This isn't really the subject I wanted to start my musings on, but the greater expanse of this subject has never really adhered to "timing".
A year ago today I lost a teammate and a friend. Preston Hirten was only 20 when he passed away, far too early for someone who meant so much to so many.
The fact that he passed away on the soccer pitch when countless others who played with him were on the pitch as well, scattered across the country but still connected by a common game, a common love, still makes me tingle.
It has taken me an entire year to gather my thoughts and my composure, and I still struggle to come to grips with it all, but I felt a need to put something on paper. Expressing emotions has never been my forte, but Preston evoked so many good ones, I felt it was as fitting a tribute as I was capable of.
There's so much that can be said, but I've chosen a little snapshot that I'll always remember about a friend I'll never forget.
It was last August and I had just returned from a long stay on the West Coast. During that time I had kind of isolated myself from contact (unintentionally), but Preston had reached out to me a few times and had mentioned playing some pickup soccer when I got back. After a few days at home, Preston called me up mid-afternoon and asked if I wanted to come down and play in Westport. I debated the invite in my head for a while thinking how much of a hassle it would be to drive down from Ridgefield in rush hour traffic and how I'd probably miss dinner (again) and so on. Sensing my hesitancy, Preston then told me it was part of the Watermelon Cup, a fun tournament held annually in Westport for Staples kids and alums. As soon as I heard "Cup" my competitive streak lit up, I was in.
I showed up to the field and immediately realized I was in foreign territory. I'd come down to play with Preston, Matt, Dave and the guys several times, but this was a different beast entirely. There I was, a Ridgefield kid, standing among not only a team of former Staples (Westport) players, but a cast of about 40 Staples players and alum. For those who don't understand the gravity of this situation, let me explain. Fairfield County is the most competitive sports county in Connecticut, and Ridgefield and Westport are two large contributors to that fact. I grew up playing against Westport since I was 9 years old, and had been in every sort of heated situation you can be in competitively aside from full-out brawling. Now I reiterate that I had come down to play pickup with some of the guys before, but I knew at least 30 of them I had not, and I really felt I was imposing on some sacred ground. Needless to say I was a little uneasy, made moreso when Dan Woog came up to me and asked why he didn't remember me from his past teams and if I'd moved to Westport after school.
But just as my apprehensions began to really take hold, a familiar face and a beaming smile washed them all away. "Heeyy buddy," said Preston goofily with extended arms. "Welcome back." After a playfully over-dramatized hug, I said hi to the rest of the guys, and realized it really was good to be back.
I stepped on the field with the guys and barely had time to adjust my socks before the whistle blew and the ball was flying. And when I say flying I mean absolutely zipping from person to person with no sign of slowing down. I have played at many levels from high school to regional level to college ball, but this effortless movement was something else entirely. These guys, my teammates, just knew where it needed to be, but more importantly, they knew where they were, almost without looking. That metaphor coaches call on in half time speeches, that everyone needs to move together like they're connected by string, this was it.
But it was more than string that connected these guys, it was years and years of doing the same thing with the same group of friends. These guys had learned each other inside and out playing soccer, and the game helped forge an unbelievable bond. Whereas my friends from town played soccer and then developed their own identities as time went on, this group of guys used soccer to develop a collective identity and a lasting friendship. And the results were self-evident, for as the game progressed, I saw that every player knew the other players' tendencies to a T. Everyone on my team knew to not to look for Brad's head and more importantly everyone knew to seek out Nicky's. Everyone knew that if Matt was getting frustrated he was going to rip a shot from distance, and you better be following it up because if it was on frame there was no way the keeper was holding it. These small idiosyncrasies are what made the team so unbelievably cohesive, so much so that I was almost jealous, heck I was jealous.
But what I had failed to pick up on at first was that I was part of this team. I was so busy taking in how cool it was to watch these guys play that I forgot I was on the field with them. I was part of this crazy movement I'd been awing over, I was making runs, I was sticking tackles, I was having fun. FUN. Something that too many of us forget the longer we play, this game is FUN. The boys I was playing with knew it, they understood. All these years of them playing had centered around soccer and having fun, and surrounding themselves with people who felt the same way not only on the pitch but off. I had always felt the same way, and thus I was embraced. They made it easy for me when they could have easily made it hard. I could have been the kid from somewhere else who happened to play with them every once in a while, but I wasn't, I belonged, they really made me feel like I did.
At the heart of this incredible group was Preston. Literally in the center (midfield), he ran our tournament team up and down and refused to stop, all the while keeping that smile he first greeted me with. This kid was in his element, in the middle of the battle with friends on every side. This was home, he danced and darted through the defense like someone of half his stature then laid a shoulder into a center back to remind him that he was still a workhorse despite the fancy footwork. And after quickly catching his breath, a laugh, one of careless contentment. He wasn't worried about the past or the future, none of us were, we were just enjoying the moment.
The 'moment' ended on a high note, we won our games and were crowned Watermelon Cup 2009 champs. We all slapped five and in another over-dramatized display, lifted our bowl of store-bought watermelon, the Watermelon Cup, into the air. Laughing, we all realized that our 'moment' had ended and our minds wandered back to the future, to leaving, to school, to the upcoming season.
That was the last time I got to play with Preston, in fact it was the last time for a few of us. I did get to hang out with Preston and the whole crew one more time the night before Preston and Matt left for school, which was another great moment in itself.
As I look back, I'm so thankful I took that call. I'm so thankful it was Preston on the other end of the phone getting me down to the field. And I'm so thankful that it was those guys, Matt, Dave, Nicky, Greg, Craig, Brad, Alex, Keaton, Brendan, and Preston (and anyone else I may have forgotten), that welcomed me into their awesome group of friends and teammates, I never took it for granted and I never will.
To all of you guys, I want to say thanks, it was always meant a lot to me.
And to the one I can't tell in person, my bud Preston, the H-est one around, well in my heart I hope he already knows.