We used to play soccer every day.
In the beginning, Yoda encouraged us to try different surfaces like the Brazilians and pelada. Carpet in the living room, hardwood in the bedroom, linoleum in the kitchen, and cement in the basement. With broken air hockey goals and a marble for a ball, we’d burst out of the red plastic toolbox the boy had received on his fourth birthday, the tools long gone under the couch or in the backyard. Once, we used a rubber ball but soon learned that one wrong kick could be a career-changer. That’s what happened to the first Flint when he tried to chip Darth Vader from midfield. His leg came clean off on the follow through, and Vader had to save the leg instead of the ball.
Yoda coached from the top of a couch or chair where he’d observe for long stretches of time before spouting phrases like “Attack the flank you must” and “Defend goal-side or prevent goals you will not.” Yoda didn’t get hung up on winning and losing. To play well was the greatest reward.
To promote cohesiveness, Yoda organized teams by uniform color instead of Joes vs Star Wars or Good vs Evil. Anyone in camo played for Green. White had stormtroopers, air cycle riders, naval officers, and winter edition Joes. Blue had all the cops and pilots, Boba Fett, Cobra, Tamox and Xamot. They also had two Empire All-Terrain Armor Transport Walker drivers and one Death Star captain whose suits were gray but it was close enough. Nobody cared back then. My team, Mix, won most of the time, but we were pretty stacked with three Jedis and a Wookiee.
Optimus and Megatron had to watch. It was a little unfair, but when we let Bumblebee try he hacked guys all over the field. Severed Cobra in two with a slide tackle. Too many players complained. He-Man, Hulk Hogan, and Mr. T couldn’t play either. They sat on the sidelines and boasted that they were taking all us little weanies down in the next Royal Rumble.
After playing, we’d eat orange slices then line up in front of a goal for a photo. Chewy stood in the back and draped his furry arms drenched in sweat over the others’ shoulders. The Joes argued over who was taller but eventually Yoda told us to pick a row and stick with it. The rest of the players would fill in on either side like one big family.
But then one Christmas, after the Trilogy re-release and the new Real American Hero series, a whole new stock joined the group. Grand Moff Tarkin, Serpentor, and General Duke pulled rank on Yoda. They wanted tryouts to raise the level of competition. Not everyone would make a team. Rumors spread about a new team forming, a select team that would finally challenge Mix.
Vader was the best goalkeeper. He was taller than the other players, so he dominated the box and could pick the ball out of the nineties. And whenever the game was tight, we threw him up top to win free kicks and corners. He had a lethal header from distance.
Luke played striker. He had a real sniff for the goal but was also a big crybaby whenever he wasn’t getting the ball. Yoda made him keep his light saber tucked inside his wrist because once he pulled off a Hand-of-God goal and upset the other players. That was before VAR. And lightsabering was an automatic red card. But that only happened when Luke took an obvious dive and Leatherneck called him a fatherless dirt-eater. Threatened to slice Leatherneck up like a Tauntaun. Yoda was pretty pissed even though Vader said it was the highlight of parenthood.
Obi-Wan Kenobi played central midfielder. It didn’t matter that he was the oldest player because he could sit in the middle of the park and spray balls all over as if he knew how the defenders were going to react. During tryouts, he played the best trick on Destro, who was an obnoxious trash-talker. Obi closed his eyes. “Go on,” he said while dribbling down the field. “Come take it.”
Everyone thought Obi was joking. That maybe the geezer was suffering from dementia. I mean, he was almost sixty years old and barely survived the Clone Wars. But Destro ran at him with his metallic smile, and just as Destro swiped the ball, Obi took a deep breath and nutmegged him. We stood in awe as Obi juggled, rubbing his beard with a smirk.
They also took Han Solo, Lando, and Boba Fett from Blue; Flint and Roadblock from Green; Chewy from Mix; and Stormtrooper and Frostbite from White. I was the only player who wore a jersey, a red number 14, so they picked me, too. The rest of the players formed teams by cliques instead of colors. Some got left behind. No one wanted the Jawas. They were too short for goalie and too slow for midfield. Defense would have been a disaster.
