The Word: Turf

The air was dry. Not a sticky heat, the type that made droplets of sweat spring up across your arms; this was different, worse, stagnant, exhausting. It was the sort of weather that stuck in your throat, left you grabbing and spitting at the team’s green Gatorade water bottles by half time. This was Saint Helena. Wine country.

Once or twice a season, the girls’ soccer team would pile onto one of those yellow school buses with the characteristic vinyl seats. Hard, lumpy, narrow, and just plain uncomfortable—these could only have been designed by an engineer in a sadistic frame of mind, someone who really wanted to give a generation of kids a pain in the ass.

Unleashed from the classroom at 10:00 a.m., just two hours into the school day, the team would change into oversized, purple warm-ups and swarm the bus looking like a bunch of giant grapes headed off to be crushed. As the bus driver stood in front giving the mandatory safety-and-seatbelts lecture, ear buds, books, homework, blankets, and pillows would emerge from backpacks and sports duffels. The team would settle in for the cramped, bumpy ride.

The trip from our small, coastal Northern California town to Saint Helena in Napa County took three hours. Cliffs, redwood forests, mountain passes, and vineyards—it was a beautiful drive, but you can only marvel at the scenery for so long before the tediousness begins to sink in. After a while, there are just too many trees to care, and a new orchard of picturesque grapevines is just a mark of how much further you still have to go.

The team was dismissed from school early in the hope that, even with a three-hour bus ride and a 30-minute lunch break, we would arrive at the field in time for an hour-long warm-up session before the game. But we never did. One of the girls would forget to show up at the bus or get stuck in the line at the pit stop. In the end, we would make it to the parking lot, struggle out of our seats still tying the laces of our cleats, stretching out our cramped limbs with only 15 or 20 minutes left to kick the ball around before the captains were called to choose sides.

Saint Helena’s field was gorgeous. Surrounded by a thin fringe of delicate trees, and just in sight of the mountains, the track was rubberized, terracotta-colored, encompassing the only astro-turf field in the league. Built through large gifts from local alumni, Saint Helena’s manicured beauty and expensive playing surface stood out in a league full of dusty dirt tracks and pot-holed fields.

Championships were held there. Coaches talked about it. The newspaper even ran stories. This place was a big deal, and everyone knew it.

As we trekked from the bus to the field laden with sports bags, ball bags, and medical bags, St. Helena rolled a carpet of astroturf across the track.

It wasn’t quite a welcome mat, it was more a “please-don’t-ruin-our-nice-new-track-by-stepping-on-it-with-your-cleats” mat, but it still made the place feel grander, more intimidating.It wasn’t just their field, their soccer team was good, too—maybe not the best in the league, but never far behind. They played tough but not dirty. Their moves were simple but still fluid enough that you had yourself convinced that it was just an accident that the ball somehow ended up in the scoring zone.

Playing on turf was a different game. The ball moved faster. Passes went farther. The pace was quicker, and the ball went out of bounds more often. We were never quite ready for it.

The turf itself was nasty stuff. Thin green plastic strands held down by little black rubber pebbles that heated up in the Napa sunshine, leaving the field surrounded by the slight, fuzzy haze of warm, unbreathable air. True, the pebbles were fun to play with as you sat in a circle stretching, but they would inevitably stick to your back and legs as you stood up. Weeks later, you would be going through your soccer bag only to find little bits of black rubber clinging to a warm-up jacket. The fake grass that looked so smooth, flowing across the field left wicked red welts on your arms and legs when you slide tackled or tripped up—every Saint Helena game left my knees and elbows rubbed raw for weeks.

My last trip with the team was a late October night game at Saint Helena my senior year. By half time, the weather had cooled and the stadium lights were on. It was always a little magical playing under the lights. Surreal. Disembodying.

That year, they had a pair of identical twins on the team—number 12 and number 21. Optical illusion generally isn’t part of soccer, but it certainly was an effective offense. Turn one way and you had the girl covered, turn the other and you realized the real problem was her sister already halfway down the field. It was a close game—one to two. We lost.

We were done, and I made my peace with it. It was time to be over. We left then, turning our backs to the pretty stadium, returning to our bus for a ride home that, while it might have been uncomfortable, was also undeniably enjoyable. Laughing with girls I had played with for years, there was no need now to resent the better team with their fancy equipment and turf field. And who were we kidding—we would have lost even if their field was plain old grass.

Weeks later. as I emptied my soccer bag, I laughed when I found scattered black rubber balls clinging to the bottom of the duffle. Saint Helena never did seem to give up.