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My first soccer memory

October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United fans cheer after Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) scored a goal in the second half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Atlanta United won 2-0 over the Philadelphia Union. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United fans cheer after Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) scored a goal in the second half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Atlanta United won 2-0 over the Philadelphia Union. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

While we are waiting to create soccer memories in wake of the sport mostly and rightly shutting itself down around the world, I’ve been sorting through my favorite memories because what else is there to do?

My first soccer memory originated when I was 5 years old.

I was in first grade at Riverside Elementary in Mableton.

I can’t remember my teacher’s name. I’m horrible at remembering names. Fantastic with directions and remembering conversations. Horrible with names.

But I walked into class 44 years ago and there were fliers on our desks: Play soccer at the YMCA in Marietta.

I don’t know why, but it looked interesting to my 5-year-old self.

A few minutes later, a man came to our class to make sure that we had seen the fliers. They were printed on gold paper, I think. He told us that if we were interested to make sure that we gave the paper to our parents when we returned home.

I lived about 2 miles, I think, from the school. It was a very short bus ride.

I returned to our single-story ranch on Gordon Woods Drive and gave the flier to my mom.

Soccer became my passion.

My first team was the Black Vultures. I didn’t pick the name.

I can’t remember if we were good.

I played defense, left fullback I think.

I do remember being called for a handball because I reached down and picked up the ball during a game. In my defense, I swear that I heard the whistle blow. A whistle wasn’t blown.

The penalty kick was missed.

But I enjoyed the sport.

I practiced in my yard most days.

My dad joined an adult league and played. He’s now self-employed. He’s an auto-machinist in Decatur. He soon will be 73 and still opens his shop, working in heat that during the summer turns his garage into a tandoori oven and in the winter into an ice box.

Back then, he worked for NAPA.

When he wasn’t too tired, we would pass the ball back and forth in our front yard, which was perfectly sized for a 5-year-old and a soccer ball.

The Black Vultures became the Comanches. Again, I didn’t pick the name. The black-and-white jerseys became green and yellow.

I do remember that we weren’t good. I think I was moved from fullback to right forward. I could pick a pass. Still can, actually.

Driving from Mableton to Marietta was too much.

We changed leagues from the YMCA to the YWCA in Austell.

The Comanches became the Rowdies. Green kits turned into dark blue, I think. Later they turned into powder blue. I pulled my socks above my knees. I’d like to think I started that trend. I know I didn’t.

We practiced and played most of our games behind Trinity United Methodist Church.

We were good. Really good. We had that sweet spot of some players with talent, some athletes and a man in charge, Frank, who knew something about the sport.

A few years later, my dad became coach.

The Rowdies became the Roughnecks, named after the old NASL team. That was my idea. We wanted something new. I remember the players had gathered in the parking lot of Hurt Road Park to discuss a new name. I threw out Roughnecks. It sounded tough. It sounded like it would intimidate players on the other team when they looked at the schedules. I was stupid.

We were really good.

Not only did we have good players, we had chemistry because most of us had played together for several seasons. We also had boys who were starting to go through puberty. It’s easier to win when it’s soon-to-be-men against boys.

My dad worked us. Hard.

Practices started with laps around the fence that surrounded the field.

Many, many, many laps.

If it wasn’t laps it was running up the hill behind the baseball field. The top of the hill ended at the top of the plateau that hosted the soccer field.

If the Roughnecks didn’t win because of our name, if we didn’t win because we had some skill, if we didn’t win because of hormones, we won because of conditioning.

In addition to playing, my dad would watch Soccer Made in Germany. We would work in practice on the things that he faced in games or saw on television or saw in person when our family – Mom, Dad, me and sister Amy -- attended Atlanta Chiefs games.

We would change formations during games. We would use overlapping and underlapping fullbacks. We had a deep-lying playmaker, Aaron. We had a sweeper, either Tony or David, who seemed to be a foot taller than everyone else. We had a very fast and skilled striker, Bob. We knew who to get the ball to.

I played outdoor and indoor as often as possible. When I wasn’t playing for real, I was playing Subbuteo or soccer video games.

Rec soccer became high school soccer. High school soccer included one season of travel ball and some indoor at Graham Tutt’s old place in North Cobb. The travel team’s home field was in Douglasville. It seemed to take an hour to get there from our home in Mableton. When I was hired by the AJC we picked Douglasville as our residence. On a winter day, you could see my old travel team’s home field from our driveway. Though I’ve since re-married and now live in Carrollton, it’s funny how things come full circle.

Once I got to college, soccer drifted away. It couldn’t be found on television. The internet wasn’t yet widespread.

And then I became a professional journalist, a story which I've already shared.

Other than World Cups, there was no way to really watch soccer on television back in 1992.

While working in Hickory, N.C. in 1994, I got a call from my dad. He said if you can get down here tomorrow, I have tickets to a World Cup game in Orlando, Fla. Netherlands vs. Morocco. Group F. We will fly down and rent a car and drive back. One day.

You bet your butt I made that 5-hour drive.

It was so hot. Netherlands’ fans were all over the place with their orange shoes, orange overalls, orange cowboy hats. It was awesome.

Netherlands won 2-1 on goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Bryan Roy. Frank de Boer started.

Soccer took a back seat again for many, many years. No access.

MLS had started but it wasn’t on TV like it is today. Er. Well, you know what I mean.

I was sports editor in Newport News, Va. It was 2005.

I was sitting in my office. The TV was on in the background.

It was the Champions League final. Istanbul. Liverpool vs. AC Milan.

I watched AC Milan slice apart Liverpool in the first half. Goals from Paolo Maldini and two more from Hernan Crespo gave Milan a 3-0 lead before halftime.

Instead of rolling over, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard scored in the 54th minute.

Vladimir Smicer scored two minutes later.

I got out of my chair, walked into the sports department and turned the TV from whatever they were watching to the game.

I remember telling them to stop what they were doing for 30 minutes and watch because I had a feeling it was going to fantastic.

Oh, boy.

Xabi Alonso scored four minutes later.

3-3

3 to freakin’ 3.

In extra time, Milan’s Andrei Shevchenko missed two shots, either of which should have gone in if not for excellent saves by Jerzy Dudek.

On to penalties.

Liverpool won 3-2.

I became a Liverpool supporter. Still am.

The Premier League was added to my local cable package.

Soccer was back in my life.

Two years later I moved to Atlanta to become the college sports and golf editor at the AJC.

Less than two years after I arrived, the paper eliminated all of the assistant editor positions as part of a reshuffling.

I became a reporter again.

Singular, large-scale soccer events started coming to the city. Mexico, A.C Milan, Club America, Manchester City. I started covering them.

And then came Atlanta United.

It’s like looking at that gold piece of paper all over again.

Soccer.

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Please feel free to share your first memory of soccer with me by sending an email to doug.roberson@ajc.com

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