My Love Letter to Soccer
BY RITA ELLIS | This essay was selected as the Runner-Up in the adult category of the Awesome Sports Writing Contest.
I am Rita Jones Ellis and I am a proud 59-year-old Scot-Canadian-American woman (I have the passports to prove it!).
Born into a Scottish family with an undying love of soccer, I was the eldest girl in a family of seven - five girls, two boys. I was four-years-old when we moved to St. Catharines, Canada, and 37 when we moved to Dawson, USA. My parents both loved soccer and it was our 'go to' game at the beach, in the park or in the yard. My Dad, Billy Jones, started the much-needed first boys league in our city and my brothers began their long playing careers.
There were no teams for girls. I knew I was at least as good - if not better - than a lot of the boys playing (including my brothers Alex and Billy - and you know they disagree!) and all I wanted was to one day play soccer on a real soccer field as part of a team.
That magic day happened for me in 1971. Mr. Eric MacKay and some brave folks organized a friendly match between two ad-hoc teams. I was the youngest, a 12-year-old on the pitch with women up to 41 and having the time of my life. How can I describe that moment? I believe I was floating, alive, ecstatic. I scored two goals and shortly after a girls/women's league began with three teams playing each other for the coveted league and playoff titles. A year later the city All-Star team won the first ever Robbie International Women's Championship against a team from Bowie, Maryland. I still have that plaque hanging on my wall. It was magic!
In 1974, we won the Ontario Summer Games gold medal. In the league, we battled our foes, the Jets and Club Roma, on a regular basis for 5-6 years until we all headed off either to university or work. There were no high school teams. There were no local university or college teams. My soccer playing years were done at 18 years of age. Or so I thought.
In 1981 Miles and I got married and moved to London, England, for 3 years. We lived in an international student's residence, Lillian Penson Hall. There are a number of international student residences in London and they formed their own rec league, which was pretty darn competitive, as you can imagine. Miles and I tried out for the team and we both made it. My teammates were from England, France, Belgium, South Africa, Ireland, Canada and more but they were all cool with me playing - because I really could play. Well, wouldn't you know it, we made it to the finals and I scored the winning goal. Now, that was fun! The Warden of the residence threw a party for us with the caveat that only team members could attend. When I went to enter, he blocked me, telling me team members only. After some stern words from my teammates the Warden allowed me in with what I remember fondly as a look of shock on his face!
Fast forward to our arrival in the USA in 1995. My husband Miles and I had three kids and we were all new to Georgia. The kids started a new school and brought their soccer balls to recess with them. They played in a rec league 20 minutes from town but a question was posed. Do you think the other kids at school might want to play? The answer in 1997 was a resounding yes. So in our first year Terrell Academy Eagles had 60 kids register to play. Only four kids (three of them ours) had previous soccer experience.
I took my 'F' and 'E' licenses and got to work with my husband and my kids and any visiting relatives. Fields were lined by us at night and all the practices were run by us. That's a lot of soccer time. We also taught some great parents how to coach and what this game of soccer was all about! Start with the basics and encourage, encourage, encourage and then go back to the basics. Repeat as needed.
"All I wanted was to one day play soccer on a real soccer field as part of a team."
One of the most memorable times for me was when a high school student, Stephanie Hamby, approached me to start a girl's high school soccer team. None of the girls had played soccer before. There was a worry by the school coaching staff that soccer would eventually take away from their football numbers and they weren't thrilled we started it. But the girls persevered and fought for their right to play soccer - and I do mean fight against all the roadblocks that were thrown at them. Most of them were cheerleaders and some had never played a sport before. We had to wait 2-3 years for my now experienced recreational players to pass through to high school so we really were starting from scratch. What an adventure those first few years were!
We had a rule. As a new team, we had to be realistic. Going into a match against a superior team was not going to miraculously turn us into a winner. You cannot teach tactics until you know the basics. I told them that for every time we passed the ball across midfield I would deduct one of the other team's goals. So our girls screamed like we had scored every time we passed over midfield. I know the other team thought we were crazy but our 7-0 defeats quickly became 3 or 4 to nil. But we scored our first goal that year (yeah, Julie Smith) and won our first game and they both were like winning the championship.
