View from the Cheap Seats: Ode to a fighter
be it soccer, pool, or poker -- Joe-Max seemed electrified, charged like an ion, his eyes flicking nervously around the room or the field of play, his body twitching, every fiber on high alert.
Sometimes I think competition was the only thing that let him feel truly alive, truly himself. I remember a game of 8-ball against Joe-Max back in 1997 when we were teammates on the New England Revolution. We were in a hotel in Pensacola, Fla., of all places, for preseason, and pool and cards were the only diversion.
Joe-Max had no idea that I'm a decent pool player (a not-so-surprising consequence of a season sitting the bench in Tampa Bay -- reserves tend to be very good at barroom games). He expected to wipe the floor with me, and when I sunk the 8-ball he chucked his stick down on the table. He demanded a rematch. I beat him again. "Again!" I didn't want to play again. But he hounded me. "Come on, again! I'll kick your ass this time. And let's play for 20 bucks!"
He had to prove he was better than me, better than everyone. He had to win. I said no again and he stormed off. But the next day, it was forgotten. He told me a great joke at breakfast. I don't remember the joke, only the telling of it.
Joe-Max's type of raw energy will inevitably blow a fuse or two. His intensity often betrayed him. He was constantly injured and many people wondered if his all-consuming desire to win pushed him to work too hard, overexerting himself, pushing his body beyond its limits. Injuries ultimately ended Joe-Max's career in England and kept him from imprinting himself even deeper into the record books: He never scored in the World Cup finals and never won an MLS Cup.
Furthermore, he could be quick to light into his teammates. Zero tolerance for mediocrity. In games, he took his frustrations out on his opponents with ugly vicious tackles, usually after he had missed a scoring opportunity, a half-chance perhaps, when he was so close he could taste it but wanted to explode because he didn't finish it off.
Since Joe-Max always reserved his harshest criticisms for himself, he expected more of himself than anyone else. He probably expected too much of himself. Although he has a great easy laugh, he rarely smiled on the field, even when turning one of his trademark post-goal flips: Success was the only option, no reason to celebrate it.
Joe-Max's retirement, like those of Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa, and any other member of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team (now, only four-and-a-half remain active -- Earnie Stewart is half a coach by now), affords yet another pause-and-reflect moment. Over the course of Joe-Max's career, soccer has made a couple of quantum leaps here. He's played a major role in that, and hopefully, his competitive streak will live on.
An image comes to mind here: Freddy Adu standing up for himself against the MetroStars late last season. It was a Joe-Max moment. Yesterday, Joe-Max posted a letter of appreciation to the fans on this site. The letter is unsentimental and classy, honest and unapologetic. "Although I am saddened, I move forward with peace of mind, knowing that I gave everything as a player," he wrote.
You did, Joe. You gave everything. Body and soul. You were a fighter, and I, for one, am going to miss watching you fight.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.