming.
I’m getting old. Life is piling up behind me. And for the past 17 years, part of that life has included cheering my firstborn on from the sidelines.
Laying there in the dark with waves of emotion rushing past felt like the final curtain coming down on a beloved, long-running production.
I apologized to her. I didn’t want her to see me like this. No one wants to see their father this way. She then walked around the bed, laid atop the comforter next to me and held my hand. Then she said, “It’s ok, Dad. You’re going to be my dad for another 40 years.”