The girls on the opposing team — from the suburbs — were being especially mean.
They taunted before the whistle blew, and, as the soccer game went on, it was difficult to tell if they simply enjoyed making insults or had a strategy to try to distract our team.
Either way, they were winning.
Our team included smart, funny girls who happened to hail from a public school in a challenged part of our city. They were tough, but this had them visibly upset.
During a break, I got close enough to the sideline for my daughter Mia to give me a quick rundown of what was happening. Players on the other team were loudly making comments like:
“Watch out you don’t get head lice!”
“Why do they even bother trying to beat us?”
“Why don’t they go home to the projects?”
Mia and her teammates got angry and played hard. These were fighting words. Problem was, this was soccer, not a cage match.
The head game was working. Focus on the insults and you lose focus on the game.
A disclaimer: the game happened years ago so I don’t recall all the details — including the final score — so it’s possible I’m recounting some aspects through rose-colored glasses.
I do recall specifically how it was close enough for our team to try hard to win, to outplay the mean girls – not worry about one-upping them with insults.
Still, I could understand our girls’ anger. I fumed from the sidelines; my wife couldn’t believe the opponents were so brazen to use the “projects” insult. It wasn’t even accurate.
Sure, our school was located in a declining part of Wilkes-Barre City and was much less affluent than the outlying private seminaries and rich, suburban schools in its soccer division. Sure, our school had problems with absent parents, troubled kids, violence, bullying, and drugs. But it also was rich in other ways, with many kids getting along across racial and economic barriers, with some great, empathetic and hard-working teachers and parent-volunteers helping at every turn.
But the mean girls didn’t seem to appreciate any of that. For not having gangs in their school, they sure had a gang mentality – at least on this day.
They decided to take their spoiled brat card and play it, hoping our girls would take the bait and get slapped with other kinds of cards — red and yellow ones.
Half time came and this game was not shaping up to be much fun. We were on the wrong side of the score board, angry and getting angrier.
Meanwhile, arrogance dripped like very expensive maple syrup from those rural opposing players, who were now smirking as they prowled the sidelines.
About a minute or two into the second half, though, something changed.
It started with a collision involving one of our smallest forwards. It seemed like the whole team walked over to surround her on the ground. She got up hurt, holding her belly and wincing, near tears. But, oddly, as she and her teammates got closer to our bench they were all smiling, trying to hold back laughter.
Another collision a few minutes later brought a similar scene. Despite concern and fearful looks as our girls huddled over this same forward, the young ladies turned to their coaches and us nearly in giggles.
This forward, Katie, continued aggressive play despite the injuries, and other girls continued to feed her the ball.
The next time she hit the ground, near our sideline, she again needed help to get up. Again she held her belly. This time, once the other team got out of earshot, we could hear our players laughing so hard they were snorting.
But, as play resumed, everyone appeared stern again.
My wife and I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Neither did any of the other fans from our sidelines. I think the coaches were in the dark, too.
Only after the game did we learn the joke.
And it was a good one, that took some fine acting, collaboration and team smarts. I reveled in the irony that “the projects girls” were able to pull it off on their uppity peers.
Katie, the “hurt” forward, was darkly clever. Turns out the first time she hit the ground, she suffered some sort of blow to the stomach. As other girls huddled around, she asked loudly: “Do you think the baby will be OK?”
Our team picked up on it right away.
Of course, a “projects girl” would be unmarried and pregnant in high school, so the other team would fall for the ruse right away. For the rest of the game, every time Katie fell or slipped or even used a slide to try to take the ball, someone would mention the “baby” or ask whether the clinic would be open after the game or, glaring toward the other team, ask Katie:
“Who hurt the baby this time?”
I never did hear whether the ref fell for it. Maybe he just figured that “Baby” was Katie’s nickname.
As I said above, I don’t recall whether the joke led to a victory or not.
I asked my daughter and reached out to a couple other players for help with this recounting. While they remembered the joke, they didn’t recall the specific team they had played that day or the final score.
Which, I think, is great.
It’s so much cooler that the story of the “baby” survived all this time instead of who won or lost yet another game.
We remember who won the important battle.
Those mean girls left that field at best outwitted and at worst wondering what just happened — still scratching their heads.
And, no, it wasn’t from lice.