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He'll Never Brush With Greatness

October 14, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

They are mighty soccer teams, well-trained units with fierce names that give you a sense of who they are and what they are about, lining up for team photos on a misty autumn morning that is cold before its time.

"Sun-Ripened Wild Strawberries, over here," the photographer says. "That's it, girls, stay in line."

Stay in line. It's the single most important order great athletes like these will ever learn.

And no more so than on this long day, when 2,000 soccer players will get their pictures taken, first individually, then with their teams.

"Tuck in your shirts," a woman orders.

And they all tuck in their shirts.

"Wipe the doughnut sugar off your faces," the woman orders, and they all wipe the doughnut sugar off their faces.

There are maybe a dozen teams gathering at once here in the park, young kids under old oaks, no one quite sure where they are supposed to go.

They are herded here, they are herded there. Finally, they are herded near a camera, where a guy with 150 rolls of film sits in a hard metal chair, waiting for the next team to line up.

"Dad, my hair," the little girl says.

She says this without great hope, knowing that her dad doesn't do well with hair, usually just brushes it out of her eyes and pats her on the head and pretends everything is fine, which is mostly what being a dad is all about.

On school days, her dad will sometimes attempt a ponytail, usually with disastrous results, the strands of copper hair refusing to be harnessed like that--hair with nerve endings, faintly humming.

Her dad will dig into the big bucket of barrettes and hair bands that she keeps under the sink, looking for something that'll match her outfit, a hundred little devices to choose from, none of which he can work.

"How about this one?" he'll say, holding up some polka-dot device.

"OK, Dad," the little girl answers.

He'll unclasp it and examine it, then look at her hair, as if examining a calculus problem. For 15 minutes, he'll brush and arrange, his thick fingers never quite getting the knack of it. He may as well be wearing welders' gloves.

And when she finally arrives at school--after half an hour of hair preparation--she looks like someone who just hopped off a speedboat.

"I should open a beauty school," I tell her on the way to school.

"Why, Dad?"

"Because you look so beautiful," I say as she climbs out of the car.

"Thanks," she lies.

At school, in fact, they think she is two different girls. There's the girl with the smooth and beautiful hair her mother brushes and prepares. Then there's this other girl, the one her father gets ready for school. The mini-Medusa.

"Do you do Taylor's hair?" I asked a friend recently, hoping for some hair tips. Or at least a little sympathy.

"Yeah," he says. "I've gotten pretty good at it."

Which is something he probably doesn't discuss with the buddies at a poker game or on the golf course. But you could tell he was pretty proud of it.

"Dad?" the little girl says, as we near the photographer.

The wind is stirring now, which seems to zero in on the little girl's hair, twisting it like car springs.

Nearby, the boys teams are gathering too, guys who probably put in more time on their hair than the little girls, guys with bleached hair and spiky little ringlets, guys who could maybe help a kid with her hair if they wanted to.

They are quite a contrast, these older boy teams, with names like the Assassins or the Cannibals or the Psychos, standing beside the little girl teams, whose names sound like expensive shower gels.

"Purple Lilies of the Valley, over here," the photographer says to one team of girls.

"Sweet Blossoms of an Early Bavarian Spring, over here," someone else says to another team of girls.

"Hey, Assassins, over here," someone says to the boys.

We are close now, the players beginning to stir, knowing that in a few minutes it will be their turn.

Remarkably, the pictures are on time, something never before seen in youth soccer. The parents speak of it in hushed tones, knowing that they are part of something special. In no time, a murmur of disbelief passes through the crowd.

"Did you hear that?" one father says.

"What?" a second father answers.

"They're actually on time," the first father says.

"Won't last," the second father says, and they nod, knowing that nothing this simple ever goes simply.

"Dad, it's almost our turn," the little red-haired girl says.

"OK, smile nice," I say to her, "and show them your pretty teeth."

She smiles nicely, only she has no teeth, just spaces where her teeth used to be.

And as the wind whips her hair into a hundred little tornadoes, the photographer clicks the camera.

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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