As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I moved twenty-one times before high school. I was shy. Extremely shy. No, my father wasn’t in the military; he worked for IBM, or “I’ve Been Moved” as some quipped. IBM relocated him, and by extension our family, every six months whenever there was a new computer lab to set up. Other times we moved because my dad took a different job or started a company.
I coped with being the new kid in class, often twice a year, by latching onto a best friend. I wasn’t choosy. It was usually whatever girl approached first with a friendly smile. Through that girlfriend, in a hushed voice, I found out where the library was or offered a suggestion for a playground game. That friend became my mouthpiece to the world.
As I shifted from one best friend to another, one companion stayed constant whether I lived in Michigan, Florida, or Pennsylvania. Mom kindly let me set a place at the dinner table for Mrs. Zucker. She joined us when her husband was bowling. Other times we would visit in my bedroom, chatting together over a pretend cup of coffee. I spoke aloud and listened politely while Mrs. Zucker responded in my head. My only sister was born eight years after me. My imaginary friend filled a gap that a close sibling might have otherwise.
Once I entered high school, my mother took a firm stance that the family stay put so I could attend the same high school until graduation. Still those teenage years were tough for me. I remember feeling self-conscious about my height; at 5’8” I towered over most of the boys. I dreaded visits to the girls’ locker room. Late to mature, I was skinny and flat-chested and hated changing into that one-piece stretchy gym suit. While other girls danced around naked, I was the one executing awkward maneuvers under my towel. Thank goodness the gym teachers didn’t enforce the communal-shower-after-class rule.
The loudspeaker in my high school homeroom blared announcements about tryouts for girls’ basketball and field hockey. Part of me wanted to go. I enjoyed sports in gym class––once I got past that locker room. I wanted to be one of those girls, laughing as they boarded the bus for away games. But I stayed in my homeroom seat. I convinced myself I wouldn’t make the team anyway.
I played no high school sports.
A different kid who moved twenty-one times might have become super outgoing instead of shy. That just wasn’t my experience.
When I headed off to college, my father said, “If you don’t know what you want to be, study engineering. You can always get a job.” I took his advice. My degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering landed me in jobs at General Electric, Bell Labs, and then BBN Technologies––all male-dominated environments where I too often sat quiet in meetings, hesitant to say the wrong thing.
Fifteen years into my technical career, I was selected along with a few other women to be groomed for management positions. My leadership coach evaluated my skills through a battery of tests and surveys. She reviewed the results and recommended we work on improving my self-confidence. I was not shocked by her conclusion.
“You build confidence when you tackle something outside of your comfort zone,” my coach, Vivian, instructed me. She had me make a list of what I considered twenty uncomfortable things to do. Volunteer to give a talk at my daughter’s school, sing a song on a street corner, and ask my boss for a promotion went on my list. Then she told me I was going to pick one to do each week. My eyes widened in horror. “And you’re going to tell people about your accomplishments.” I gasped, unable to imagine anything worse.
Vivian cheered me on as I analyzed pay and promotion statistics by gender, presented the results to upper management, and made the case for salary corrections. I attended a day-long self-defense course for women where I pummeled a padded attacker. And yes, I prepared and defended my request for a promotion that was ultimately granted.
Somehow, I survived those three months of self-inflicted torture and hard-earned accomplishments. Increasingly I voiced my thoughts and ideas in meetings, enjoyed mentoring other women, and eventually oversaw two different 100-person business units.
Still the work environment was stressful, and I treasured the weekends. I remember standing on the sidelines watching my daughters play soccer when I heard about a group of moms playing pickup soccer games. This time I would not stay glued to my homeroom seat.
A couple of tips about kicking with the side of your foot for more control and I was off and running. The supportive group of women made the soccer field a comfortable place to learn a new skill.
We cherished the “me” time, the chance to chase the ball, and to forgot about that looming work deadline for an hour.
As snow threatened to throw a cold blanket over our game, we found an indoor league. My first ever refereed game of any kind was at age forty-seven. The score reflected our collective panic and newness to the sport, but still it was a blast. Soon I was proudly slipping into my first team jersey. Our fun, healthy addiction drove us to train harder and enter tournaments. We started winning games!
Then my passion for women’s soccer led me in an unexpected direction. It was 2010 and South Africa was hosting the Soccer World Cup. Amidst the excitement, the international spotlight focused on a team of women, fifty to eighty years old, playing soccer in rural Limpopo. These “Soccer Grannies” started playing to improve their health. They took to the pitch despite being told they belonged at home watching the grandchildren. As I watched their videos, I could tell they shared the same joy that my team felt. I was inspired by these older women halfway around the world.
My team got in touch with the Soccer Grannies and invited them to travel to the U.S. to join an adult soccer tournament. The team founder replied right away, “Yes, we will come, my sister.” Neither of us had any idea of what hurdles lay ahead––obtaining passports and visas, raising $40,000, and then finding airplane tickets at a point when the flights were jampacked with World Cup travelers. The months ticked by as we worked to move the ball forward on this project from both sides of the Atlantic. Soon the tournament date was fast approaching, and we had little to show for our efforts. Yet the more I learned about these women and the challenges of daily life in South Africa, the more committed I became. I couldn’t just give up. I couldn’t let these women down.
The story of these inspiring Soccer Grannies and their desire to travel to America reached the pages of the New York and the Los Angeles Times. A corporate sponsor stepped forward and with miracle after miracle we sailed over those hurdles.
Three days later nineteen South Africans streamed through Boston’s Logan airport. Hosting these feisty players as they sang and danced on the sidelines of the soccer field was an unbelievable experience. Their joy was contagious. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language; on the pitch we hooted, laughed, and hugged after a goal.
We also caught glimpses into what this trip meant to them.
After they departed, we marveled at our cross-cultural connection enabled by a shared love of the sport and vowed the first of us to retire would write a book. We visited our sister soccer team in South Africa the following year and have stayed in touch ever since.
I held onto the idea about sharing the Soccer Grannies’ story with the world. Half a decade after their visit, this engineer who had never written anything other than emails and meeting minutes, signed up for a creative writing class. And another. I pounded out a lousy first draft and sought professional feedback. I joined a cherished writing group who has met every other week for five years and counting. Just like me, each of these women had a story that needed to be told and each of our projects has blossomed.
A second, better version of the manuscript completed, I started the daunting process of finding a publisher. With a little luck and a lot of stick-to-itiveness, I am proud to say that I will be the debut author at age sixty-four when my book is published in May 2023. The Soccer Grannies and I teamed up––and we did it!
Has my passion for soccer and writing left me bursting with self-confidence? No. To be honest you will still find me glued to my husband’s side at parties. I will never be entirely comfortable with public speaking, but given a topic I care about, I will step up to the podium.
Sports teach valuable life skills. You learn to act confident when you are up to bat, even if you don’t feel that way inside. Sports teach you to win and lose and separate that from your worth as a person. On the field, you discover that pressure, deadlines, and competition can be fun.
The Soccer Grannies and I both found unexpected experiences on the soccer pitch. Better late to the game than never.
Jean Duffy is a debut author with Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World to be published in May 2023. She plays soccer and writes in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Concord Monitor, and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. Find her online at https://jeanduffy.com.