Thursday, August 30, 2007

Journey to Oneonta: The 2007 National Soccer Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

There’s a memorable moment from the movie “Field of Dreams” where Shoeless Joe Jackson, basking in the glow of playing baseball on a razed cornfield, posed Ray Kinsella, the yuppie farmer caretaker, a simple, yet wonderful question.

“Hey Ray…is this Heaven?”

“No…it’s Iowa,” replies the farmer-turned-groundskeeper.

“Could’ve sworn it was heaven…” mumbles the ghost in disbelief.

I was reminded of this quote as I approached the picturesque surroundings of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, NY Sunday afternoon with the sheer joy and excitement that usually reserved for one’s early childhood. For on this day, I would experience an aspect of the game that I had never touched before.

I took my place among the crowd ready to taste the grandeur that comprised this historic date. On stage, mere yards before me were Alan Rothenberg, Bobby Smith, Julie Foudy, and Mia Hamm, all sporting their newly-minted bright scarlet blazers - a visual cue that each was bestowed with the highest level of recognition in American soccer. All four were titans in their capacities in the beautiful game – the first as an executive, the last three as players.

Among the fresh honorees were those who came before them – the legends, for lack of a more powerful term. Walter Bahr, Werner Roth, and Vladislav “Bogie” Bogićević - all of whom I had only imagined through books and word of mouth stories - became flesh before my eyes, as they proudly wore their red jackets as well. To say that these gentlemen helped mold and shape the American game in its formative years is an understatement of the highest order.

The ceremony began a little after both hands on the clock had crossed 12, and the crowd was well in place. Over 4,000 souls had come attend the ceremony to celebrate and honor their soccer heroes, and although the conditions were cloudy and gray, the overwhelming sense of pride, dignity and class for the sport shone through when each of the inductees spoke.

After the ceremony, I snaked through the crowd and journeyed toward the museum. Absolutely taken aback by the numerous the exhibits and displays of the soccer timeline in this country, I couldn’t help but just gaze in silent awe. I searched for the words to describe this feeling and was at a complete loss. The wonderful assortment of photographs, trophies and jerseys from years past truly hit me like a 12-man battering ram. Awestruck barely begins to describe the amount of sheer delight I felt when viewing the vast collection of specimens from the world’s game - American style. Tremors of goosebumps reverberated through body, as if my soul were trying to convey something primitive in response to my surroundings – something greater than just soccer balls, a pitch, and bunch of players. It was the essence of the game that my soul was being serenaded to – and my being was simply unable to keep it to itself.

Although there were many on hand also walking the same halls and room that I walked, I felt as if it were a private encounter – just me and the game. Perhaps it was because for those precious moments, nothing else mattered. I stood in amazement at one particularly striking image. It was a bug’s eye view from behind the net at Giants Stadium prior to a New York Cosmos game in the late-70s. The stadium lights shone optimistically behind a gray sky, hanging over the AstroTurfed pitch with the seats packed. It was a dizzying snapshot of how popular this game once was…and can be again.

Once I inhaled, absorbed, and tasted all that the game was, I returned to my former plain of existence –a.k.a. the real world – and exited the museum. I then strolled across a neatly-mowed field toward the pitch where the game is: a matchup between the Connecticut Soccerplus Reds and the Washington Freedom. There, to delight of the crowd, Hamm and Foudy were inserted as substitutes, joining former teammates Carla Overbeck, Tiffany Roberts and a handful of members of the ’86 U.S. Women’s National Team on the pitch for the appropriately named Hall of Fame game.

The match was played on perfectly green grass, with the pastoral setting of the Catskill Mountains as its breathtaking backdrop. It was a picturesque scene ripped from the pages of a Hemingway novel. Sitting upon a cool grassy knoll that ran parallel to the touchline, I once again breathed in the game. This time, it beautifully transpired before my already-wide open eyes. A brilliant collection of women in red and blue ran up and down the pitch, playing the very game that’s been played here for over one hundred years.

Watching it all before me were hordes of kids, both boys and girls, rooting the teams on, while wearing the jerseys of their soccer heroes: David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Mia Hamm. After absorbing the past and present, I was now bearing witness to the future. These very kids are next in line to continue the wonderful lineage of this inspiring game here in America. They are the next generation of players and builders that will fuel the soccer’s growing popularity in our country.

After the final whistle had blown, the crowd began to disperse back to their minivans and hatchback all-terrain sedans, with their little soccer-loving kids in tow. Then, the sky began to break as the sun peered in, almost on cue to add the final brushstrokes of this majestic masterpiece of a day.

And, as if the script for this momentous event had already been written and perfected ahead of time, I asked myself…

“Is this heaven?”

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