A day in the life of a soccer player

"Ryan, get warmed up."

It had been three years since I last heard those words, so when Barry Bimbi uttered them in my direction I had no idea what to do.

As I stood up and slowly walked away from the patch of grass I had been keeping warm on the sideline my mind raced with possibilities. The tightness in my calves, blisters on my feet and pain in my right knee no longer mattered.

Should I jog to the end line and back? Maybe it would be better to jog backwards.

"Did you say Brian or Ryan?"

Before I could contemplate how out of place I would look doing the grapevine, that innocent question snapped me back to reality.

How could I be so stupid? The score's tied, 0-0, Barry's team has not won a game in the two days I've been here, and his demeanor left no doubt that he wanted this victory.

Of course he called for Bryan Dahlquist and not me. Why would he want to substitute in the Marquette Tribune sports editor when he could get his starting center midfielder on the field for the final 15 minutes?

I did not see who asked Bimbi the question, and it seemed as if the men's soccer assistant coach did not hear it, so I repeated it.

To my surprise, Bimbi reiterated — without hesitation — that he wanted me to warm up.

Huh?

Bimbi had made a promise to me at the conclusion of his halftime speech (granted, it was delivered with a giant smirk on his face) that I would get into the scrimmage for the final 15 minutes. He kept his word.

I was playing up top because in a tie game a mistake in front of the opposing team's goal is much less costly than a flub in front of your own. The reason I was there in the first place was the open-mindedness of head coach Steve Adlard, who had agreed to let me be a participatory journalist for two days.

Spurred by Tom Verducci's Sports Illustrated article about spending five days of spring training as a "full-fledged player" with the Toronto Blue Jays, I called Adlard during finals week in May to see if I could practice with the team during training camp at the end of summer.

I covered the team in the fall of 2004, and Adlard said it would not be a problem as long as I signed off on a medical waiver when I arrived at Camp Whitcomb/Mason in Hartland, Wis.

Practice started at 9 a.m. Aug. 15, but when I pulled up at 8:45 things were already under way.

I hurriedly tugged on my shin guards, socks and cleats and hoped to blend in and not be noticed, in vain. Not only was I the shortest, slowest and sole owner of the worst first touch, I was wearing a royal blue Tonka United Soccer Association T-shirt. It seemed everyone else was sporting an Olympic Development Program shirt from his home state.

After several drills, I saw action in a 6 v. 7 half-field scrimmage. I turned the ball over way too many times, but I once managed to dribble out of a double team and for a second showed a glimpse of my former soccer playing self.

On the left side of the field I threaded the ball through two defenders and onto the foot of Ryan DuBois in front of the goal. The junior forward drilled the ball past the keeper, and I had my first and only assist.

I thrust my fist into the air and pumped it a couple times. I was about to shout out a scream of joy, but I looked around, noticed no one else on my team was celebrating and quietly retreated to my side of the field. For everyone else this was just a scrimmage during the first day of practice.

In the afternoon practice I passed on running the two-mile trail. My right knee was throbbing and I knew running any sort of distance would cause it to lock up and make me immobile for the remaining day-and-a-half I was to practice with the team.

Plus, it was a bit intimidating. Returning players talked about the trail in horror.

After dinner I played the final 10 minutes of the 60-minute, full-field scrimmage. Again I was playing up top with DuBois, and this time he returned the favor. Near the top of the box he gave me a drop pass that I one-timed with my right foot. I got some power behind it, but I also got under it a bit and sent the ball a foot or two over the cross bar.

"You had me a little worried," sophomore goalie Steven Grow told me after the game. I was not sure if he was concerned about my shot or the possibility of me pulling a muscle while shooting.

That night when I walked downstairs to my bunk room, Acorn 7, everyone was asleep. This was a bit problematic because there was no mattress on my top bunk, just a sheet of plywood. Since no one had used the bed Sunday night, one of the upperclassmen had moved it to his bunk so he could sleep on two mattresses.

I decided it would be best not to wake anyone up, so I took out my sleeping bag, spread it out on the plywood and fell asleep.

It was not that big of a deal to me. But when Bimbi walked in the next morning to wake everyone up he couldn't believe it.

Within a half hour, rumor had spread to every member of the team that I had spent the night sleeping on plywood. Multiple guys came up to me asking if the story was true. I just wish my play had created such a stir.

The second day of camp was much the same. Conditioning to start out the morning, a light afternoon session that focused on dead balls and set plays and a timed trail run that I passed on to conserve my knee.

The only difference between the two days was the intensity of pain. The first day the only thing I did was ice my right knee, but on day two just about every part of my lower body needed an ice bag or a bandage and I took ibuprofen every four hours.

Every other player was in a similar predicament. The guy who didn't hobble around with bags of ice wrapped around his knees and claves was the rare exception.

During warm-ups for the scrimmage on the second night, someone walked by and said, "I feel like a million bucks."

Junior midfielder Pat Knoelke replied, "I feel like six cents."

When I got on the field for the second scrimmage I was just as clueless as I had been on the sideline discerning what to do for warm-ups, but it did not matter because freshman forward Duncan Silvert-Noftle put our side up 1-0 on a great individual effort.

Adlard's side never had a chance to score the equalizer and I ended my two-day stint with the team as a winner.

As I left the camp and drove back to my Milwaukee apartment for the night I noticed a sign on the back side of the entrance arch that read: "Memories of happy hours."

This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on August 29, 2005.