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My Soccer Cleat Story

I really enjoy shoes. They are super fun. I have a lot of them spewing out of my closet. A lot can be learned about a person just by their shoes. In my ceramics class at the high school where I teach, I had my students bring in a shoe they wore during a memorable experience and share the story along with it. Stories upon stories have been shared and we’ve been sculpting these shoes out of clay. Shoes have the privilege and honor of walking with us through life. The steps we choose to take in our shoes can make a huge difference in where we end up. Sometimes God calls us to do some radical things in our shoes. Meaningful or insignificant, serious or funny, shoes have stories to tell. We all have stories to tell. This is one of mine:

My Soccer Cleat Story

Soccer is the first sport I ever played as a youngster. In 3rd grade, a friend of mine at school invited me to tryout for the Wheaton Wings Soccer Club Team. I really wasn’t any good in park district soccer, but I thought it would be fun, my friends were doing it, and my parents said I could! Miraculously, I made the team.

Traveling soccer was the gateway sport for me as an athlete. I grew to truly love the game. I respected my coach a lot. He taught us how to really play. He trained us hard. We never had a day off. Even in the pouring rain, we’d be practicing slide tackles in the mud on a slip and slide. We would run suicides for days. He turned us into tough competitors and he was not afraid to get in our face or put us in our place. For as much as I hated him at times, little did I know that he would eventually go on to play an extremely significant role in my life as an athlete, and even in my professional career as a teacher and a coach.

Up until 5th grade, I had played a variety of positions on the field, but playing left midfield was my jam because I was a southpaw and I could run. Halfway through the season in the days of U-11, my coach asked me if I wanted to start playing goalkeeper. I was flattered at first because he said that a keeper had to be athletic and have good hands, and he thought I had what it took. I had a pretty decent punt too. He said that I’d be splitting the game with another girl, so I’d still get to play in the field for half as well. I accepted the challenge. As time went on, I spent more and more time in goal, and less time playing midfield. I began to despise my position as goalie because my foot skills and field play were starting to digress. I was a step behind and a touch too late when I did get to play in the field, and it started to show. When it came time for tryouts again in the spring, my confidence as a field player was not high. I will never forget the night my dad got the call home from my coach. I could tell by the tone of his responses that it was not good news. I was bawling even before he hung up the phone. I knew the outcome. Basically the coach had told my dad that if I wanted to commit to playing goalie full time for their team, then I could stay up, otherwise, if I wanted an opportunity to play in the field, then they didn’t have room for me on the team. I didn’t want to keep playing goalie, but I also didn’t want to get moved down to the B-team. I was crushed. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being a soccer player by then, and now I was being told that I wasn’t good enough to be on the elite team. I was heartbroken. I was pissed. I felt left out. It was at that point I had made up my mind. I would never, ever let myself get cut from another team, ever again. That painful feeling deep within me and that bitter taste I had in my mouth, was something I never wanted to experience again, and it ignited the true competitor in me to prove my coach wrong.

With time, I was able to come to terms with my new role on a new team. I was going to get to play midfield again. I was going to be one of the stronger players on the team. I was going to get to play the whole game. I was going to learn how to lead. Also, now that the level of play was going to be significantly lower, I’d have the chance to gain some of my confidence back and take some more risks. And anytime I caught wind of my old coach coming to our game or practice, it was lights out, game on. I always wanted to play as if he was watching.

When I joined the B-team, they were in the D-Division. It was not pretty soccer, and my new coach kept calling me, “Co-lleen O’Brien! A nice Irish Catholic name!” haha k.. not quite. Each season, though, we would pick up a few more solid players who helped make our team stronger, and by the end of my 8th grade U-14 season, we had moved all the way up to the Premiere Division. To top it off, that spring we got to scrimmage my old team, the A-team, and we beat them. It was kind of really awesome.. for me at least.

During my freshman season of playing at the high school in 2000, I was finally reunited with a lot of my old teammates from the U-11 Wheaton Wings days. It was fun to get to play together again. The tough thing at this stage was that I played 3 sports. I had to make a decision of where I wanted to narrow my focus, and in which sport I saw myself going the farthest. I chose tennis and basketball. For some reason, I just didn’t see myself playing college soccer. Little did I know, I’d be eating my words later.

