The Soccer Workout: How I Got Fit for the Beautiful Game

Soccer Features

When I was young, I was in shape. My wiry leanness came easy back then. Some combination of genetics and lifestyle meant that I could always eat what I wanted and my weight would never budge. In fact, my thinness was a central part of my identity. I was Ian Williams and I was thin.

I’ve always hated the gym. I need to compete in my exercise. The friendly needling of trash talk and shared sweat is what keeps me going hour after hour. Basketball was my drug. Never great but just good enough to hang in there, I’d practice on my own for hours when I wasn’t playing friends, breaking my rule on solitary exercise to perfect my shot. I put in practice in my driveway in the hopes that it would let me triumphantly thump my chest at whoever I ended up playing later.

I discovered punk rock and all the high school striations that come with being some hybrid of punker, nerd, jock and loser. Basketball and I fell out, but I picked up skateboarding. I was terrible at skating, but my friends and I would pile into my car with our skateboards and not come home for 12 hours. I’d come back, hungry and stinking, full of cigarette smoke and gas station hot dogs, burning more calories than I took in by several magnitudes every day I could get out, school be damned.

One day, it all stopped. I moved, then moved back, then moved again. I got married, went to college, dropped out, and started working in bookstores. My friends who skated weren’t around and I felt silly hitting the old spots at age 22, only to see a bunch of 16-year-olds there. Nobody played basketball anymore; I started to fall out of love with basketball, myself, watching the NCAA eat up something I loved and never being able to handle the interminably long NBA season.

I stayed skinny. Then I got extremely sick. My Crohn’s disease made me really skinny, godawfully skinny, skin and bones skinny, 6 feet tall and 105 pounds skinny. But I was thin, even as I was dying. My identity as a thin man was preserved. I still remember, plain as day after over a decade, the look of horror on my dad’s face when he expressed concern over my illness and I told him that at least I looked good, lifting up my shirt just enough to show the queasy combo of sunken gut and tight muscles from the peculiar exertions Crohn’s disease demands of you.

With a lot of time and medication, I got better. Not perfectly healthy, but better. After years on disability, I got a nice, sedentary desk job. My wife and I decided to have a child, so I quit smoking. The combination of remission, desk job, and smoking cessation caused my weight to rocket upwards. My body was suddenly weird, every bit as foreign to me as when my health was at its nadir. I hover near 200 pounds now, my face a bit jowly and my body doughy and lumpy, with little manboobs, a deflated butt, and a round, hairy belly which obscures all but the very tips of my toes when I look down.

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More than my physical appearance (I’m 37, about the age when vanity begins to dry up in the face of inexorable aging), I just haven’t felt well in so long. I remember being thin and attractive, yes, but I also remember never running out of energy, of dancing all night, of sweating and enjoying it because there was always more to come.

I needed to just get healthy, to at least feel better than I did when I was smoking a pack and a half a day. I always meant to go to the gym. But I couldn’t. I can’t. There’s no sport, with its attendant camaraderie, to be found at the gym. My friends are either scattered or as sedentary as I am.

And then soccer happened.

I am, as I’ve written about on this site, a relatively recent convert to soccer fanaticism as these things go, but I love it. I love watching it, talking about it, and writing about it. Playing it? I want to. I haven’t played since I was eight but I want to. Then again, I haven’t played any sport for 14 years.

So that’s how I found myself at the gym last week, for the first time in ages. Almost every day since then, I drop my kid off at school and head to the gym, doing cardio and as much strength training as I can without hurting myself. It’s awful. My first day, I hit the elliptical trainer only to stop after 10 minutes. Or what I thought was 10 minutes. When I looked down, gasping for breath, it was only four. But it’s getting better each day, little by little.

Because I’m going to go play soccer. My first game in 30 years is indoors, this weekend, with a local beginner’s pickup league. I’m so excited I can barely get through the week. I want to feel what it’s like to deliver a cross in a game. What it’s like to score a goal. I want to kick people and I want to be kicked. I want to score an own goal. I want to celebrate a goal in awkward fashion. I want it all, good and bad.

I’m not going to be good. In fact, I’m going to be awful. I have no clue what I’m doing. But I just want to play. I love soccer too much to just watch. I have a desire to get down there and play something like I haven’t had in as long as I can remember.

So it’s week two of my attempt at being a healthier man, spurred on by my love for a sport which I’ve never really played. I’m not certain whether getting healthy is so I can play soccer or vice versa. I just know I’m in the gym and about to be on the pitch. And I feel good about it, both physically and mentally. Thierry Henry, almost exactly one month my junior, had better watch out.

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