I was sitting on the training table in Knott Arena at Mt. St. Mary’s about to get my ankle taped. It was my first time in uniform for the soccer team at Johns Hopkins University, and it was our first preseason scrimmage of the year.
Coach Butler walked in and looked at me, looked at our trainer Lisa, looked at starting forward Chris Boris, and said, “Man, what the hell you taping up McPherson for, he ain’t gonna play! Get Boris first so we can get going.”
Lisa moved over to tape up Boris, who then left and returned to the locker room. I was the last player in the quiet room, getting my ankle taped -now for no apparent reason, since I was unlikely to play. I raced down the hallway to the visitors’ locker room to finish getting my socks, shin guards, and cleats on. I got there just as Coach Butler was finishing up his pregame.
The team filed out, full of the exuberance that comes at the start of any new season. Even though we were a Division III team and Mt. St. Mary’s was Division I, there was hope. It got really quiet in the locker room and as I tied my last cleat. I heard the door close and the dead bolt turn.
I walked over to the door, incredulous. No way was this happening, no way. I tried the door. Sure enough, it was locked. The locker room was at the far end of the hallway, the last room in fact. I banged on the door, but I didn’t want to scream. How much of a loser was I already? Coach said I wouldn’t even play; I got left behind and locked in the locker room. I was a freshman walk-on and probably the worst player on the team. No, I wouldn’t scream, I had my dignity.
I pondered the various outcomes: if they came back at halftime could I hide in the showers and then emerge as if nothing had happened? The lights were off in the shower room and it was very dark. I did some sit ups and pushups to break a sweat, as if I had been out there doing warm up drills at least.
This is how I started college.
Sometime during the spring of my senior year of high school, after I had been accepted to Hopkins and had accepted their acceptance, I received a letter from Hopkins Soccer informing me that the preseason would start in August. I was invited to join training and attempt to walk on to the team.
Playing college sports had not really been on my radar. It had been a dream to play college basketball since middle school, but the reality of that faded as I finished up my high school career. I had never been recruited, or scouted, or anything.
In any event, I considered myself a basketball player, and had started playing soccer as a way to get in shape for basketball season. I also went to a small school where bodies were needed. But I had come to love soccer, becoming team captain my senior year. I had a teammate who had been on Real Madrid’s junior team; I had marked an opposing player, Bert Reid, from Trinidad, who had been signed by Inter Milan. But my skills had not caught up to my love for the game.
Included in the letter was a series of suggested work outs over the summer, targeted times and distances. I drove around my neighborhood and found the mile markers and started running. On Saturdays I rode my bike over to Sligo Creek Park and tried to get into the pickup soccer games with the Central Americans. There is nothing like being 18 and in great shape and getting juked by a fat, 30 something Salvadoran to put you in your place.
After a summer of trying to make up for years of treating soccer as a hobby, I packed up the car and my parents drove me up to Hopkins. The general fear of college and starting something new led me to see making the team as a desperately needed crutch of the familiar. I would not boldly go to college and remake myself; I would sneak in under the guise of being a jock, in a milieu where I was at least comfortable.
I arrived on the second day of preseason. “Didn’t you get the other letter?” said Coach Butler, “we changed the start date to yesterday.”
So I, and Nate Anderson, who was injured I believe, sat on the sideline and watched practice. We also had to wait for the next time the Athletic Department doctor was available to get our physicals to allow us to play. And so we missed a few more practices. At one point the assistant coach, Winston Earle, a native of Jamaica and a great man, came over and said, “Man, you see these boys runnin’ and they see you sittin’. You don’t have to wait for no doctor to play on the side.”
And so Nate and I ran and did what drills we could, outside the fence. Nate and Coach Earle were the first friendly faces and handshakes for this terrified kid, who wasn’t very good, and who didn’t read his mail.
Since I had not anticipated playing soccer at Hopkins, I did not know they had an Astroturf field. I had brought my cleats, but I did not have flats –except for the Lotto flats that I wore as my walking around shoes. They happened to be about a size too big, which was for comfort. But for playing on turf, that extra size meant that I tripped a lot. They called it getting bit by the turf monster. I had permanent, oozing scabs on my knees until I had made the team and was outfitted with shoes that fit.
So I sat there in the locker room at the Mount, in the bowels of the arena where I had gone to numerous basketball camps, having missed several days of practice because I missed a letter; the worst guy on a team that I don’t think won a single game all season, who just tripped all the time through practices, with scabby knees.
Eventually I heard the door unlock and a Mount athletics staffer walked in. He looked at me, I looked at him.
“Oh no, have you been locked in here the whole time?”
“Yes I have. Is it halftime?”
“No, the game is almost over.”
What to do, what to do? I walked out, down the hallway, out of the building, across the parking lot, to the field and sat down at the end of the bench for the waning minutes of a blowout. I might have gotten into the game after all!
I don’t remember whom I sat next to, but he asked me where I had been. I couldn’t feel any lower, so honesty was easy, “I got locked in the locker room.” “Don’t tell coach, don’t ever tell coach,” he said. He turned and told the next guy, and as I looked down the bench I saw heads turn and the telephone exchange of whispers, and then the smiles and laughs, and the looks my way. I was very popular when we stopped for dinner on the way back to Baltimore. “Seriously! no, seriously McPherson!?” Lots of laughs. I mean, what else could I do? It was a pretty funny situation.
McPherson got locked in the locker room. Nobody tell coach. Solidarity.
I don’t think I played in a single game that year, but I did get a lot better at soccer, I made some good friends, and eased my way into college with those friendships.
Towards the end of that terrible losing season I was walking though the lobby of the Athletic Center after practice, one of the last guys out of the showers, and Coaches Butler and Earle were sitting on a table smiling. Coach Butler said loudly, “Yo, McPherson! I see you made it out of the locker room.”
Later that year I ended up walking on to the basketball team too. The next year, my sophomore year, I chose to focus on basketball, two sports and Hopkins academics were exhausting, -even if you ride pine.
Two years later the core of that terrible soccer team played in the NCAA Division III finals. I got a ride up to New Jersey to cheer them on.