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When the tears stop

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Soccer can be an escape.

Gallery Photo: Sounders 2014 Preseason Begins: Photos

I am a cryer. You can ask anyone in my family — it’s practically a joke between me and my wife — I will cry at anything. A car commercial; videos of kids getting cochlear implants or adults getting those glasses that let colorblind people see colors; the scene in Parks and Recreation when Ben gives Leslie the campaign pin; if there’s even a hint of emotion or sentimentality, it’s a safe bet that I’ve got tears in my eyes at the very least. Knowing this about myself, I combed through the many memories I have that involve sports and came up empty.

I’ve watched the Sounders lift trophies in person and on TV. I’ve shared in the communal pain as they failed to do the same. I’ve seen players suffer potentially career-ending injuries. I was one of a sea of fans that welcomed Steve Zakuani back to the field when he had recovered from his injury. In those moments, and looking back on them, I felt the whole spectrum of emotions from joy and relief to sorrow and rage, but still my eyes were dry. Instead of finding moments when the game that I love made me cry, what stood out were the moments when people kicking a ball offered me a reprieve from my tears. They’ve come in a variety of ways and situations, but the thing that binds them all is the solace that soccer has provided me.

The first such moments require a little bit of context, so I apologize for this slight detour. In my early 20s I had a drinking problem, and it resulted in two DUIs. I had the opportunity to get treatment in place of going to jail, but a mix of shame and embarrassment, and the foolish belief that if I put things off I’d be able to fix everything later led me to fail to meet the treatment requirements. I had kept the entire situation a secret from just about everyone in my life until the reality was unavoidable: I was going to jail for the better part of a month and that’s not really something that goes unnoticed.

The day before I started what would end up being a 24-day stay in the Snohomish County jail, I shared my situation on social media feeling that if nothing else I needed to own and acknowledge my mistakes. In the days and weeks that followed, my partner and I both saw an outpouring of support, primarily from the community that I had found through the Sounders and this website. People sent messages of support and understanding, some people even visited me while I was in jail, but that support meant that I was still going to have this community to return to.

The Sounders had started their title defense in 2017 inauspiciously, and I eagerly read any mention of them that I could find in the newspaper. I took particular satisfaction from reading that they had killed soccer in a 0-0 draw with Atlanta United, and even got to watch a few minutes of their game against the San Jose Earthquakes. Those brief paragraphs and fleeting glimpses of a Sounders broadcast provided an escape, a few moments approaching normalcy, where for a short time I was doing something resembling what I would have done under any other circumstances.

When I was able to come home I felt adrift. I had been given the opportunity to reassess my priorities, to take a long look at what had gotten me to the place I was in and decide what I wanted to carry with me as I moved forward. I had decided to make a career change, to stop drinking for a year, and to put more energy into the relationships that were important to me. I also decided to start playing soccer again.

I got the opportunity to join a team with some of my friends less than a week after I got home from jail, and, while a couple of people asked where I had been or what I was up to, for a little while on that Saturday afternoon the thing that mattered most was that I made smart runs and clean passes. After carrying the weight of a shameful secret for years, worrying if I’d drive away the people I loved, and fretting for weeks about whether I’d really be able to start over again, the sleepless nights and quiet, tearful moments melted away under the appreciative smile of a teammate played perfectly into space, the firm pat on the back of a grateful goalkeeper, the high-five from a friend as he subbed on. In those games I could see that no matter how my life had changed, regardless of the mistakes behind me or ahead of me, there would still be moments of joy.

Joy doesn’t only come from your own accomplishments, though. The week after my first time back on the field, I got to experience my first time back in the stadium. My partner — now my wife — and I joined a group of friends and family as we filed into the Brougham End to cheer on the Sounders as they eventually clawed their way back from a 3-0 deficit to salvage a 3-3 draw against the New England Revolution. The game was equal parts frustrating and invigorating, it was one of the most exciting things I’d ever been a part of. Feeling the energy of the section and the stadium as the team wrenched themselves from the jaws of defeat.

The game itself was hardly a turning point — they lost three consecutive games after that draw before really turning their season around — but it felt like a lesson. Amidst the revelry, as we jumped and screamed and hugged, it felt like anything was possible. I’m not a professional athlete, I hadn’t just come back from being down 3-0, but if they could take that kind of difficulty — that adversity if you want to call it that — and use it as fuel to push themselves to something better, then why couldn’t I? That game, that season, served as no small source of inspiration as I moved through the challenging months ahead and worked to become a better version of myself.

I’m grateful that the time that has followed since 2017 has consisted of many more peaks than valleys. I started writing here, my younger brother and my sister-in-law had a daughter, I got married, the Sounders won another MLS Cup, and those are just some of the highlights.

There has been pain and loss, as well, though. In November my sister passed away suddenly, admittedly and fortunately it was the first time I’d really been touched directly by loss. Some of the first people to reach out, to offer the most consistent and sincere support, were the friends that I have made through soccer and the Sounders. The grief was, and continues to be, almost unbearable at times, there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. It’s not uncommon for something small to remind me of her, and the tears come unbidden.

Not every thought of my sister is a sad one, though. As much as I miss her, I’m grateful to think of how happy she was to watch the Sounders win the final at home earlier that month; it brought me no small amount of pride and joy imagining how excited she would have been to know that I was in the press box as the Sounders started their 2020 season. Those reminders of what brought her joy, and what continues to bring joy to my life, are a glimmer of hope.

During the last couple weeks, as the world seemingly collapses around us, and soccer returns to our screens, it’s been easy to feel conflicted. Is it actually safe, or worth the risk to have players and staff potentially exposed amidst a pandemic? Regardless of the safety, does it even matter when people are protesting the state-sanctioned murder of black people and people of color in our communities? Ultimately, no, it doesn’t. Sports are a distraction, but some times a distraction is what we need.