we arrived in italy some time during the early hours of the day.
exhausted from the long flight and all the joking, nagging, and general gaming you’d typically expect of a clan of teenage boys, we piled into a coach-style bus with foreign language ads on the side for a three-hour journey out to the coast of the country.
where we were headed was really anyone’s guess.
that’s the way these things go when you have nothing to do with your own travel plans.
we’d been the fortunate few who’d survived a grueling week of 90-degree temperatures and three-a-day training sessions in the desert-like olympic compound in chula vista, california.
living three to a room and eating mediocre cafeteria food for a week is one thing…finding out at the end of that week that you’re not actually going home is another.
it was supposed to be an honor. those who went home were supposed to be the ones complaining. and i’m sure they were; i’m sure some of their parents were complaining pretty loudly.
the rest of us were left behind to adjust and prepare.
adjust to the 20-day trip we’d just signed on for…
prepare to represent the United States in an international soccer competition.
we were the USA Men’s Under-18 National Team.
it all seemed very sudden. unreal, in fact; how do you represent a country, anyway?
don’t i have a history paper due next week?
where is italy?
our bags were loaded underneath the bus, headphones shot onto everyone’s heads, and twenty-four young guys from all over the States spread out into their seats using folded sweatshirts as pillows. i sat across from leemo and we laughed as nino yelled “THESE…nuts” after everything our team manager said.
i stared out the window at a foreign countryside, comparing it to what i’d seen in holland and england; not much of a difference when you didn’t care about the details.
can’t read italian.
can’t read dutch.
no difference there!
i realized my peers were headed to school right then, halfway around the world. i was missing out on my real world…i had embarked on an adventure in a new world that i wasn’t quite sure about yet.
they think you’re one of the nation’s best players, i thought.
i miss my girlfriend, i thought.
you’re gonna look back and laugh at the girlfriend thing, i thought.
a few hours later, our bus pulled into ravenna (or was it pesaro?) where we’d be housed in a rather nice old-ish hotel for the week. we pulled up slowly to the grandiose front entrance as a crowd of local shop-owners and children parted our way, pushing up to the sides of the bus to peer into the window while they waved and cheered.
they help up our nation’s flags and that of their own allegiances, smiling and chanting “USA, USA” at our bewildered stares.
we looked out at them, dumbfounded.
we wondered aloud how they knew of our arrival.
why were they cheering for the United States?
our manager and coach gave us our room assignments, told us to unload, and asked us to sign autographs on our way in.
however we’d gotten to where we were as we walked off that bus, and whatever pulled at us from our homes and our lives and our uncertainty, seemed at that moment to be The Past.
our ambivalence was gone.
this was now, and this was happening, and this was exciting.
i stepped down off of that bus with the United States Soccer crest burning into my chest.
i stood there and signed autographs and posed for pictures with young kids in soccer cleats and old men in soccer jerseys, laughing as the unequivocal response to my answers to “WHERE FROM??” (“CHICAGO!“) was “MICHAEL JORDAN!!!”.
i was standing tall, and feeling like a representative…i was there to represent my home.
there to represent the people i missed and my high school teammates and the friends i couldn’t wait to share this experience with.
i was ready for this.
i’d arrived in italy.