Several years ago I drove 20 miles east of my home, here in Maine, to the college town of Brunswick. It was Alicia Carillo who invited me over to Bowdoin College that autumn afternoon. She had grown up in my neighborhood (into a fine soccer player, at Harvard) before marrying a fellow Wellesley soccer product, John Sisk, who starred at Babson College during its D3/national championship heyday of the late 1970s. He also coached my club team for 2-3 seasons. Some 35 years later, I traveled to the Mid-Coast to visit with each of them — and to watch their son, an undergraduate at Amherst, play a collegiate match at Bowdoin. I’d never met young Forrest Sisk, but it hardly mattered: In walking around the field, behind one goal to the bleachers where his parents were seated, I recognized this kid immediately — from his gait. He ran in exactly the same way his father did.
I recalled this incident and the lingering intimacies of Pack life early in October when I returned to my alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., for its first-ever Alumni Soccer Weekend. Despite a last-minute recruitment effort, I did NOT make the mistake of playing any actual soccer. One fellow Cardinal’s experience well illustrates why 50somethings should avoid such things: first touch, own goal; second touch, popped hamstring. Instead, John Dorsey and I stayed in our hotel room Saturday morning, drinking coffee and watching Tottenham lose the North London Derby to an opponent that shall not be named.
We did, however, show up for the final few minutes of one alumni game, and that’s where Dorse and I immediately spied Scott Kessel sweeping behind an aged back line. I hadn’t seen Scotty in 35 years, but I recognized his distinctive strike, bearing and slightly hunched posture immediately (you can see him in the image above, at right, lurking behind the referee). When one plays 3 or 4 seasons of soccer beside anyone, the way they walk or run or carry themselves need not be distinctive: Their particular qualities, however bizarre or mundane, remain embedded in the subconscious, poised for instant recall and recognition even decades after the fact. Because Pack Life is, above all, about intimacy.
Joining an existing team of other adult men is a delicate process, and I was obliged to undertake this ritual maybe half a dozen times in my post-pubescent soccer life. Back in the fall of 1982, when I showed up at Wesleyan, and still today in this enlightened New Age of ours, team-joining remains an endless series of public tests: as to how well one plays, how physically fit and mentally resilient one might be, how collaborative one proves to be, and how well one responds to verbal provocation. It’s all very primitive and primal and public. The process feels like one long, drawn out, testosterone-heightened performance-test. Which, of course, it is.
If, after a couple trial weeks, one is judged by the group to have “what it takes,” the aspirant is taken into the warmth and security of the Pack. If not, he is kept at bay — if not physically, by coaches or captains in charge of the roster, then emotionally by the group. We largely avoid this gauntlet growing up, playing youth soccer with roughly the same cohort year after year. Arriving at college felt like being thrown into the deep end. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that, as students at a fancy liberal arts college, my new teammates had all read “Lord of the Flies.”
The Pack can prove a terribly grinding and unforgiving environment, at first. In time, though not inevitably, it can also be welcoming, soothing and enlightening. What’s more, a mere season or two can engender a familiarity and intimacy that most human pursuits can never hope to match. In fact, playing music with other adults is the only thing, in my experience, that even comes close.
Before Generation Zero was published, I reconnected with another former Wesleyan teammate. David Carnoy and I had only played a couple seasons together in Middletown, and we didn’t socialize much away from the soccer field frankly. He’s the author of several novels; I believe I’d sought him out that pandemic winter of 2020-21 to pick his brain on agent and publishing matters. By day, David is the editor-in-chief at cnet.com; after trading a few emails, I checked out the site. Front and center was a newly posted video of Mr. Carnoy walking the snow-flurried streets of midtown Manhattan, live-reviewing a pair of state-of-the-art wireless headphones. I’m good with faces. But as with Scott Kessel and Forrest Sisk, Carnoy could have been wearing a bag over his head: Thirty-five years on, I’d have recognized his jaunty, slightly bow-legged gait anywhere.