Fast forward to Wheaton College in spring of 2008, I had just finished my undergrad with a degree in kinesiology, played 4 years of tennis, was working part-time for a jeweler, and was the assistant coach for the women’s tennis team at Wheaton. I was living near campus with 4 other girls who were finishing up their senior year. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing with my life, but I had been praying that God would give me some direction. At the same time, my roommate and dear friend, Libby, had played on the soccer team at Wheaton. She was considering grad school and playing another season of soccer. She had all the paperwork stacked on her desk, had taken the GRE, and was working diligently on her applications. One day, Libby came back to our apartment and said to me, “Karly, you should play soccer!” One can only imagine the look I had on my face when she said that. She is a funny one!

“Haha... what?” I said, “Why??”

Libby continued, “We need a goalie! Our starting goalkeeper is graduating and we have no one coming in next year!”

I laughed. First off, I hadn’t played soccer in how long? Their team just won the national championship. There’s no way I am good enough. On top of that, that would mean more school. Not a chance. And goalie? I haven’t played goalie since I was 10!

Later that day, I walked down to the softball field to watch another friend of mine play on campus. I saw the assistant softball coach standing there, who happened to be the head soccer coach as well, and it got the wheels turning. What if I did play soccer? I’d have to go back to school. No. And I’d have to play goalie. Noo. What would I even study? Nooo! All of these things were sounding really bad to me, but for some reason my desire to compete again was fueling the fire. I walked back to my apartment and asked Libby what grad programs Wheaton offered. She handed me the folder from her desk and said, “Here you go!” On the list of programs, the Masters of Teaching caught my eye. I knew I wanted to keep coaching, and even as a kid had always envisioned myself becoming a teacher someday, I just didn’t know what I wanted to teach.

After several meetings and conversations with professors, coaches, my parents and fellow students in that crazy month of May 2008, I found out I had one semester left of eligibility to play a sport, it was open tryouts for the soccer team in the fall, and I decided to work toward a second degree in art. The irony of the art degree was that, besides taking a photography class in college and a jewelry class in high school, I had not taken an art class since 8th grade. It had been a while, but I knew art was the only subject I liked enough to want to teach. Needless to say, I knew I had a crap load of training and learning ahead of me. Both things I decided to pursue were things that I had not touched in years, but I just knew in my heart that this was what God wanted me to do. It sounded absurd to the people around me, but I was so certain and at peace about it. God had been teaching me a lot about how sometimes He reveals the ‘what,’ but He wanted me to trust Him with the ‘how.’ I had no idea how I was going to accomplish this, but my mind was made up. I was all in.

Right away, I got connected with a personal goalkeeper coach, a strength and conditioning coach, and a ‘get ready camp’ for other local college soccer players. I will never forget jumping into that first drill at the soccer camp, so freaking rusty, thinking, what the heck have I gotten myself into… please don’t pass me the ball. I knew it would be a process, though, getting back into soccer shape, getting more comfortable touching the ball again, and learning how to throw my body on the ground without dislocating my shoulders. There were plenty of ups and downs throughout that summer of training, and I had plenty of people questioning why I was doing what I was doing, but I had to keep trusting that the Lord was directing me this way and that He’d see it through. Halfway through the summer, I hit the wall. I was overwhelmed, physically exhausted, mentally and emotionally drained, and I couldn’t get myself up to go to my second training camp for the day. I was sitting on the couch at my parents’ house and my dad walked in and asked why I wasn’t at camp. I started crying. What was I doing? My dad gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. He said, “Karly, what you are doing is not normal. You can’t compare what you are doing to your friends getting married and having kids. All you can do is trust that this is what God wants you to do, and just keep taking the next step. Soccer is the icing on the cake. If you take a semester of art classes and feel like it’s not the right fit, then God will show you a different way He wants you to go from there.”

