While we are working on our aerobic base, the rest of the world is turned to a different sporting endeavor, the World Cup. In the seventies soccer arrived with jogging and disco. The later two were for the adults. Soccer was for kids.
The secret of the beautiful sport - what David Eggers likes and Chuck Klosterman despises - is that it is an easily played game. Throw a ball out amongst a group of eight year olds and they will understand that the ball has to move towards the opposite net even if they are bunched around the orb like runners around a water stop on a hot day. It was the first team I ever joined. In our OP shorts, knee high socks, and bowl haircuts we, small band of carpooled warriors, bravely enjoyed the world where everyone played, and the debates on the ride home weren’t about who should get the ball to score, but whether you would rather be Spiderman or Superman.
But as we aged it became clear that even if we weren’t all going to be super heroes, some of us had far more talent than others. In junior high I was on the same fall soccer team as John Henry Williams. In a Garrison Kellerian tribute our squad was called "intermediate" even though there wasn't a level below us. We had world-class intentions of getting the ball into the net, even if the final score rarely reflected our hopes. We were always on the wrong side of the verge of greatness. Still after every 4-0 loss, John Henry was pleased to be out there; he had an infectious smile that said good game.
Perhaps his optimism came from a life of sports. There should have been some genetic hope that could have bloomed with John Henry; his father played baseball in the forties and fifties. My heroes growing up were Albert Einstein, Harry Houdini, Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Luke Skywalker. I had never heard of his dad.
With our demoted status we played at the furthest field from the showers. As a huge fan of hot water I would always sprint up a large hill after practice to get to the showers before the varsity and junior varsity players. Another coach noticed the uphill sprints and in the springtime I joined the track team.
John Henry went out for baseball. I was surprised that he made the varsity team, because he wasn't much more coordinated than me. Later in life I realized that there was not a high school coach on this planet who was going to cut Ted Williams' son. His father is a legend in New England somewhere above Sam Adams but below clam chowder. John Henry switched schools at the end of the year, and I lost contact with him.
We weren’t the only ones with dreams of soccer glory. Our nation has now sent its highest ranked teamed to the World Cup, and our imagination went wild - if we could tie the Czech Republic, if we could avoid the second red card with Italy, maybe miss playing Brazil. Our team was on the verge of greatness. But as in all of our dreams we still have that waking moment when childhoods have to end. We are struggling in Germany with the realization that wishes don’t mean goals. So if we are destined for a first round elimination I hope we could cheer the way John Henry did.
A few years ago I saw John Henry sportsmanship for the first time in a decade on TV when he helped his father along at a baseball game - literally a crutch that propped his father on a podium in center field with the remaining all time greats. Determined not to give up these childhood dreams and win the respect of his father later that year John Henry even tried out for a minor league team, but those managers weren't as lenient as the ones from our youth.
I don’t want dreams to die either, but this is the point where John Henry’s best intentions went past common sense. When his father died, John Henry stuck him in a freezer as a hope for the future and that his genetic material could be shared with the world. It seems like an idea out of a comic book or mythology, a modern Orpheus going to Hades to try to keep a love one alive.
But even Orpheus couldn’t make it back to the world. Everyone struggles with the waking moment of a dream’s end. And sometimes lives are as fleeting.
John Henry soon afterwards was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a malignant disease of the bone marrow in which hematopoietic precursors are arrested in an early stage of development. It is as if the blood cells themselves are yearning to remain in an eternal youthful state – John Henry’s dream at a cellular level. Their unwillingness to undergo programmed cell death (apoptosis) results in their accumulation in the bone marrow, blood, and, frequently, the spleen and liver. Normal blood production also decreases. About 10,000 people a year are diagnoses with AML. 25-30% of adults younger than 60 years survive longer than 5 years and are considered cured. I have no doubt that he did the best he could against the disease. But in 2004 John Henry Williams was among the 70%.
The obituaries talked mostly about his father being the last to hit 400 (and the cryonics part).
I want to think him more of the junior high version - the one coming off the intermediate soccer field and smiling, the one who was happy just to be playing.
For many of us this run season is the return to an earlier time when summers had to be spent outside. There will be bruises and sunburns of our youth even if we run on shakier knees. I don’t want to lose that youthful spirit, but this time around we are running for something just a little more than going up a hill to get to a shower first.
We run because there are a few friends and family that have already hit the metaphysical version of showers, and we wish they still could be here to play. What we lose in childhood innocence we gain in adult purpose. We run for research. We run for a cure.
But if I am allowed to dream again, I would like to pretend that John Henry is up there smiling someplace above - finally at the same level as his father and Superman - and never worries about the score.