The last professional football we watched together, before the coronavirus emptied the streets and the stadiums, was the 70th minute of Liverpool’s home leg against Atletico Madrid last Wednesday in the Champions League. The Reds were up 1-0 when my son Sam and I had to leave for his indoor footy final. We turned off the TV, the screen went black, and Sammy grabbed his boots, out the door.
He’s 12 years old and plays; I’m 46 and coach. Our Team Navy had won the league and now faced our archrivals, Team Purple. I felt like we were going to win. Sam was less certain. He warned me on the drive that he might cry if we lost, and I couldn’t be mad if he did.
By the time we took to the turf, my phone informed me that Liverpool were up 2-0 in extra time, and I relayed the score to Sam. He’s been Liverpool for most of his young life, his first season as a genuine fan having ended with Steven Gerrard’s slip. There would be no falling short this year.
Sam played the way a storm eats the shore. He scored two quick goals to give us our own 2-0 lead. “Let’s go!” he shouted, pumping his little fists. His feet barely touched the ground.
Football had lifted us to the happy heights it has always taken my beautiful boy and me. It is our principal shared experience. I play and coach and write about it. Sam plays and talks and dreams about it. We know each other so well, we love each other so well, in part because we know and love the same thing outside of ourselves.
But then Team Purple came on. I felt helpless to stop them. All our kids tried. We just couldn’t hold them back. In minutes, our 2-0 lead turned into a 5-3 loss.
After, we elbow-bumped the victors rather than shaking their hands, a small concession to the bug that was surely about to run its minimal course. I gave out silver medals and told Team Navy’s boys and girls how much I had loved watching them play. More elbow bumps, except for Sam. He came in for a hug.
Then I checked my phone again, and Liverpool had also lost somehow, 3-2, a reality almost too strange to digest in the minutes before our entire reality became an impossible fiction. I showed Sam, and now he came in for another hug. It had been a very bad hour for the family business.
Sam left the arena with his mum. I had another game there later that night, this time as a player, old even among other old men, and I sat in the quiet and waited for it to begin. I had no idea what was coming. None of us did. By Friday, everything would be stopped.
The hard truth about lasts: You don’t always recognize them for what they are, in the moment. Of course, sometimes you do. If you see your son or daughter in his or her tiny cap and gown, or going to prom, you know that’s the end of an age. You listen to their voice break one day and appreciate that you’ve heard the last happy, high-pitched squeal: “Daddy!”
Other times, it doesn’t take long for you to figure it out. I can remember the last time I changed Sam’s diaper, because it was such a calamity. I’m pretty sure he decided he was never going through that again and used the toilet from then on.
And then come those finalities for which the reality takes more time to roost. Maybe there’s something you did forever, or someone you saw every day, and then one day you didn’t, and days turned into weeks into months into years and only then do you understand: That’s over now.
Football isn’t over for Sam and me, or for any of us. But it’s over for now. On Tuesday, UEFA and CONMEBOL announced that this summer’s Euro and Copa America would take place in 2021. I wouldn’t get to follow my beloved Wales starting in Baku, of all the now-inaccessible places. The fates of domestic leagues and the Champions and Europa Leagues are less certain, except they won’t restart anytime soon. Sam’s spring practices have been cancelled, too.
The void is making me realize that football will not always be what it is today for my son and me. We are doing a dress rehearsal for some unknown future date that makes my chest hurt to imagine.
My biggest remaining life goal is to play with Sam in a competitive adult game. He’ll be 18, and I’ll be 52, the youngest and oldest players on the pitch. I think I can do it, but six years is an eternity when everything can change in one bad hour. You never know when another Atletico or Team Purple or COVID-19 might come along, and something precious to you will vanish, and you’ll feel some heaving mix of gratitude for having had it and sadness for now missing it.
And it’s exactly then that you’ll realize: Our only permanent condition, the only inevitability in our lives, is that one day all of it will be made a memory, equal parts beautiful and bittersweet.