My childhood bedroom is, in the way that all childhood bedrooms are, uniquely unspectacular. There’s the perpetually unmade bed, surrounded by pictures and ticket stubs finely coated in dusty nostalgia. There’s the framed poster of the only NBA Big Three I’ll ever acknowledge, and the watercolor painting of Captain America wearing nothing but a helmet and a strategically-placed mighty shield (which still might be the best thirty bucks I’ve ever spent in my life). There are game cartridges, action figures, and books; gods above, there are the books.
And then there are the trophies.
Some of these memorialize genuine triumphs, insofar as anything a pubescent boy ever does can be called a triumph. Like the first place Speech Fair ribbon for my stirring recitation of President Andrew Shepherd’s impassioned defense of love and Sorkinist liberalism from 1995’s The American President, or the Spelling Bee trophy that kicked off my run all the way to the city championships where I flamed out on “kugel.” Others are viciously ironic, like the Defensive Player of the Year plaque after a basketball season in which my team lost every game.
But after umpteen years, the trophy that matters most from my childhood is one I would’ve gotten anyway. Oh yes. Tremble in rekindled rage, ye culture warriors of America. As a true godless millennial, my favorite trophy is a participation trophy.
In my defense, if I had my way, I’d have never received it. Like many Chicago kids born in the early ’90s, my childhood played out in the titanic shadow of one Michael Jordan. Having two star athletes for older brothers didn’t help, and almost as soon as I learned to walk and talk, I began pestering my parents to enroll me in sports. Eventually my parents caved, and in the summer of 2001, I took my first steps into that halcyon rite of passage for kids in Southwest Chicago and her attendant suburbs: Region 423 of the American Youth Soccer Organization.
AYSO, or at least Region 423, bordered on self-parody in embodying everything American pop culture loves to hate about soccer. There were no tryouts or benchwarmers — “Everyone Plays” wasn’t a slogan, it was law. Coaches and referees were volunteers, and their level of familiarity with the sport’s intricacies was a crapshoot. Responsibility for supplying post-game snacks cycled from parent to parent, and heaven help you if you were the parent who brought something crappy like Nutter Butters. The official rule was that games were called off at the first indication of lightning; in practice, this meant a mild-to-moderate rainfall could be enough to send us home early. There were no scheduled practice times once the season started, and while we kept score, there was no formal tracking of records. That meant no rankings, which meant no playoffs, which meant no championships, which meant we only got participation trophies at the traditional summer’s end pizza party.
It was a rec league’s rec league, nothing more.
But to me? AYSO was the goddamn show, and I treated it that way. I practiced in the backyard with my family, I checked out soccer-related books and VHS tapes (VHS tapes!) from my local library, I treated my first set of cleats the way most people treat their first car. I was never sulkier toward my parents than on days when they drove me to the park late. And for all my apocryphal radicalism, I was never less patriotic than on days when the Fourth of July forced a game’s cancellation. If the league wouldn’t track wins and losses I’d do it myself, and if they wouldn’t name a champion, then dammit, I would still see myself in a crown.
You can probably see where this is going.
My team won some games that first season, but we lost some too — more than enough to cement the fact that we were far from championship material. The next season was no different, nor the season after that, nor the one after that. And with each passing season, I became too acutely aware of my shortcomings as a player to pretend I was some diamond being dragged down by the rough of my teammates. I got winded way too quickly, I relied on my size to paper over a lack of skill, and I favored my right foot to a ludicrous degree.
I just wasn’t, we all just weren’t, good enough.
And then the summer of 2006 rolled around.
My co-ed U-14 team clicked almost immediately on Opening Night that year, bonded by a “what are those” mocking of the seafoam green jerseys we’d been assigned to wear. But we wouldn’t realize how good we were — or how good we could be — for a while. We conducted our initial practices with the same general “aight, let’s just get this started already” nonchalance endemic to AYSO. And for the first few matches of the season, we all approached our games the way most teams did, with players freewheeling between positions and coaches throwing out random formations, more in pursuit of balanced fun and individualized glory than charting an optimal path to victory.
But after a certain point, it began to sink in: We hadn’t lost a game. And after seeing what the rest of our division could throw at us, it became clear that if we played our cards right, we could go the rest of the season without ever losing one.
Once we realized that, a switch flipped. Every one of us took a hard look at our own skillsets and locked into the position that brought out the best of our games. The girl who could dribble opponents out of their socks became the focal point of our attack. The boy who never seemed to get tired became the engine of our midfield. And I, the boy who very much did get tired but was still very dangerous over short distances, gave up my fantasy of becoming a goal-scoring dynamo and parked myself in the back to anchor our defense. We played to our individual strengths, we covered each other’s weaknesses, and we went forth into the rest of that year with single-minded determination to do what none of us had done before: run the table.
Take it from a snowflake who “earned” quite a few participation trophies: Kids aren’t idiots and aren’t entirely dispossessed of self-awareness.
