Building a Dream
- by Clayton Holz, '12 English Stanford Men's Soccer
I pick up my cleats and walk out the back door, down the driveway, and out to the park across the street. In the neighborhood field, I see my dad already at task, placing bright orange cones on the grass in complex patterns. He is my de facto trainer, the one coach I have worked with almost every day.
“What do we have in store today, boss?”
“Lots of technical repetition—touches, turns, flicks—with a focus on quick bursts and acceleration. It’s going to be hell. You’re gonna love it,” he says with a devilish grin, and we both know that I probably will.
I start jogging with the ball as he continues to set up, the tactician at work…
She entered the coaches’ meeting confidently, as if she were one of them, gathered to pick players for the upcoming season:
“Hi… my name is Joyce Holz and we just moved here. I’d like to sign up my son Clayton for a soccer team. He’s going into second grade. Can he play on one of your teams?”
The coaches leaned back in their chairs, looking at one another, hiding smiles under their mustaches and baseball caps.
Filling the silence, my mom continued, “He’s really good, I swear!”
The men shared a laugh and looked back at her condescendingly, yet she stood firm, smiling and unwavering in the spotlight. No one in that room had any idea that in just a few years I would be playing on fields much bigger than those in our small neighborhood park and for coaches more seasoned that those in the room. She led the way.
…”Alright here’s what you’re going to do: I want outside of the foot only through the cones, alternate feet, then a ten-yard sprint with the ball to the last cone, then a shot into the lower left corner. Focus on punching the ball with the instep. We’ll do fifteen reps, then switch sides.”
As he speaks, his gestures direct my eyes through the labyrinth of cones, making order from the chaos.
Game day in Lexington, Kentucky—my team was playing the Hornets. We were coached by my father, but, contrary to the common conception of the father-coach, he knew almost nothing about soccer. In fact, my dad had not played a minute of the sport before he got out on that field and told my youth team what to do, running us through cones, drills, and games every night of the week.
Unfortunately for us, the Hornets were led by a veritable Amazon named Taylor, who not only ran over me, but also the rest of our team en route to a five-nothing demolition. I actually remember fleeing from her path as she trucked down the field with the ball as her mother yelled things like, “Crush! Crush! Crush!” in a sergeant-like fashion that belied her petite blonde frame. Taylor dominated our league. To say that she won single-handedly implies that anyone dared to play against her.
As I grew older and moved south to Texas, my dad continued to coach my teams, directing us with a tactical precision that could only come from rented library books on soccer and ESPN diagrams. Yet his instruction was vital—I wouldn’t have been able to train myself at this young age, and his efforts helped kindle a fire that would eventually become a self-sustaining blaze. These were the days when my parents supported me, a crutch so that my fledgling legs could keep kicking, kicking, kicking, even when I was bound to fall down.
…I jog and retrieve the balls; shots that I have missed have rolled all the way to the next block. The sweat drips down off my face, discoloring the concrete and leaving a trail in my wake. I want to slow down and walk as my cleats clack loudly on the pavement, but I do not. Even recovery time is some form of fitness. In soccer, there is never time to rest. I return to the grass where my dad stands, the balls tucked under my arms.
“How was school today?”
I am happy for the break in action, and take a deep breath before responding. “It was good,” I say. “The usual.”
“Plenty. I could try and explain, but you probably wouldn’t understand—geometry isn’t for everyone.” He intuits my jab as a sign of recovery, and parries:
“Back on the line, break’s over.”…
Playing soccer for a multitude of teams in Houston often involved travel times of an hour to two hours through gridlock traffic, but the long commutes to practice were worth it to me. In fact, the daily treks became a sort of hallowed pilgrimage for my father and me. We played games in the car to pass the time:
I started the spelling: “C.”
“a,” he replied.
“‘l’—that makes Call, Ha! Gotcha son. Seems as if Ol’ Webster has still got it.”
Unfazed, I responded: “o.”
“What? There’s nothing that you can spin off of ‘Call’…” He paused. His juvenile smile dimmed; a look of disappointment set in.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me – ‘u’” he bemoaned.
“‘s.’ Callous. Clayton was callous in the face of his father’s lamentation, once again the loser in a battle of wits with a minor.”
I beamed. I am fairly certain that my Dad punched me on the shoulder at this point, and I am absolutely certain that the satisfaction of victory was worth it.
In some sense my father and I formed a bit of an unusual bond. Whereas many such car rides may be filled with sports radio broadcasts, Lady Gaga, or silence, ours were filled with banter, philosophical talk, and spelling games with complex rules that we shouted at each other night after night, as if the other had suddenly forgotten.
“Proper noun, doesn’t count!”
Not surprisingly, I have since become an English major.
…Another break—my dad rearranges cones, talking to me over his shoulder as I catch my breath.
