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Falling love with soccer by way of pickleball

It was my sophomore year of high school. I had signed up for the racket sports class to fulfill my physical education requirement. We started out with pickleball.

Now, if you’ve never played pickleball, you’re really missing out. It’s a lot like tennis, but on a smaller court and with paddles instead of rackets. It rewards precision and endurance more than power. I immediately loved it.

We spent the first couple days practicing and then formed teams for a tournament. The class was pretty firmly divided. On the one side, the jocks—about ten of them. Big football guys, swarthy baseball bros, lanky soccer players. They immediately all paired together. And then the rest of us—mostly folks just looking for a fun PE class.

Me and my friend Jon formed a team. At that age, the difference between an athletic senior and a nerdy sophomore is…substantial. And we were both definitely the latter. But we also had a quiet little secret: it turns out we were actually pretty good at pickleball. And so once the games began, we started slicing and dicing our way through the opposition. In the semifinals we came up against two twin brothers—the stars of the school soccer team. Zane played in the defense, Zack was the striker. There was a chasm of athletic ability between them and us. But we had guile and patience, and we eventually wore them down.

It was a thrilling moment, to spring a surprise on these jocks. But we were a tiny bit apprehensive. High school is what it is, after all. Would we get harassed about it? The answer was a quick and firm no. The brothers were thrilled for us, gave us firm handshakes (remember those?) and cheered for us in the final (we barely lost). Then they asked us to split up our teams and be partners for the badminton tournament that would start the following week.

I’ll be honest, I can’t remember if I played with Zack or Zane. But I know I had a lot of fun. Enough that we decided to get a group together and go watch the soccer team once the season began.

The thing is: I never paid any attention to soccer growing up. The 1994 World Cup had come and gone without me even realizing it existed. I vaguely remember watching the US women take gold in the Atlanta Olympics, but the emphasis there is on vague. But thanks to some kindness from Zack and Zane, we headed out on a cold night to watch some soccer.

It was a revelation. I enjoyed it a lot, quickly taking to the style and tactics of the game. Come spring, we started going to see the girl's team play, which I enjoyed even more. I was hardly a superfan of the sport, but I finally did see the beauty in the game.

And the crazy thing is: if not for that experience, I probably would have completely skipped over the 1999 World Cup, just like I had ignored the men’s tournament five years before. Nor would I likely have paid any attention to the 2002 men’s World Cup which happened to coincide with a summer backpacking trip through Europe.

Ultimately, those two events are the key foundation stones of my soccer fandom. If I think back on what made me truly fall in love with the game, it’s that 1999 final. Or it’s watching Brazil steamroll their opponents while dancing around outside a café in Paris. But the reality is that I probably never would have even known enough to care about Chastain and Hamm, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, Dempsey and Donovan, Lloyd and Lavelle, if it hadn’t been for Zack and Zane.

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