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A Golden Knight Right Outta Eagle Rock

King Tut and High School Soccer

In 1980, my brother was a sophomore in high school, and, like most high schools back then, they had no soccer team. One day, he told me they were playing soccer after school in the high school gym, and I should come play. I was curious, so I did. We found out it just for a scene in a school drama called “King Tut”.  Why soccer was in this play about an Egyptian king? Not sure. Maybe they were prophesizing the rise of Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah, but for some reason, I was allowed to take part even though I did not attend the school yet. It was a thrill when we played soccer in front of a large audience and because I was the smallest, I got to climb on top of a human pyramid at the climax of the play, to the cheers of all the parents. It was quite fun.

What I did not know was behind the scenes, my mom was pressing the school administration to add soccer as a school sport. At first, the response was the same. No, there is no interest. We are a football school. We don’t play that here. But for some reason, my gentle mom did not back down. She used the cheers of the soccer in the King Tut play as further proof of the interest in the sport, and she also got signatures of about 30 families whose sons wanted to play soccer at the high school. The school did not like this and by the end of my brother’s sophomore year, we were still unsure if we would have a soccer team when I entered high school the next school year.

Thanks Mom! Soccer was an Official High School Sport

However, by the time the summer had come and gone, I had entered my freshman year that fall, and my mom’s campaign had won! Soccer was going to be an official sport at our high school, and I was on my way to stardom. The only sad part was my brother, who was instrumental in gathering support and signatures, had decided to leave to another school, so he did not get to take part in high school soccer at all.

So now the truth comes out. Although I had delusions of grandeur of my own abilities, the reality was I had only been playing recreational soccer my whole life. I had never heard of club soccer or academies. I just figured soccer players did the same thing football and basketball player did, go to high school, college, and then play pro. Fortunately, I just happened to be a bit better than everybody else in my small world of rec soccer. Playing up with my older brother’s teams over the years helped me a lot too.

During the same time, I was getting excited about playing soccer again, the NASL went under and any chance of playing pro soccer came crashing down. At the time I did not realize the real impact of the NASL’s collapse on the American soccer scene, so I just continued playing with no thought of where it would take me.

The Bad News Knights

The beginning of high school soccer was exciting. Tryouts were not on the high school’s sacred football field, but down the street at local Oak Grove Park at the bottom of a gulley. It was used as a frisbee gold course, a haven for questionable behavior (it was the late 70’s), and mixed in with an unkempt baseball field, thousands of oak trees, and hundreds of gopher holes, ready to devour an ankle. Most of the kids had never played before so I looked pretty darn good. Almost Cruyff-like. Although I was more skilled than even the older players, I was pretty scrawny, so I was placed on the JV team, as the bigger, faster, stronger kids made varsity.

Brother “Bernie” had begrudgingly agreed to coach the varsity team, I think as part of his penance, but a much more serious problem for me was they did not have a coach from the JV team. We ended practiced with the varsity for a while. We went through old-school drills, and with little supervision, the varsity players did what they could to humiliate us younger players. There was one junior with bleach blond who knew nothing about soccer, but he was a good athlete and played football. Not sure why, but his sole purpose at practices was to make me suffer. He was just a mean bully. That part of high school was not pleasant as little was being accomplished to help us become better soccer players.

Our New Coach Off the Street

One day, this young guy in his twenties, with what looked like zero athletic ability at all and obviously no knowledge of soccer, showed up at our practice in an old army jacket and a beat up baseball cap. He was our new JV coach. For 3 months, he basically chewed on sunflower seeds on the sidelines and yelled “faster” every so often…and that was just at practice. For games, his job was to make sure we got in and out of the locker rooms, and on and off the bus for away games. One day, he just disappeared.

Despite the lack of training, we managed to have a decent year and won a few games. There were high expectations for me, but my lack of any real training had caught up to me. Basically, I didn’t know how to kick a ball with the correct technique, and because I was starting to grow, all of a sudden, I could not do anything right. I would stay late after practice to work on kicking properly, but I was just in an awkward rut with no guidance at all. Eventually, I figured it out with help by one of the few Varsity guys who actually knew something about soccer, my brother’s friend, Andy LaPointe.

I ended up scoring only one goal that year, but fortunately, it was during a home game. We started our game earlier than dismissal time and I happened to make this tremendous volley to score just when all the other students had been released and they were all watching from the balconies that overlooked our field. The next day, my best buddy Guy Robles, a basketball player, went on and on all day long about my goal. In a school that breathes and dies football and basketball, it was fun to see soccer part of the conversation, if only for a day.