“Did you work out at all yesterday?”
“Yeah, I stayed after practice at school and did some extra finishing. I still need to work on that bending shot coming in from the right side. And I got some sprints in too; I made Gabe stay and do them with me. I don’t think he appreciated it.”
He laughs, “Yeah… I think you’re probably the only one that appreciates sprinting.” Quickly followed by, “We’ll work on that bending ball on Saturday.”…
My mother by no means escaped the drudgery of caravanning into the fringes of the east Texan wasteland, although our trips almost always involved maps, frantic calls to my father, and frustration at the total uniformity of suburbia. Once, we were blessedly on the right road, but stuck at a dead stop because of an accident on the freeway. It was a strange sensation being completely still on an eight-lane road, suspended thirty feet over the ground. My friend Alexander and I decided to get out of the car and walk around on the pavement, still hot on our bare feet in spite of the muggy darkness of night. We circled the car once, twice, and ascertained that the car was, in fact, stopped. So we all got out, even my mom, and walked to the edge of the road, peering down at the miles of red taillights, stopped in their tracks. Even as we watched the static snake of the road curling out into the darkness, I felt like we were moving, somewhere.
…It seems like there isn’t enough air in the sky to fill my lungs. I heave, my hands on my knees. Everything hurts. Ten shuttles completed, training is over. Night is fast approaching, with shadows covering almost all of the field now. It gets dark early this time of year—I’ve only been out of class for two hours and the day is already done, it seems. I force myself to stretch for a minute, a chore to me, but I heed the admonitions of others. I throw the bag of balls over my shoulder and begin to walk…
“Clayton!” my coach yelled. I looked up from the bench, wide-eyed. “Get up, you’re going in.”
I tried to swallow and found it surprisingly difficult. I got up and jogged to the scorer’s booth, my heart racing faster, faster, and still faster. I glanced up at the field and saw the battle raging on, the pace of the game frenetic, UCLA dominating the possession.
“Who are you going in for?” the scorekeeper asked me.
“Num—” I stuttered for a second, my freshman self nervous and eager. I looked back at our assistant coach; he nodded to me. “Number two in for number nine,” I said.
The referee nodded, wrote the numbers down, and blew a horn to signal the substitution. I clapped hands with the player I replaced, and the next few minutes were a blur, me doggedly chasing blue and gold uniforms across Maloney Field. The ball went out of bounds for a throw-in. The game paused. I looked up at the stands and saw my mom, dad, and my grandfather on their feet, yet my vista was quickly interrupted.
“Clayton!” someone yelled.
I turned and found the ball at my feet. I looked up and saw a wave of players coming at me. I began to panic, but for that moment life seemed to move in slow motion. I’ve trained for this. Just play.
With that, I launched a ball across the field to our left winger and sprinted off to support him. He beat his man and sent in a cross, floating appetizingly through the eighteen-yard box. I have replayed that cross over and over in my mind many times since then.
I didn’t reach the ball. No one did, actually, and one of our players collected it and redistributed the ball to the right flank. He, too, beat his man and sent in a cross. This time, I was in the right spot, connecting cleanly with a right-footed volley that would beat UCLA’s goalkeeper to the far post. I knew from the moment that it hit my foot where that ball was destined, and I didn’t have to look to see if it went in—I sprinted straight towards my teammates on the sideline and began celebrating.
The score: UCLA, 1—Stanford, 2.
… “College counselor called about your essay. He says it needs work.”
I shift on the park bench, lying flat under the fiery Texas sunset. My dad lies on an adjacent bench, our heads propped by soccer balls as if they are pillows. I do not answer; he knows that I am listening, and that I will work on my essay after dinner. For now, I listen to the leaves rustle in the wind, the arms of the day sinking lower and lower into the sky.
“Think of all the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met because of this.”
I look across the park, at the patchy grass and tired backstop, at the uneven tennis court and sagging basketball hoop. I place my palm on the soccer ball under my head, with its grooves and tears, the worn leather on my fingertips like skin on skin.
“It’s been one hell of a journey.”
We pause again, letting the night creep in slowly, the blades of grass in the distance becoming darker and darker until each can no longer be picked out.
“I sure do enjoy kicking it around with ya, son. I’m going to miss it.”
“It isn’t over yet, Dad, not yet.”
Clayton Holz, ’12, is a left back and midfielder on the Stanford men’s soccer team. He was named 1st Team Academic All-Pac 10 as a sophomore, and he scored the game-winning goal against top-ranked UCLA at home as a freshman. Prior to Stanford, he was a member of state, regional, and national teams in the age divisions U-16 and U-17. He captained the South Texas state team for 5 years and traveled with the Region III team to Holland, Belgium, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina to compete. He is majoring in English.