It wasn’t easy. If absolutely nothing else, AYSO had an uncanny way of balancing teams to nigh-perfection, and there were very few games that weren’t close. There was the night we jumped out to an early 3–0 lead, only for our opponents to pull within one in the final minutes — forcing us to abandon our attack and flood our own backfield to make sure we held on for the win. There was the night when one kid (#7 on the silver team, I remember you still, my old adversary) effectively was the opposing attack by his lonesome, and I spent the rest of the game hounding him like an immortal mosquito. My favorite memory might be the night I scouted a thunderstorm in the forecast shortly after our kickoff time and realized there was a chance we’d be forced into a tie if we didn’t score early… which I then proceeded to do 11 seconds into the game, mere minutes before it was indeed called off for lightning.
The other teams knew what we were trying to pull off, and twice a week, we got their best shot at trying to deny us. But by summer’s end, we would not be denied. We’d won all but one game, and the all-but-one was a tie — a tie that, considering we went on to emphatically avenge it in the final game of the season, we could live with. Sure, there were still no playoffs, but by any other objective metric, we were the best team in the league. We were the champions, our lack of raised fists and popped yellow jackets notwithstanding, and pizza has never again tasted as good as it did that last night.
(Or maybe I’ve just forgotten what good pizza is since moving to New York. Your move, Stewart!)
You may think I’m being myopic to the point of inanity here. Of course the 2006 trophy stands out if we never lost a game. That has nothing to do with the broader decades-long debate over participation trophies — and the havoc they may or may not be wreaking on Kids These Days. It takes no position on whether they’re harmless or harmful, and it doesn’t stake out a Mamba-esque middle ground, either.
But all of those alternate takes miss the point about participation trophies. Take it from a snowflake who “earned” quite a few: Kids aren’t idiots and aren’t entirely dispossessed of self-awareness. No number of participation trophies could ever convince me I was a better player on a better team than I was, and the kind of kid clueless enough to be swayed like that is probably going to lack some self-awareness regardless. Given recent events, I’m not sure it’s people like me who have a hard time accepting their own failures without whining about how they were cheated, or who cling to monuments of long-lost causes to make themselves feel important.
It’s not that participation trophies condition you to conflate mediocrity with excellence. It’s not that losing necessarily motivates you to win or offers lessons for a different outcome during the next go-around, although both of those things are certainly possible. It’s that when you get acclimatized enough to loss, to failure, to the hot mixture of embarrassment and shame that music can sum up far better than words ever could, you’ll take your victories wherever you can get them, even it means imbuing something as pointless as youth soccer with all the gravitas of a World Cup title.
And as silly as it is for a grown man to reminisce over teenage sports glory, I’m taking these memories with me to the grave. Because in the end, when you’re dealing with something as objectively meaningless as sports ultimately are, the only meaning that matters is what you assign to them.
When I look at the trophy from the 2002 season, I remember the summer I first felt the symptoms of what my future self still won’t fully admit is depression — and how scoring a goal in the first game of the year made them go away for what I was sure would be forever. I also remember the year I first met the boy who’d eventually become one of my closest friends to this day.
When I look at the trophy from the 2004 season, I remember how my teammates and I choreographed a truly awful pregame dance to Terror Squad’s ‘Lean Back’ — and I say a silent prayer of thanks that social media as we know it didn’t exist at the time. I also remember that dance being one of the first times that I, the kid who was told that he “acted white” a few times too many growing up, began to feel truly secure in my blackness.
When I look at the trophy from the 2007 season, I remember how my first major crush accepted an invitation to watch my team play — and that being the only game in which I ever notched a hat trick. And while things didn’t really work out on that front, I still fondly remember that game marking the first time I realized just how powerful a motivator love (or what my younger self thought love was) can be.
And when I look at the trophy from that final 2008 season, I remember racing home from two-a-day preseason football practices on the other side of the city to make my soccer games’ start time — in hindsight, a fairly obvious indication that my decision to switch fall sports in a desperate bid to fit in at high school was an existentially treasonous mistake.
Taken together, they’re a reminder that when you feel unworthy, sometimes only the things that are objectively worthless can remind you that you’re not.
My AYSO participation trophies are not a testament to a soccer prodigy unrecognized in his time; the fact that I never even made the varsity team in high school is evidence enough against that. Taken together, they’re nothing more or less than reminders of the boy I used to be and how all of those summers combined to create someone as defined by his failures as by his successes, and someone increasingly in tune with which ones matter most. Taken together, they’re a reminder that when you feel unworthy, sometimes only the things that are objectively worthless can remind you that you’re not. Maybe that’s an old love letter from someone who’s long since moved on, a picture of a friend group that’s long since splintered, or a gift from someone who’s since passed.
And sometimes, it’s a collection of eight cheap plastic participation trophies — memories of seven nonperfect seasons and the one magical year that was.
For all of my life, I may have never been quite big enough or fast enough or skilled enough or agile enough or tall enough or smart enough; I damn sure have never been hot enough or rich enough. But for just one season, in just one sport, when my team took the field, you weren’t going to beat us. And for just one season, in just one sport, if I decided that you weren’t going to score, then you were not going to score.
For one pocket of time, I wasn’t just good enough; I was great. And for one pocket of time, my team wasn’t just great; we were the greatest. To quote a fantastic book I hadn’t read at the time: In that moment, I swear we were infinite.
And if I could be great once, even if only for something as silly as rec-league summer soccer… well.
Even broken clocks, right?