Making Varsity School Soccer

In the off season, I went back to play for my rec league, and during our high school season I also played in another league on the weekends, although I have no idea what league it was. By the start of my second high school season, I was still skinny but at least was taller. I wanted to work out in the weight rooms, but soccer players were not allowed, only football players. It reminded me of those anti-soccer signs in the parks. The good news was that the varsity team had a new coach, a real soccer coach! He looked the part. He wore warm-ups, was fit, and could play. I think he was from Jamaica, as I can always remember yelling “Ryder, mon, run faster, mon!” especially during those games when it was one of those odd 105 degrees in January playing on a baked mud field. I hated running. Over the season, the coach got more frustrated by our lack of soccer IQ, and by the end of the year, he had disappeared too.

The Beginning of the End

To my dismay, I did not even get to finish my first varsity season. Overall, our team was not particularly good. We had lost most of our games. I had only scored one goal. The seniors did not like that two sophomores, me being one of them, had made the varsity team. The bleached blond kid was still a pain to me. With about two game to go, we had a home game. Like all our home games, we started before school was let out. So, I was in the locker room preparing for the game, and the coach comes over to me as I was lacing my adidas cleats and says, “Ryder, mon, you cannot play. You are off the team.” Stunned, I replied “wha..wha..what do you mean?” He says, “I was told you are playing on another team, so if you stay on the team, we will have to forfeit all or game, so clean out your locker and go back to class.” And he turned away and left. I was speechless and I did everything I could do to hold back my tears.

By this time, all my teammates were down on the field, so not one teammate spoke to me. I got my stuff and went back to class in a fog.  I remember going back to class, sitting in my chair with obvious agony on my face, and a boy named Greg Garcia, a football player who rarely spoke to me, whispered, “What’s wrong, why aren’t you playing?” I did not say a word. I don’t remember anything after that. I think I spoke with the Athletic Director who told me about CIF rules that you could not play on another team of the same sport during your high school season. Nobody ever told me about this rule. It made no sense. The rest is a blur and all I could think of was “who knew”. None of my teammates knew I played those games. An more so “Who told on me?” All I could think of was that somehow the bleached blond haired kid, or his grubby sidekick, found out and told the coach, but I wasn’t sure, nobody said anything, and so I didn’t do anything. I was done. The worst part is we had already lost most our games, we were out of the playoffs, so what did it even matter.

I was devastated.

I stopped playing completely, but when the rec league came back in July, I decided to rejoin. At first, my heart was not in it, but then I started to enjoy it again. The news came out that Cherif Zein was going to be the new high school varsity coach. I was excited because I remember him being a good trainer, and also the bad seeds on the varsity had graduated so it was like a new beginning.

When Cherif first showed up, he remembered me from 3-4 years ago at his camps. He made me feel important, and was hyping me up to the other players, who had no idea who he was. Because of some archaic high school rules, before the actual high school season, you could only work with the soccer ball for a certain amount of time per practice, so we did a lot of running. A lot. If it wasn’t during a game, I hated running outside a game. Not my thing, says the rec soccer player. After school each day, we had to run a few miles up the hill to the local community center. We would meet the coach there. I was a junior now, so I had a car, albeit a rusty old army green AMC Hornet. A few times, me and a few of the other slackers would start running with team, and then we’d sneak back, take my car, drive up, park close by, wait for the team and join in just behind them as we entered the community center field. Somehow, nobody figured that out.

Maybe my love for coaching started here. The community center had many after school programs for kids. Cherif set it up so we could work with the 6-9 year olds and teach them fun soccer games. I really enjoyed that.

Hit by an injury

I had one game left for my rec league before the new high school season was officially on. In this final game, we were tied, and I remember pushing forward to try to get the winning goal. I don’t remember the hit, but I do remember feeling extreme pain in my knee. This was not good. I don’t think we went to a hospital, but on the next Monday, I spoke with Cherif and he sent me go to the medical staff at Glendale College. There, they told me nothing seriously ripped or broken, but I’d be out about 6 weeks. Just great.

High school practice had started up again, and I was totally dejected. Every day after school, I sat alone watching the team practice really hard like never before. Lots of running. Lots of punishments. Lots of yelling by Cherif. And every few days, Cherif would talk to the team about the upcoming season. They’d be all hot and sweaty, looking exhausted and miserable, and I’d be sitting there relaxed with my knee wrapped up. Cherif would always say how excited he was that I was coming back soon, and I would really help the team out and lead us to a strong season. The more he said it, the more nervous I got. He doesn’t even know how I play! Maybe he could see the passion I had for soccer, but he hasn’t even seen me play in three 3 years and that was at soccer camp. What was he thinking?

Then one day, I just decided to quit.

I told Cherif the injury was bothering me too much, it was too hard to not play, and I was going to wait until next year. I even promised him I would be back. Looking back now, I am sure he knew all along I was never coming back. The next year, I saw Cherif at a football game, and he asked if I was coming out this year, I told him yes, of course, but I never did. A lot of people do not like Cherif for whatever reason. But he always treated me with respect and never got mad at me, never said I lied, and never made me feel bad.

And even though I never played high school soccer again, you’ll see my run-ins with Cherif were not over.