"The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today."
- H. Jackson Brown Jr.
I RAN TWICE a day for 3 weeks, and though it became routine thanks to the magic that is the iPod, I bet only a handful of people despise the monotony of running more than me.
In my free time, I sought out as many pickup soccer games as possible and watched so much Fox Soccer Channel, I'm certain my girlfriend contemplated leaving me on a few occasions.
I did all of this because I wanted the same thing that 414 other hopefuls who braved last Saturday's snowstorm did: a chance to impress the Philadelphia Union at an open tryout at Penn's Rhodes Field.
I caught wind of the Union's open call about 3 months ago. It's not uncommon for professional teams to hold tryouts and ultimately find that diamond in the rough, as the Eagles did with Vince Papale in 1976. It was great how the Union gave the Average Joe a chance to showcase his talents. The staff, which consisted of everyone from sales associates to the CEO and managing partner, braved the elements as they scouted more 1,000 players in search of one who might make the 24-man roster when the club opens the Major League Soccer season on March 25. There were 4 days of casting - two on cold, rainy November days in Trenton, and the two snow-laden sessions in Philly last Saturday and Sunday.
I didn't know what an "open tryout" entailed, but Union president Tom Veit offered an all-knowing smile, immediately followed by some advice: "Prepare to puke" and "better bring a bucket."
Veit wasn't aware of my abilities, so his scare tactics had little effect. I'm no Pele by any means, but I can handle my own on a soccer field. As an outside midfielder, I played varsity in high school, and was on one of the state's best club teams. I worked my way onto a Division I college roster, where I stayed for 2 years.
Of course, that was 4 years ago - but hey, even at 27, I was confident that my talents, albeit a bit aged, would prove I wasn't there to waste anyone's time.
The two-tiered format consisted of a fitness portion called the beep test, held in an adjacent fieldhouse, and a 7-on-7 game. I renamed it the "bleep" test, given all the expletives racing through my head after doing it. The test consisted of a series of 20-yard dashes to an audio beep that allows less time to return to the starting line as the levels - ranging from 1 to 20 - gradually increase. The test began as a casual jog and snowballed (pun intended) to a sprint at breakneck pace. I knew if I couldn't complete anything less than level 10 I'd totally embarrass myself, so I was satisfied to bow out in the early stages of level 11. Hey, I outlasted Danny Bonaduce, of WYSP radio, who spent weeks training with Union assistant John Hackworth. Bonaduce lasted less than four levels. Then again, he wasn't taking it nearly as seriously as I was and he made that known.
However, the self-adulation I managed was short-lived when head coach Peter Nowak came over and applauded my efforts before noting that a "true professional should at least get to Level 15."
I thought, "Well, Pete, 11 is good enough for this amateur."
I admit that the "bleep" test was exponentially harder than I had envisioned. I didn't need the bucket, but I definitely could have used some Icy Hot.
Following the "bleep" test, I paced in the fieldhouse, feverishly trying to shoo away the pain trickling up my legs and down my back. I sat to stretch, remembering when I could play all day without stretching or having any pain. I had a moment of dejection once I realized that those days are a thing of the past.
There was a 30-minute wait between the fitness test and the game portion of the tryout, which was held outdoors. I got to know Abel from Arizona, who appeared more fascinated by the escalating snowfall than the verity of trying out for a professional sports team.
"Dude, this is nuts," Abel said. "I have never seen snow before, besides on TV. We don't get this stuff where I come from."
In his defense (which he played fairly well), last Saturday's "light dusting" - which my mother advised me not to worry about - became a full-blown winter wonderland by midday.
The wait to play seemed much longer than our time on the field. There were two evaluators at each field, with Nowak and Hackworth roaming all the fields. God bless them all, considering the tryouts began at 7 a.m. and my session, the last of the afternoon, didn't commence until well after 4.
For the 20 minutes we were out there, I once again felt the speed of what I call "real soccer." Sure, you can play in all the Sunday morning men's leagues you want, but until you have 16 athletes playing their hearts out for a cause, you never really get the feeling of being in a serious contest - which I suppose holds true in any sport.
This was a serious contest.
So serious, Abel's dream ended early after he gashed his head open so deep, he required stitches.
Afterward, the coaches brought everyone together and congratulated us, noting that a select few would receive e-mails should the coaches be interested in taking a "second look."
I asked my evaluator to give it to me straight. He requested my tryout number (340) and told me that I had a "strong run," and "good luck going forward." I wasn't quite sure exactly what that meant, but at that point I was too tired to care.
By the end of what amounted to a 4-hour day, I was wet, cold and snow-blind. My legs throbbed and my lower back felt as if it were twisted by an employee at the Philadelphia Pretzel Factory.
I'd do it again in a heartbeat - only this time with a side of extra soccer, sans the snow. *