Mendoza takes a pass from a teammate, sprinting past defenders before exchanging two more passes on his way toward goal. As Mendoza receives the ball 15 yards away from the goal, the O’Connell defenders are confused and unable to keep up. Mendoza shoots.
Minutes later, Mendoza approaches the goal on the keeper’s right-hand side. Mendoza has Max to his right, and only one defender standing between them, the keeper, and the goal. The defender surges toward Mendoza, so he drops off a pass to Max. Max chips the ball, lifting it softly toward goal. The O’Connell keeper stretches out his arms, trying desperately to get a fingertip on the ball as it sails over his hand. It continues to sail, right over the net.
There will be no game-clinching goal from a senior. The chances are there. The finishing is not. For Mission to win, they’ll need to hold on.
The half wears on and Mission maintains control, but their inability to convert goal-scoring chances leaves O’Connell with a hope that they can still tie the game. But it seems like no more than a hope. The Boilermakers are standing around, unable to sprint with the same intensity as the Bears.
But as the game bleeds into stoppage time, O’Connell striker Emmanuel Caldera takes the ball, showing everyone in the stadium that not all of the Boilermakers are gasping for air. He puts his left foot on top of the ball and brushes it to the side, stutter-stepping before making the same move again. With the second motion, he creates a sliver of space between himself and the defender. From 18 yards away, his left foot strikes. The ball is a laser, rotating at an alarming speed, slicing past defenders and heading toward the far goalpost before bending back toward the net.
Guevara dives. Fully outstretched, his body flies through the air, his limbs on a mission to collide with the ball.
The whistle blows. Overtime. On the O’Connell sideline, pandemonium. On the Mission sideline, shock.
Overtime consists of two halves, each one 10 minutes long. If the game remains tied after overtime, there will be a five-minute sudden death period. If no one scores then, the teams will be crowned co-champions. No one wants to be crowned co-champions.
“That’s a bunch of California hug-it-out bullshit,” says Kennedy, a native New Yorker. “Fuck that.”
Deep into overtime, the game still tied, Kennedy summons Diego Tamayo from the bench. Tamayo twisted his ankle earlier in the game, and he came off the field to give it some rest. At 6 feet, Tamayo is the tallest player on the team, and Kennedy sends him back into the game, hopeful that he can score on a header.
From the right side of the field, Maynor Escalante drills the ball into the air, sending it on a perfect line directly toward Tamayo’s head. The goalkeeper stumbles, falling out of position, unable to reach the ball before the ball reaches Tamayo. Standing just feet in front of the goal, Tamayo waits for the ball to connect with his head.
Touch it right, and he’s a hero.
The Diego Tamayo who has a chance to end this game is not the same Diego Tamayo who arrived at pre-season practice two years ago. Then he was a pudgy freshman. Now he’s a sturdily-built junior. Then his head was covered with a slicked-back, plain-looking mop. Now he has a freshly-cut faux-hawk, hair so perfectly messy that it’s made him a heartthrob on campus, his fast-growing machismo drawing the affection of girls.
Then his GPA was below 2.0. Now he has a 3.6. On the soccer field, Tamayo showed potential as a freshman, but now he’s developed into a bull, out-muscling his opponents in pursuit of the ball. And with his peers he is a lightning rod, a center of irrepressible activity, whether in the form a quickly-spun spanglish joke or a well-delivered playful smack.
But ask him about himself, and the seemingly-omnipresent smile is replaced by a stoic look with intermittent flashes of a shy grin. His eyes look down. His hands fidget, playing with his cell phone. He speaks haltingly. And little by little, he tells his story.
He grew up in a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, located in the southern half of the country, on the west coast. His apartment was small, but ample. He played volleyball, because he was tall and this was Mexico, so he lorded over the net. He played soccer, because he was breathing and this was Mexico, so he had no other choice.
His father died when he was four. Car crash. Ask if he remembers him, and he just laughs and shakes his head. There is little else to tell, he says. This was not the Mexico of drug wars and unspeakable poverty. There was enough food. He was always safe. But neither was this the land of the Mexican elite. His family was not rich. They knew better opportunity awaited elsewhere.
When Diego was 13, they came to San Francisco, settling in an apartment downtown, in a neighborhood safer than the Mission (Because of San Francisco’s zoning laws, many students attend schools outside of their own neighborhoods). Ask him about the move, and he finally looks up. The smile returns. The eyes ignite. “Right away,” he says, “I loved everything about it.” Everything, that is, except school. As a middle-schooler, Diego was bored and disinterested. He cared little and tried even less. But then he got to Mission. Kennedy got ahold of him. And things started to change.