I love my dad. He made it so simple. How often do we truly know the outcome of anything before we even start? Pretty much never. God calls us to walk by faith. He wants us to take chances when He puts things on our hearts. He wants us to trust His direction and His timing, step by step.

Fall of 2008, I made the soccer team at Wheaton, loved my art classes, and knew I was right where I was supposed to be. My time on the soccer team was not only an unforgettable experience as a player, but an irreplaceable learning experience from a coaching aspect as well. I gained so much knowledge from my coaches and their philosophies, and I gained so many teammates that will forever be cherished friends of mine. Getting to be a part of a championship program and reach the national championship for Division III that year was an incredible journey. I saw the field more than I ever expected, and was even given an opportunity to take the starting spot halfway through the season. Unfortunately in the game I started, I let things go to my head and completely tanked, but I was still jacked to be the backup keeper for that joyride to the finals.

Two years later, in December of 2010, I completed my art education degree, and here I am today, teaching art and coaching tennis at Metea Valley High School.

The moral of the story is this: God never starts a story that He doesn’t finish. I recently read this in a book called Experiencing God Day by Day, and thought it was quite fitting:

“God never calls us to do anything without faithfully keeping His Word and enabling us to do it. We are not always faithful to do what God tells us, but He remains faithful and stands by His Word to fulfill what He has promised.” (Isaiah 46:11)

God is faithful. He is so Good. Sometimes I think the way He works in our lives is the way my students had to sculpt their shoes in ceramics class. We started with a block of clay and were using the subtractive method of carving to form our shoe. As the shoe would start to take form, we’d gradually refine and shape it to bring out the detail. Sometimes too much would get carved away and we would have to add pieces back on and try again. At certain points, I’d think I had made a lot of progress, then turn the shoe around and see all the work on the other side that I still had left to do. Working alongside my students, I'd occasionally ask how my shoe was looking, knowing there were areas that still needed work. I was so proud of it even in the early stages because I could see its potential and I knew what it was going to look like when it was finished. The students’ comments, though, were not always what I wanted to hear. They kept telling me what I was missing; it needed more detail, it looks like a clog, and it still needs cleats. I knew in my head that those finer details would come at the end, but my students weren’t able to visualize that and would sometimes question what I was doing.

When we allow God to shape and mold our lives, it is often hard to see or understand why He allows certain things to happen or why He is guiding us down a certain path. It sometimes even seems like we have to backtrack in order to get to where we really need or want to go. At other times, we may think things look good and we are doing just fine, and then God points out another area of our lives that needs growth and refinement, just like my students did with my shoe. Thankfully, God sees our potential and He sees the big picture. He knows exactly what we need in order to equip us for where He wants us to go. Even though some of those challenges and refining moments appear to be ugly and mere setbacks, God always has an underlying purpose and knows what is best for us.

Getting cut from the soccer team in 5th grade was not only a refining moment, but it was a defining moment in my life. When I reflect upon how God used that situation and each person in that story to help shape and mold my future, I am in awe of His Goodness. It is humbling. His plan is so detailed. His plan is so creative. He knew exactly what He was doing the whole time, even though I so often doubted Him. This shoe represents so much more than just soccer. It symbolizes God’s faithfulness to me when I took a step of faith. Without soccer, I probably wouldn’t have had enough motivation to go back to school to become an art teacher, I wouldn’t understand as deeply what it means to persevere, and I wouldn’t get to share this story of God’s hand in my life.

(soccer cleat: hand-carved by karlysue, speckled brown clay, stain finish)

All I can say is, God is a much better writer and artist than I will ever be, that is for sure. He truly does work things together for our good if we choose to trust Him (Romans 8:28). Even though His intricate plan doesn’t make sense at times and it’s not always easy, there is joy and peace in knowing that He is in control and that He loves us so deeply. He knows our hearts. He knows our desires. He wants us to use our gifts. He wants to bless us. He wants to walk beside us through our journey. He wants us to really get to know Him as we live out the life He has so graciously given us. And the sweet part of this story, is that it ain't over yet. :)

"Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to God be the glory, forever." (Ephesians 3:20-21)

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