Shirts & Skins

As I kept an eye on the first games of the World Cup in Brazil this week, I was reminded of the only time I ever played soccer (the game that the rest of the world calls football).

It was in late May or early June 1971, right around the time of my graduation from St. Cloud Tech High School. Someone had organized a graduation picnic for the Tech seniors, and I suppose about 150 of us showed up, gathering at a park in the nearby burg of Sauk Rapids to munch on – if I recall things correctly – Kentucky Fried Chicken and its fixings.

After the meal, we sat around the park, breaking down into the same clusters that had defined our class pretty much through high school. Thinking back to the group I was hanging out with that afternoon, it was mostly the kids who’d taken college prep courses: some jocks, some musicians, the debate and forensics kids, the theater kids, and so on. After a while, just sitting around talking got a little limited; it was a sunny day, the park was pleasant and we wanted to be doing something.

There were ball diamonds in the park, but it seems that no one had thought to bring balls, bats or gloves. Someone, however, did have a soccer ball. We looked around, found a relatively open space maybe thirty yards wide and fifty yards long, and we improvised goals at each end of the space by setting pairs of picnic tables on their ends about ten feet apart. The goal width was a guess, I’m sure, based on what felt right on our improvised field. Soccer was something we occasionally played in phy ed, but it was not a sport we knew well. There might have been an intramural league, I suppose, but there was no varsity soccer team at the time.

After we placed the tables into position, we boys counted off by twos. Half of us stripped off our shirts, and we got set for a game of shirts vs. skins. I was a skin. As we headed out onto the field – or pitch, as they say in places where soccer is football – one of the girls piped up: “Can we play?”

This startled us for a moment. Girls playing sports? But then, we boys were creatures of our times. This was just a few years before girls began playing varsity sports in Minnesota. According to Wikipedia, the earliest sport for girls in Minnesota post-Title IX was track and field a year later, in 1972. Volleyball, gymnastics and basketball followed during the fall of 1974.

We boys looked around at each other and shrugged. Sure, we said. Why not? And then we realized that shirts and skins would not work for the girls. After an awkward moment of hesitation by girls and boys alike, someone said, “The girls with white shirts can play with the skins.” We all nodded. That would work. And we headed out to play.

It was, of course, ragged and disorganized. But we were young and healthy, and we had fun. I don’t recall what the shirts/colors team did, but we skins/whites rotated our lineup, shifting the folks on defense to offense and vice-versa a couple of times during the hour or so we played. And during one of my shifts on offense, as I stood near the opposing goal, a shot from the near the sideline (yes, the touch line for purists) ricocheted into the air and flew toward me.

I was not athletically gifted. I wasn’t certain that I could corral the ball when it got to me and then kick it into the goal. But I could tell as the ball approached that it would be too far off the ground to be able to do that anyway. So I tried to do what I had seen some players do during the few times I had watched soccer on television. I jumped and directed the ball goalward with my head.

Amazingly, I did not break either my nose or my glasses. The ball glanced off the side of my head. It was not, as they say, well-struck. But it did fly past the goaltender and between the tables for a goal. I accepted my teammates’ congratulations with a grin, trying not to make too big a deal of it. But I saw the goaltender roll his eyes in chagrin and disbelief, and I was pretty damned pleased.

And here are two somewhat related tunes: “I Love My Shirt” by Donovan from his 1969 album, Barabajagal, and “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” by the Temptations, which went to No. 3 in the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 1, R&B) in 1966.

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