She grew to love the game of soccer. When she was five, her father took her to sign up for the community rec (recreational) league for the first time. She was reluctant until she saw the sample pink uniform on display. Her eyes lit up and she smiled at her dad. “I can wear pink to play soccer?” she asked. “OK then, sign me up!” she said.
She played for years in this league. She had uniforms of all colors (except never the pink one) and she had all kinds of coaches. There were good years where her team had a winning record, and there were worse years – including the year they never scored a goal, not even one. Each year she improved, and as her understanding of the fundamentals increased, she grew to love the game more.
Her mom made her try out for the middle school team. “No, mom, you don’t understand,” she explained. “This isn’t rec soccer. These girls are good. They play on travel teams year round. I’ll never make the team.”
“Nonsense,” her mom replied. “You’ll make the team – and you’ll never know unless you try.” So she tried out, and she didn’t make it. With a sense of relief she kept on playing in the rec league.
High school came and there was her mom’s urging again. “Now you can try out for the high school team,” she said.
“You don’t get it, mom. These girls are good. Real good.”
“So playing with them will make you better,” said her mom. “And you’ll never know if you can make the team unless you try out.”
“There are no tryouts,” she said. “You just show up. Then they make you run till you drop and if you can last through that you are on the team.”
“Perfect,” said her mom. “You’re in!”
Practice was grueling to say the least. They would run, and run, throw up, and keep running. Then they would run some more. One day a teammate kicked the ball into her face accidentally, and her nose gushed with blood. She was afraid to talk to the upperclassmen. She didn’t talk much to the girls her own age. Her skills were woefully inadequate compared to others. At each game she carried the team’s soccer gear with her fellow freshman teammates, including the PVC goals. She played some in the JV games (junior varsity) and she dressed for every varsity game and never got to play. And she kept playing soccer, or at least giving it her best try.
Each year there was a school sports banquet for all fall sports. That first year her family thought surely she would get the most improved or at least the hardest worker award. Then she found out that the soccer coach didn’t give awards to his players – he only gave recognition of seniors and team captains. But he did talk about each player because he knew them all well. When it was her turn, he said, “We all wondered if she would make it around the track every time we ran. And sometimes she didn’t. But she didn’t quit.” No words about her soccer abilities. Maybe that was a good thing.
Sophomore year was a bit better, and her teammates grew to appreciate her efforts. She played some JV but never saw action on the varsity field. Again at the banquet the coach talked about her struggling to get around the track when they ran. “This is getting embarrassing,” she told her family. But she kept playing soccer.
Her team was unstoppable her junior year and they won the state championship. She was as excited as any other team member, even though she got on the field for only a very few minutes during the tournament games. That summer before her senior year her teammates elected her team captain. She led the drills before the games and represented her team well. She even got to play in a few varsity games although she still had most of her playing time with the JV team.
The local newspaper did a story about her dedication and effort, saying she represented the true heart of a player. Her coach, who had become a real encourager and positive influence in her life, had suggested the interview. The reporter asked her about her own personal goals for her soccer career. “Well, I would like to score one goal,” she said, knowing that was a long shot. However she did just that in one game. The whole crowd from her school cheered and yelled like crazy. Even the characteristically calm coach jumped up and whooped with delight. It was a memorable day.
The season ended and the time came for the annual sports banquet. She would be speaking about the coach and presenting him with a gift as all team captains had always done. “I hope he doesn’t go before me,” she said. “He’ll get up there and talk about how they always wondered if I would make it around the track when we ran and I’ll be so embarrassed to follow that.” Sure enough the coach spoke before her when the soccer team was recognized. She accepted her team captain award and her senior recognition, thankful that there were no stories about running at practice as part of the presentation.
Then the coach said they were giving a new award that year. The crowd perked up because they knew he never gave awards. “This award represents what soccer, or any team sport, is all about. A true team player puts her teammates above herself. She always works for the best interest of the team. She is always improving her own skills and always encourages others. This award will be started this year, and will continue on in the future for other players who demonstrate the same spirit. It will be named after this year’s winner. I am happy to present the first Beth Merrill Award.”
With hardly a dry eye in the audience and on her own wobbly knees as she walked forward she accepted the award named in her honor. She had grown to love the game, with the true heart of a player.