I had never felt so uncomfortable in a place that I had come to call my second home. The small, muddy ground with two rusty goalposts at each end had always been reassuringly familiar to me; but not on that one night. Over the past year, I had covered every inch of the ground more than a thousand times; right from the first day of college to the last day of the university team trials. I loved the ground so much that my once gleaming, white Star Impact Spectras were now permanently coated with a dull brown tinge that so often ended up on my shirts after rough falls. My legs had almost memorized the physical attributes of the turf; how the far left corner was slightly elevated and how a little patch halfway up the ground was particularly hard to sprint on. I can embarrassingly admit, I didn’t even know my girlfriend as intimately as I knew about the little, muddy pitch in the centre of my college.
When Mom’s cancer happened, I was forced to see two of my most cherished things in the world spiral towards unimaginable predicaments. With Mom’s steadily deteriorating health, I was slowly starting to spend more and more time away from the little field I used to practice in. I sorely missed what it once made me feel – the thrills of exquisitely timed sliding tackles, the earthy aroma of petrichor during rainy football sessions, the joys of the wind beating against my chest while sprinting; the sheer nostalgia of memories was overwhelming. Those poignant shards of a shattered imagination were now replaced with far graver memories.
On that night, I stood once again on the same ground after God knew how much time. The sound of gravel scrunching beneath my shoes felt like listening to a song that I had long forgotten, but one that I suddenly rediscovered on the radio. I could hear the crowd roaring and the bright floodlights illuminating the field radiantly, lending its brown colour an alluring, lustrous glow which I think it always deserved. I had been there so many times before; soaking in the pressure, the crippling expectations and the electric atmosphere. But that night was different. It was strange for me, this feeling. I had built my footballing reputation on being a calm central midfielder who feared little. But on that night, I felt nervous and uneasily anxious. The worst thing was that I was fully aware of why it was happening.
I didn’t look on my right-hand side because I knew she was watching me. I also knew she understood little about the game; had no clue about the intricate tactics, the industrious endeavor and the orchestrated teamwork it required to assert one team’s supremacy over the other. All I knew was that I would mean the same to her on the pitch as I did off it. She cared little about my team or the opposition’s, she was only going to watch me and be oblivious to the rest of the world. In 18 years of my life out of which I had spent 10 playing the beautiful game, this was the first time that she had come to watch me play. That night, I wanted to give her something to smile about after what had been a tumultuous few months for all of us.
I still remember how it felt the same way like my first match did. My legs felt like jelly, my stomach had turned so violently that it felt like someone had tied my guts into a scout’s knot. I couldn’t focus, I was sweating and the game hadn’t even begun. Trust me, there is nothing worse than sudden self-doubt on the big stage; that one moment when you completely forget your very purpose of existing. That horror of letting everything unravel when it matters to most was terrifying to me.
When I heard the whistle, it took me a few seconds to register that the game had kicked off. It was like the world had dropped its burdens on my shoulders, but I told myself that nothing mattered more to me than the lady who got up from a hospital bed after a chemotherapy to watch her son do what he loved. I wasn’t going to let her down, I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I did. Failure was unacceptable on any night; but tonight it was simply unthinkable. I had no way of knowing if she would ever watch me play again, so I knew had to make this one performance count.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes, I played like a man possessed. I dived recklessly into tackles, ran twice as hard as the man I was supposed to mark, and constantly told myself that this was just another game. I don’t think my body was listening. By halftime I looked like I had taken a momentary dip in the college’s heritage well; my head was aching with the lack of composure that usually regulated my body’s physical output. It was then that I realized what my fear truly meant. And for the first time since the match started, I smiled.
I realized that I felt different because that night, I wasn’t playing for myself anymore. I was playing for someone else, someone far more important. None of the hundreds in the crowd had ever seen what it took me to become the footballer I was, but the lady smiling quietly at one dark corner of the field certainly had. She had seen me caked in mud and exhausted from training camps, she had seen me in hospitals with sprained ankles and torn muscles, she had seen me distraught after defeat. She had witnessed and understood the true aspects of my art and my worth as an artist, which is why on that night, the weight of expectations felt heavier than it ever did before.
Before the second half began, I went up to her and talked to her. My heart felt lighter knowing that today, all I had to do to make her proud was just to be myself. Just like how I was the centre of her universe, she was all that mattered tonight and nothing else came remotely close. Win, draw or lose, it didn’t matter anymore; just knowing that she was watching me was all I could be grateful for.