On the Bench

Shep Messing, who played in goal for Harvard's soccer team two years ago, had the good fortune to play as pretty as he looked. He was that sort of graceful athlete who made even routine saves look beautiful, the sort of athlete that fans rarely see.

Messing moved like a ballet dancer, and that's not a gratuitous metaphor, only the nearest one I can think of which approximates his fluidity of motion. I once saw him go into the air after a headed ball that was impossible to get; there were three or four Brown guys clustered around the spot where the ball would come down. Messing somehow insinuated himself into that small crowd, plucked the ball out of the air, and then landed without having touched one of the opposition.

He was, naturally enough, a hot dog. Anyone who could do the things in goal that he could and have big cow-brown eyes and long black curly hair at the same time--well, hell, he had a head like the Goodyear Blimp.

Stevie Kidder, who is the hero of this essay, sat on the bench his sophomore year and did not get a big head at all. Junior year he got the goalie job after Messing and the rest of the team had gone all the way to the NCAA finals. Chris Papagianis told me at the time that Kidder was a "good kid, but just nowhere near as good as Shep." Papagianis, of course, had an interest in diminishing the performances of other since he had succeeded Messing as hot dog in residence. He loved being the grand old man of the squad, the sole representative of bygone glory.

In the end, both Messing and Papagianis were bearable because they knew that they had huge egos and because they were very good athletes. I often thought about what it must be like for Kidder last year to have Messing hanging over his head. He was not proven, not even really tried in the net, and Messing had had a better team in front of him. Kidder must have been unbearably tempted to play goal as Messing had, to move easily in the crease and depend on sheer coordination to stop the ball. But there was absolutely no way Kidder could have been an ersatz Messing, and he was smart enough to know it. In fact, it is Kidder's brains in general that have made him into a great goalie, a better goalie than Shep Messing was.


Kidder has had more to do with Harvard's semi-respectable showing this year than any other single player, though Brian Fearnett comes close. Kidder has shut out the opposition three times so far; he is exactly even with his pace of a year ago, when he picked up six shutouts in the season. He has allowed four more goals in total than he allowed last year, three coming in the Penn game last Friday when the Crimson was totally outclassed. He stopped an amazing 28 shots in that game while Harvard managed to get off only two. Fearnett and Lawson Wulsin have helped Kidder, as has the new defensive alignment, but he has been successful mostly because he simply plays very well. He reads offensive patterns and cuts off the right angles; he knows when to go out after the ball; he has a fine arm and throws clearing passes well. Most important, he directs traffic from the net and never loses his concentration. In short, he refuses to play stupidly.

Last year Papagianis may have inadvertently tipped me off to exactly how good Kidder is. Papa had this habit of screwing up his face, as if in pain, shrugging his shoulders and describing the shortcomings of teammates ever so gently; always with generous little excuses and a paternal smile. He understood so well how tough it was for the other guys.

Late in the season we were talking about soccer and I mentioned to Papa that I thought Kidder had been looking good. "Yeah," he said, absolutely deadpan; "He turned out to be tough."