“It’d be like dribbling around cones,” Serpentor said.
So the Jawas moped off, eyes glowing redder, and bellowed ear-piercing shrieks, either cursing or crying, no one really knew.
We played with our new teams. Round robin then semifinals and finals. The former Mix Team lost 3-1 to the new team, Dragonfire, in the final. The others cheered because Mix lost. They were happy to see someone else win for a change.
Grand Moff and Duke decided to have a training camp to test everyone’s commitment. So for two weeks we had three-a-days with sessions on fitness, tactical awareness, and psychological stratagem.
“We don’t just have to be better on the field,” Duke said. “We have to be better between the ears and between our legs.” He emphasized his defensive philosophy by stranding us on top of the boy’s bed where we sustained all all-out attack from the Cobras. They had Decepticons for air support, dropping bunker busters and incendiaries all over us while we hid in a cave of pillows.
“If you crap your pants while Starscream’s firing that green shit,” Duke said, “then you’ll break when we’re a man down holding a 1-0 lead with ten minutes to play.”
“Is this even necessary,” Han said. He was a lazy practice player but could flip a switch on during games. But Duke assigned Han latrine duty and said, “It’s time to wean you off the princess’s teat, Spaceboy.”
The second week we trained inside a dome of blankets where we weren’t allowed to keep time and were punished with extra PT if we peered through the gaps. We ate rations of canned beans and noodles. Duke woke us at random hours of the night, made us pee our pants so the “smell of fear’d be on our clothes the next time we thought about losing a mark.” He didn’t teach us any skills or strategies, and we never practiced set pieces or game situations. Just played until someone bled or dropped from exhaustion. Losers surrendered.
Player injuries increased with the extra load. Snake Eyes and Sargent Slaughter snapped their bands after a couple good jukes. The dog got a few others, and they lived to tell about it. Boba Fett was the fastest player in the league, but he couldn’t outrun that beast and was lucky to escape with losing just one arm. Lando had teeth marks all over his body. The first Stormtrooper was missing half his head, not because of the dog but from Chewy, who was a tenacious one-on-one defender. For Chewy, it was ball or man but not both.
Before the next tournament, Grand Moff and Duke added more players. A Boba Fett with both arms, a Lando without teeth marks, a Flint with two full legs. Players were displaced again, and the teams reshuffled. The players who were cut from Dragonfire tried to go back to their old teams. But they were labeled deserters and were no longer welcome. So another team formed with players who were not quite good enough for Dragonfire and abandoned by their old teams. That’s what happened to me.
Dragonfire won easily.
Some of the teamless stayed in the box when the next camp was announced. They didn’t even want to participate in the simulated combat missions or storm-the-hill games. Things got weird when everyone went back into the box at night. Sometimes, the boy would open it the next morning to find somebody broken. Told his mom they’d probably been crushed from stuffing everyone in. No one talked about what happened in the box. But we knew. Duke’s first rule. Law of the jungle. Our only concern was that it didn’t happen to us. We played a testimonial match, discarded the broken parts, and moved on.
Han had to do three hundred push-ups on the first day of the new training camp, one in which Grand Moff said would be worse than the destruction of Alderaan.
“Maybe we should relax,” Han said. “Let’s not get all worked up over a game.”
The boy found him in pieces the next morning.
Chewy was never the same after that. He ripped Destro’s arms off during the tournament opener and was suspended for excessive rough play.
Dragonfire won the next five tournaments. We tried to make an All-Star Team from the remaining teams to make it more competitive. Dragonfire vs Best of the Rest. But by then it was obvious that Dragonfire would never lose. So for a while, instead of trying to beat them, it became a competition of who could score on them first. How long we could keep them from scoring. One minute, five minutes. Roadblock and The Gunners held the record of thirteen minutes before conceding five goals in the next ten. That lasted for a while until everyone lost interest in that, too.
Yoda pleaded for reinstatement. “For pleasure you should play,” he said, “not win or win not.”
