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June 28-July 4, 2006

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Net Worth

There's comfort in life's constants and the pickup game is one of them

By Todd Inoue

2006 World Cup:
Cup memories | Pickup soccer games | Brazil's national team | Soccer fans in Silicon Valley

I HAVE a relationship with a bunch of strangers I barely even know—most of them only by first names. It takes literally months before I learn what they do for a living, and for the majority I still don't know and don't care. Yet for two hours we rendezvous and communicate verbally, telepathically and instinctually. I know their strengths, weaknesses, quirks and capacity for pathos. We share one thing in common: a need to play pickup soccer.

In the early '90s, a friend tipped me off to a Saturday game started by some downtown club guys. They were filmmakers, artists, rappers, DJs, contractors, club owners and assorted nuts that smelled of the previous night's liquor. It was a transient game—dependent on the quality of the field and trespassing laws—starting at Discovery Meadow, then to San Jose State south campus, Bird Park in Willow Glen, Lincoln High and Markham Junior High.

The game was remarkably resilient and we'd play rain or shine. We'd always play on Thanksgiving Day, when people were home and nobody had anything to do until the afternoon. Alas, the years went by and so did the players, due to jobs, injuries, kids and responsibilities. There were constants like Silvio—an Argentine with bending kicks and a penchant for yelling "We're killing dem!" like a parrot, and Paul, a stocky Realtor who once brought his neighbor and San Jose Clash member Sean Medved out, who in turn brought his buddy, current national team member Eddie Lewis, for a game or two. Yeah, I picked Eddie's pocket a couple times.

But the most memorable character was Vince, a 60-plus crusty Croatian whose son, Yogi, plays guitar in Buckcherry. Vince was a never-ending source of amusement, dispensing financial advice, old country remedies and X-rated anecdotes. He'd pick a random weed and talk of its curative properties. He espoused urine as a remedy for rashes and dandruff. He warned us to never get married; yet he was married himself (they lived in separate towns). I'll never forget how he described the best way for men to deal with women: "Go to Vegas, bury her in the desert and get whores." I'm pretty sure he was kidding.

Sometimes it was too early on a Saturday morning to endure Vince's ramblings, but I've got to give him credit: Vince was strong for his age. He was always the first one there and the last to leave, still juggling the ball long after all the young guys had quit for the day. He would score a pretty goal every once in a while and celebrate by shaking invisible maracas. Once he didn't show up for two weeks and we learned he suffered from a heart condition and he came out in street clothes to tell us where he'd been. He was back out there soon, popping open his trunk to pull out swiped PG&E cones for us to use as goals.

But fewer and fewer people showed up. After a few dormant months of inaction, the pickup game was declared dead after over a decade. It's sad when a pickup game ends. It becomes an important part of the decompression ritual and the players become family—ones that don't bother you about taking out the garbage or wonder when you're going to fix the deck. Don't get it twisted: if you play badly, they'll make sure to remind you afterward.

Much like the end of a long-term relationship, it's not easy finding another pickup game with the right elements. Sure, there are games going on all across town because of World Cup, but sometimes the game is overwhelmed with inexperienced players in jeans and tennis shoes or the personality mix is volatile. I play to forget my problems, not add to them.

Two years ago, I got hep to a Sunday game in Santa Clara. The core has been together longer than my old crew. The game is more competitive than my Saturday one—no freebies here. But for all the hip checks and elbows, after the winning goal it's handshakes, jokes and a promise to come back next week. There's comfort in life's constants and the pickup game is one of them. I know I can show up any Sunday morning and be welcomed. And that feels good.

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