I left the team in good hands and had the pleasure of hearing that a number of the girls who started with me as U6 players were playing in the AA State Championship game in 2010 for Terrell Academy! Now that is progress!! A few of the girls and some of the boys went on to play college soccer and I get teary thinking that it was my family's love of soccer that brought the love of the game from Johnstone, Scotland, to St Catharines, Canada to Terrell County, Georgia and gave those kids a chance to play at the college level. I still hear from those kids and it does my heart good to know that soccer has become a part of the fabric in their life tapestry.
"What a day! What a game! I'd be lying if I said I wasn't emotional. I kept thinking, 'Look at ALL these people here to watch women play soccer. Look at them!'"
Our kids all played travel soccer. We were supposed to call it premier soccer but it was travel soccer. Most of the teams we played were based in Atlanta - three hours or more away from Albany, Georgia. I know it was a lot and it was a commitment by them and by Miles and me but the time spent in the car gave us some of our most memorable moments. Kids seem to like to talk when they aren't looking at you (that's a tip all parents can use). You find out all kinds of things and listen to all kinds of music and still get to enjoy good soccer.
All our kids played high school soccer - Oliver on defense, Cameron in goal and Jackie wherever they needed her. Jackie went on to play at the college level with Columbus State University and she rates it as one of the best things in her life. Oliver still plays adult rec and has been called the Columbus 'Pele' by some and he coaches his middle school team every spring. Cameron is currently tearing up the softball fields in Columbia, MO and hoping to get in some soccer sometime soon. Jackie is looking to start coaching in the Seattle area and play rec ball, too.
I became an avid follower and supporter of the USWNT. When they announced the 1999 World Cup was to be in California, I knew we had to go. I bought tickets to the gold medal match early. I got us seats at midfield across from the teams (level with where Jennifer Lopez performed her new hit "Let's Get Loud!) and knew that the USWNT would make it to the final. What a day! What a game! I'd be lying if I said I wasn't emotional. I kept thinking, "Look at ALL these people here to watch women play soccer. Look at them!" Unbelievable. What I would have given...but I'm so happy others were given that chance.
And then the Atlanta Beat. The Atlanta Beat! People paid to watch a professional women's league. I met Briana Scurry after the game one night at a meet and greet and I know she thought I was daft. My voice cracked and I teared up and blurted something along the lines, "You have no idea how happy it makes me to see you playing professional soccer. If I had a singular wish my whole life, it was to be a soccer player. Soccer set me free on the field. I didn't over think. I just played." I was so proud to witness it. The gold medal. The women's league. WOW!!
I'm a proud Celtic/Man United/Atlanta United fan. Scotland/Canada/USA are my teams. I am a soccer purist. A soccer lover. A soccer fan. It is crazy to think how much joy soccer has brought to me and my family (all of them) for so many years. I may not have been a spectacular player - I was a bread and butter player, I've been told, essential to every game to let the stars like Linda Tait and Lilly Szwolak shine and to keep the game moving. I loved being a right midfielder in a 2-3-5 formation (yep, old attacking style).
I am beyond grateful that I got to play, even for a wee while. I am even more grateful that I got to teach the beautiful game to some wonderful young women and watch them blossom into players and fans of the game. And watching my daughter play college ball? Yep, that takes the cake. Did I say she scored against the Arsenal women's team on a trip to London with her college team? Sure, they lost handily, but her Tottenham Hotspur Dad and her Man United Mum will always brag about her goal against the Arsenal!
I have one grandson playing soccer already. The youngest will start next year. And all my grandkids to come? Yep, they will play. You see, it is in our blood.
Thanks to all those who fought for the right to play regardless of gender. Thanks for being trailblazers. Thanks for making my dreams a real possibility for all those that come after me.
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