“Your old-timer thinking has passed,” Serpentor said. “Teams in other systems are improving. Talent needs to be discovered earlier, the weak links discarded.”
Serpentor successfully commanded the Battle of the Basement and led the group that took down Hulk and T in the last Royal Rumble, so everyone followed him even though only a handful thought he was right. The rest were just afraid of being the next victim when the box closed for the night.
Obi retired after Bloody Sunday, the day some of the guys started peeing blood during training. Even the dog wouldn’t go near the red stains in the carpet. “Carrying fifty-pound mortars up the stairs on recovery day is no way for an old Jedi to stay fresh,” he said.
Grand Moff eliminated testimonials, the only games we looked forward to playing in the final days. Said they created bad habits. “Competitiveness isn’t a faucet we can just turn on and off,” he said. So Obi never received the proper send-off he deserved.
During the 12-0 final between Dragonfire and the All Stars, Yoda finally had enough. “The Force will always be with you,” he said, “but too much this is.”
We watched him climb up to the edge of the couch where he used to offer words of wisdom. Only this time he clenched his jaw, gave a harrumph, and disappeared into the cushions.
After Yoda left, Dragonfire continued to dominate, running up the score just in case there was an issue over goal differential for tiebreakers. The next tournament ended without a final because they’d beaten the second-best team so bad that a semifinal and final were considered a waste of everybody’s time. The guys wanted to do other things, maybe try baseball, maybe volleyball. Most joined Hulk and T, who’d found it was more fun to pick sides and fight on the sidelines. Grand Moff had to abandon the next tournament because the brawls spilled onto the field and interfered with the players’ safety. Starscream buzzed the field with Megatron riding on top yelling that soccer wasn’t even a sport. Jazz and Prowl had to restore order. For a while, we had Quiet Saturdays.
Duke eliminated days off, and we spent our downtime with pre-selected readings and small group discussions. But not soccer works like Inverting the Pyramid or Brilliant Orange but military texts. 19 Stars, A Message to Garcia, and Art of War followed by Red Badge of Courage, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Things They Carried. Luke wanted to compare the styles of Crane and Hemingway and O’Brien but Serpentor rambled on about themes of cowardice, sacrifice, and honor. By the end, over half of Dragonfire consisted of stormtroopers.
“God damn perfect soccer players,” Duke said.
Luke missed a few sitters in the next game and was cut even though he scored a hat trick. He cried in the box for days. Wouldn’t talk to anybody. Wouldn’t even respond to Vader’s requests for revenge choking. I felt bad for him. All that pressure for such a young talent. But something odd happens to strikers when they lose their form. He stopped eating, started losing weight, grew more irritable whenever someone talked about the game. He had a desolate look in his eyes. A few days later, Luke took out half of Dragonfire. Duke gave him a lifetime ban. Only Vader thought that it was excessive and quit out of protest. Luke took R2D2 and piled in his X-Wing fighter for the Degama system to look for Yoda. We found the wreckage days later in the upstairs bathroom.
The boy lost interest, too. Soon there was Nintendo. Then girls. We stayed in the box for weeks. The newer players still had that gleam and open-box smell. The boy never replaced the broken figures, never rescued the kidnapped from the dog. For hours, while we lay scattered across the living room floor, we could hear their plastic crunching between the dog’s teeth in the other room. But none of us had the courage to assemble a rescue mission.
“Sometimes, we have to cut our losses and move on,” Duke said.
The last day, who was left of Dragonfire trotted onto the field, passed the ball around then started their warm-up exercises. The rest of us stayed in the box, piled on top of broken limbs that the boy never discarded, and watched from the opening. We barely had enough to field a second team anyway.
“Bazooka,” Duke yelled to me. “Get those maggots out here.”
No one had anywhere else to go. Soccer was all we knew. So we climbed out.
During those few minutes before the game began, we pretended we were back with Yoda, kicking pingers across the carpet, playing keep away from the droids, rehashing our best Yoda impressions. Flint’s was spot on. “Do or do not,” he said in his best Yoda voice. “There is no try.”
A few of the guys even smiled.