The Cheap Seats: Draft afterthought
What round? What team? How much? The Sure Things -- otherwise known as the Can't Misses, the Something Specials, and the No-Brainers (which could be misinterpreted if it taken literally) -- have it easy today. They can just sit back, relax, and listen to an 8-track, as Me'shell Ndegeocello used to sing. For the Sure Things, draft day is fun, kind of like a big game of Red Rover and they are just waiting to be called over.
Alas, I wasn't one of those guys. Back when I was drafted in January 1996, I was one of the other guys, the fringe players who not so much wait for that phone call, but pray for it. For us outside-shot types, draft day is not fun. It's not Red Rover; it's a game of Spin the Bottle and we're down to our underoos.
January 1996. I went to the player combine in Irvine, Calif., on a whim. I hadn't played serious soccer for roughly a year and a half, not since leaving my team in Luxembourg, Avenir Beggen, where I wasn't getting a sniff anyway. I had quit the team in order to satisfy my wanderlust and went backpacking through Europe and West Africa. After my travels, I returned to my hometown of Detroit -- a 22-year-old, heartbroken music freak with a useless college degree in American Civilization, a lumberjack's beard, and no experience in an "experience required" world. I jumped at the first job that came up: teaching high school at an all-boys Catholic school on the east side of Detroit.
And that's exactly what I was doing on the day of the MLS inaugural draft in January 1996. I was teaching my ninth graders about "point of view" and my 10th graders about Lord of the Flies ("Why is the conch taken as the symbol of power?"), and I was trying really, really hard not to think about the draft. But we all know what happens when you try not to think about something. It's like trying not to stare at the beautiful girl across the room. No matter how hard you try, you'll pretty soon end up staring and then she'll catch you and then you'll look away and they you'll look back to see if she is still looking at you and, of course, she's not because beautiful girls never stare because they don't have too and ... ah, the mating dance! Yup, it sucks. Anyway, in my attempts to ignore the draft, I'm pretty sure I used the word "draft" 120 times during the day, as in "Write a first draft," "Is there a draft in the room?" and "Why didn't the Castle Rock boys want to draft Piggie into their group?"
But as the day went by and I heard nothing, I convinced myself it wasn't going to happen. It was a long, uncomfortable slide down to the A-League, I figured. That's the other thing the Outside Shotters do: Think the worst in hopes of being pleasantly surprised. Of course, it's a lot better than being optimistic and then having your hopes dashed, your dreams crushed, your passion for soccer and life destroyed by those jerks who don't know anything about soccer and probably never kicked a ball in their lives anyway because if they had they'd know that you were legit, that you were a diamond in the rough who might be the final piece in the whole damn championship puzzle! Or something like that.
Then, in the middle of 6th period, a knock on the door. It was Mr. Kuhn, the principal, who said with a flummoxed look on his face, "Mr. Lalas" -- I always loved that, me a 22-year-old punk being called Mr. Lalas -- "You have a phone call." Immediately, my heart started racing. My palms were sweaty. I felt like I was back in ninth grade, standing on Tracy Logar's front porch and wondering just exactly one goes about kissing a girl. Then, halfway down the hall, I convinced myself that it had nothing to do with the draft. It was probably a parent who wanted to complain. Now I was even more nervous. I walked slowly, ever so slowly, down to Mr. Kuhn's office and put the phone to my ear.
"This is Mr. Lalas?"
"Hey, where did you say you wanted to play?" It was Alexi.
"L.A.," I replied. Before the draft, I had fantasized about Los Angeles, where it wasn't 15-below like it was that day in Detroit.
"Well, you're not going there," he said.
"Am I going anywhere?"
My heart started pounding again, but this time overjoyed, bursting with a mix of relief and pride and excitement. How do you like me now, Tracy? I wanted to shout, but the nuns at Notre Dame might not have liked that.
"Where?" I asked.
"Guess!" My brother, Alexi, like every big brother around the world, has always enjoyed and will always enjoy torturing me thus.
"Not L.A., so San Jose?"
"Come on, where?"
"Taaaaaaaaaaampa, F. L. A.!"
"Really," I said, actually kind of perplexed. To be honest, I wasn't sure where Tampa was. "At least it's warm."
"You were picked in the 16th round, the last round, number 157 out of 160," Alexi said.
My heart sank. No. 157 out of 160? That didn't match my dream of the draft day phone call. Last round meant I was an afterthought for the Tampa coach. Oh, wait! Who was the Tampa coach?
Alexi picked up on my mood swing. "Hey, snap out of it. Think about it this way. There were three other guys behind you."
"Yeah, you're right." And I hung up. I walked back to my class room and finished the lesson on Lord of the Flies. At one point, while my students were reading to themselves, I looked around the classroom and realized that my life was on the verge of a major upheaval. Everything was about to change. Two weeks later, I would leave these kids, I would drive my 1992 Dodge Shadow down to Tampa, F.L.A., and I would begin my soccer career again. I was one of the lucky ones. I remember thinking how 157 is infinitely better that 161, because there was no 161. I have never been so happy to be an afterthought.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at email@example.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.