“Everybody said that Kennedy was rude, and that he said things to get people mad,” Tamayo says, laughing and shaking his head. “And at first I was like, ‘Damn, they’re right.’ But I didn’t worry too much about it. I just wanted to play.”
But in order to play, he had to raise his grades. Since it was early in his freshman year, it only took a few weeks of dedicated work to meet the GPA requirement. With soccer as his motivation, he reached the 2.0 minimum. Along the way, he discovered that school wasn’t so bad. The GPA kept climbing. Now, it’s a 3.6. “I see how much it matters now,” he says. “Now you have to start thinking about where you want to go and what you want to be. It didn’t matter before.”
Like Guevara, Tamayo dreams of going to Berkeley. And as with Guevara, Kennedy believes Diego has the talent to earn a Division 1 scholarship. But although they’re the same age, Tamayo can’t match Guevara’s maturity (Few 17-year-olds can). Diego still shows up late for practice sometimes. When not paying attention, he still draws Kennedy’s ire. He says he can handle the yelling. But sometimes, he cries.
“Diego has a lot of anger inside him,” says Guevara. “He just gets really emotional. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes it isn’t.”
After Mission was beaten by O’Connell in the regular season, the Bears players sat stunned around Kennedy, all devastated by the loss. The score had been 3-0, and Kennedy was seething. On the edge of the circle, Diego sat and sobbed.
“Diego, why are you crying?” Kennedy barked.
Diego kept looking down.
“Look at me, Diego! Why are you crying?”
Diego barely looked up. He mumbled unintelligibly.
“What?” Kennedy asked.
“Because I wanted to win,” Diego said.
“Because you wanted to win,” Kennedy repeated. “Because you wanted to win.”
Kennedy stared darts into Diego as the players waited for the tirade that was surely coming next.
It never came.
“If every one of you cared half as much as he cares, and if every one of you played half as hard as he played, there’s no way we would have lost this game.”
Kennedy would later say, “He’s 17 years old, and he’s just now learning how to cry. It’s a hard thing to learn at that age.”
The ball now sails, rotating down toward Diego’s head, several feet clear of any O’Connell defender. It hits Diego squarely on the forehead, exactly where he wants it, exactly as Kennedy planned when he sent the junior back into the game. Diego knocks the ball back across the goal, far out of the keeper’s reach.
It bounces once on the ground, still in play.
Several O’Connell players raise their arms over the heads, already mourning the inevitable goal.
It bounces twice.
The ball rolls past the far goalpost. When it stops, it is out of bounds.
It’s still 2-2.
Overtime ends. The sudden death period begins. Any goal will instantly end the game. The players have raced up and down the field for 100 minutes, and now they must race up and down it for five more.
Only it doesn’t take nearly that long.
The game-ender is simple, the kind of kick that would have been a laser at the game’s outset but is no more than a dribbler now. Jonathan Soto—O’Connell’s senior captain—takes a pass from a teammate while standing with a perfect angle on the goal. Guevara plays his position well, but there is nothing he can do. Soto pushes it forward.
It’s the end of the game, and as predicted, someone is crying. This time, it’s the Bears.
A week later, all the characters are back together, all on the same field. This time, the Bears and Boilermakers are teammates. Kennedy is sitting in his folded down chair barking instructions on the sideline. “All week, it has felt like someone has been kicking me in the nuts over, and over, and over again,” he says. Guevara is stretching again, preparing to settle into the goal. Along the sidelines, Jose Mendoza, Max Rybold, and other Bears pass a ball back and forth. They’re joined by Emmanuel Caldera and Jonathan Soto, O’Connell’s leading goal-scorers.
It’s the city all-star game, which pits teams from the eastern half of the city against teams from the western half. And in this game, O’Connell and Mission play side-by-side.
“It feels natural,” says Guevara. “It’s the way things are supposed to be.”
Kennedy finds himself humbled by the politeness of the O’Connell players. The same kids who fought against his team with such passion now look him in the eye as they shake his hand.
“As much as I don’t like O’Connell,” he says, “I can’t help but love O’Connell. Because the O’Connell kid and the Mission kid—they’re the same kid.”
Today, those kids coast to a 3-2 win over the west-side All-Stars. Mission and O’Connell players dominate the lineup. As the head coach of the all-star team, Kennedy gives a little more playing time to O’Connell’s players than his own. They are, after all, the champions.
When the game ends, they all stand together and eat pizza, laughing and talking and reminiscing about the season. And together, they walk away. Away from the field, away from the competition, away from the game they love. They walk toward the buses that will take them back to the Mission District. There, they will all be home.
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Photo credit: Helene Goupil