I don’t remember most of the details of that game, but certain events of that day are indelibly stamped in my mind.
Back when I was younger and fitter I used to play field hockey. If you scoff at that, then I challenge you to play a competitive game some time… on second thoughts, you’re probably not man (or woman) enough 🙂
I’ve forgotten now who we were playing against but I remember that our team captain was having a terrible day. Three or four times he had close range shots at an open goal and missed. Another three or four times he had clear shots on target and completely fluffed them up – and it was showing in his attitude and demeanor.
Time and time again he got into a position to score and then, for no apparent reason his shot would go wide or bobble slowly forward and be easily intercepted by by an opposition player. His frustration and anger with himself were threatening to bubble over but, for the sake of the team he was supposed to be leading, he did his best to hold himself together.
I know exactly how he was feeling because that man was me – and if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of my team were scoring goals and we were up by a comfortable margin, the pressure would probably have just about destroyed me.
Despite my obvious lack of co-ordination and ability that day, I did what I was supposed to be doing and put myself in the right position on the field time after time and finally, minutes before the end of the game, there I was back in front of the goal mouth, about three yards out, just where I’d been so many times already that day.
Neil was playing for us that game. I don’t remember his last name or anything much about him but he was in his late forties or early fifties and had once been one of the game’s great players. The rumor around the club was that he had scored more goals for England in international competition than any other man in history. I can’t confirm that but I can tell you that even as the oldest guy on the field, he was a devastating goal scorer. It was simply amazing to watch him.
So there we were, the clock ticking away, I was in position as I was supposed to be and Neil had the ball. He rounded the last defenders and deftly sidestepped the keeper, leaving the keeper stranded and the goal mouth open. The rest of us were mere spectators wondering in what flashy way he was going to bury the ball in the back of the net… until the unbelievable happened.
Instead of taking the shot, this natural goal scorer, a man with a built-in predatory instinct calmly slid the ball sideways across the field to the end of my stick.
I remember looking up at him wide-eyed, with fear coursing through every vein, every muscle, every nerve in my body. It shows how well he had single-handedly defeated the other team because I had time to stare at him and ask incredulously, “Why are you giving the ball to me?”
Neil didn’t say anything, he just smiled – and I knew it was now or never. I looked down at the ball, reached back with my stick and…
Once again, I mis-hit it.
The ball bobbled and bounced off at a tangent yet again only this time the angle was not quite big enough to miss the goal and the ball rolled over the line.
At last, I had scored! I couldn’t believe it.
Scoring that goal didn’t take away all of my frustration, but it did send waves of relief washing over me.
As we jogged back to the half-way line, Neil grabbed my shoulder from behind in a vice-like grip, then patted me on the back and smiled as he jogged past.
He may have said something, I’m not sure, but words weren’t necessary. He’d done something far greater than any words could ever have done.
He’d believed in me.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite his far superior ability, despite my attitude, despite everything else, Neil believed in me and gave me another chance.
I hope that I can be like Neil with other people. I hope that instead of giving up on them and just doing it myself, I can be ready and willing to slide them the ball and let them have another shot at it.
I have no idea where Neil is now, or if he’d even remember this but Neil, if you ever read this, I just want to say THANK YOU for teaching me a great life lesson out on that Hockey field. I hope I can do the same for someone else one day.