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Varsity Blue

Amidst the most momentous moment for Detroit sports in my lifetime, one team emerged from the wake of the October Yankee-yanking Tigers and undefeated Lions, Wolverines and Red Wings: Andover High School Boys Soccer.

Indeed, I dusted off my varsity jacket (as if it’s had time to collect dust!) and grabbed a seat (as if I sat!) to watch the Andover win its first regional championship in school history. (Go Barons!)

Why the enthusiasm for Division II high school sports with the current glut of professional prowess and collegiate contenders? True, I am on record as having an unapologetic affinity for my alma mater. True, Andover has historically had a fan-to-athlete ratio virtually identical to its parent-to-athlete ratio. But this fall’s fit of fandom goes beyond my showing up at my old stomping ground — in the vain hope of being mistaken for a student. (Moustache doesn’t help.)

My nephew, Jacob Rosenzweig, walked onto the team this year as a senior, having barely touched a soccer ball in his life. Within 12 weeks, he has become a better player than I was after 12 years in the sport. Don’t believe me? Ask his coach, who had to deal with my hijinks his first years with Andover JV and then varsity.

Watching the games, I was struck by Jacob’s courage, shedding the comfort of his uncomfortable hockey gear, donning short — albeit not as short as they were in my day, but still pretty short — three-quarter shorts. Doesn’t hurt that he’s lightning fast, either.

It’s no small task trying to learn a new “language” with his feet that most of his teammates have been speaking most of their bipedal lives. Especially when your mother tongue involves putting blades on shoes and pushing a puck with a stick. At least, I think that’s how hockey works.

The best advice I’ve had for him — worldly wisdom we would want wherever — is that the other team doesn’t know he has no idea what he’s doing. Similarly sound: Be the first one to the ball, and you can figure out what to do with it once you’re there.

I’m actually closer in age to Jacob than I am to my soccer-illiterate brother-in-law. This all makes for the kind of delightfully disorienting dynamic you only get with big families. When I married in to my wife’s family and inherited Jacob and six other offspring as nieces and nephews, he was a little too old to be fooled into thinking I was cool.

He tried not to spoil “Fat Bob’s Cooking Show,” my improvised sleepover sundae bar, for his cousins. But he resented that my casual interest in professional football did not extend to the realm of fantasy.

So, when Jacob scored the winning goal in the regional semifinals, I recognized his celebratory hand gesture from Aaron Rodgers in his State Farm commercial rather than Aaron Rodgers in his Packers uniform. And yet, I don’t think Jacob was humoring me when he said he could hear me cheering from the top of the bleachers.

Jacob will be far from Andover this time next year. The soccer team will graduate a sizable swatch of seniors, and a new fount of freshman will take the field where, on a crisp autumn evening, Jacob and his teammates held their regional medals and heads high.

If Jacob is anything like I was then, graduation won’t come fast enough. And, if he’s anything like I was after, it could be more than a decade before he realizes — watching his cousin Judah (my son), tearing up the field — the way his character was shaped by the competition, the cohesion, the camaraderie. The short shorts.



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