“Are we in a time out?” I asked Carter, the young man sitting behind me in the stands at a recent Wilmington Hammerheads game. He shook his head “no” and explained there are no timeouts in soccer.
This was my first soccer game, though not my introduction to the Hammerheads. The last time I was at Legion for a Hammerheads game was about 13 years ago. Through an odd series of events, I wound up in the mascot suit, hugging kids and posing for pictures. It was a very hot experience and I had not been back since.
But, today, I am on a mission to learn about our beautiful city, and the Hammerheads seem to be very important to a lot of people (over 3,000 apparently on the night I attended a game). So with two books on Iceland’s economic crisis in hand, I settled into the stands to await the beginning of the game and my newfound understanding of the sport that holds the entire world (except America) spellbound during the FIFA World Cup.
I should say: I originally planned to attend with a group of five people, including one friend who is quite passionate about soccer—and I figured having him along would be like having personal history of a soccer documentary running simultaneously.
“It’s a gentlemen’s sport,” Hector began explaining, where players are expected to perform with honor. Apparently, it’s not something I would see that ill-fated day in July; the time of the game was changed.
“We put it out on social media,” the young lady at the gate explained to the folks lining up to support the team.
“They didn’t send out an e-mail!” one angry woman forcefully launched at me. “They didn’t send an e-mail to season ticket holders!”
I finally held up a pair of tickets with the wrong time on them in defense, saying I didn’t work there and was in the same boat as she was.
It was such an undertaking getting everyone assembled for that journey and I just couldn’t cope with trying to put together a party again. So this time I went by myself. After all, I’m an only-child; I like doing things alone … except I don’t know the first thing about soccer. My comprehension of it included the understanding that players don’t use their hands. That’s about it. Apparently, the goal keeper does. Who knew?
It was a “Christmas in July”-themed night, and the whole experience was actually quite lovely. Though, the poor man dressed up as Santa Claus in the heat caused me more than a few moments of anxiety for his health and well being. Nourish NC was there to do a canned food drive; the Codington Elementary School choir sang holiday songs in line with the theme of the evening. But my favorite half-time entertainment came from the Special Olympics cheerleaders who put on an impassioned show.
Kids seemed to outnumber the adults in the stands—and the Hammerheads management was determined to keep them busy, starting with forming a human tunnel for the players to walk through for the opening kickoff. The Hammerheads walked out, escorted by a group of young ladies who looked (from the distance) like they were probably late elementary or middle school-age. At this time I overheard a young man, Carter and his dad (CD) discussing the various players and their escorts by name. I interrupted their banter to ask if they could explain to me who the young ladies were and how they were selected to escort the players to the field.
CD explained that different youth teams took turns walking out with the players and minding the sidelines to chase down the out-of-bounds balls.
“OK,” I reasoned. “Lots of community involvement, which is wonderful, but also the effort to educate the next generation, like you see with adults committed to children’s theatre.”
My concept of baseball was greatly (and mistakenly) shaped by movies, but the only soccer movie I could think of was “Bend it Like Beckham.” Baseball turned out to be a much slower game in real life than film, but, within four minutes into the game, a soccer ball landed in the stands and about 10 minutes later CD was warning everyone nearby, “Watch out! Watch out!” The ball hurtled toward us and, thankfully, fell short. I looked at the beautiful curly haired toddler playing next to me and said a silent prayer that all was well.
“So what are the different color lines for?” I asked Carter. He explained yellow was the only color we were worried about; the others were for other sports or different (younger) leagues. Other sports? Oh, right, the score board proudly proclaimed this as “Jurgensen-Gabriel Field,” for the NFL legends Roman Gabriel and Sonny Jurgensen. So, football. Of course. I might not know anything about football, but you can’t grow up in Wilmington without knowing those two names.
A player from Pittsburgh was lying on his back, clutching an eye. “Soccer players are known for being dramatic,” CD explained. I quickly figured out for several players that lying down on the field was their preferred position. The voice of my first children’s theatre director echoed in my head: “The audience didn’t pay money to see your back—turn around!” Yeah, the audience didn’t shell out $13 a ticket to watch you lie on the ground, but their efforts were successful—and one of the Hammerheads was ejected from the game by the end of the evening. CD explained the team couldn’t replace him that night; they would have to finish the game with one less player.
For all the drama on the field, the real show was in the stands across the way. There was an epic religious pageant on the scale of the “Passion Play” taking place. Streaked in paint, depicting symbols and words, dancing, chanting, and periodically igniting magical blue and white streaked smoke, a group of modern-day Shamans prayed and yearned with unwavering passion on behalf of their team, the Hammerheads. It absolutely fit every description I have read of Shamans during lacrosse matches in the 18th and 19th centuries. This kind of devotion isn’t just entertaining and artistic, it is transcendental.
After witnessing a spectacle worthy of P.T. Barnum, and the artistry of my first professional soccer game, I was just as surprised as anyone to read the reports that the Hammerheads might not come back to Wilmington next year. Reports have cited USL teams in Wilmington and Austin, Texas, will go dormant in 2017, leaving 29 teams to compete next season (though, nothing was confirmed at press time). Thankfully, the Hammerheads Youth League announced they are unaffected by the decision, and kids like my guide, Carter, will not lose their opportunity to play. But the connections with the professional players—real-life people who have achieved their dreams—well, to lose that piece would be sad. For the fans in the stands, and especially for the Shamans, the devastation would be terrible.
Clearly, soccer and the Hammerheads, especially, have caught the hearts and minds of our fair city. Let’s hope we not only see them back next year, but for many more years to come. Besides, I’m planning to hang out with the Shamans at my next game.