VIP Life Lessons
Even While Losing, These Kids Learned To Win
Life lesson comes with 8-year-old autistic boy as a good teammate
By Alan Abrahamson
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. - If this were a movie, Garrett Roth, who is 8 years old and autistic, would have stepped up for the last penalty kick in his youth-soccer league game, the Blue Lightning against Manhattan United, and knocked it home to deliver a playoff victory for Big Blue.
That didn't happen.
Life isn't a movie.
Real-life is sometimes even better. What happens for real on soccer fields and on playgrounds in these United States affirms, way more often than not, the very thing sports are supposed to be all about: You don't have to win to be a hero.
Far removed from the glare of the media attention that can attend big-time pro and college sports, kids do the right things and the grown-ups do the right things in games that, make no mistake, are no less exciting, no less full of drama, no less important in the community than anything aired on nationwide television.
Too often we hear about it loud and long when it goes bad. When a play-to-win coach goes off the handle. When an overbearing parent gets irate. When an overzealous kid plays mean.
Sports, it is said, doesn't build character. It reveals it.
Each of us is different; every single one of us is entitled to respect and decency. Which is why the kids, coaches and parents who not only get it but show that they get it — like all of those in the gathering dark that Saturday afternoon at the soccer fields at Mira Costa High School — deserve a rich measure of credit, too.
Mira Costa is at the center of community life in Manhattan Beach and, moreover, neighboring Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. In recent years, the three beach cities have gone increasingly upscale; housing prices can run into the millions. Many of those who can afford to buy are, no surprise, Type-A personalities.
Which, in sports, can often translate into a ferocious competitiveness. And youth sports in the beach cities matters. In the spring, it's the Manhattan Beach Little League; the season opens with a parade and community dignitaries. In the fall, it's AYSO soccer.
In the beach cities, as it can be in many other towns, "The moms and dads live through their kids," Garrett's dad, Mike Roth, said.
Mike, 48, now a real-estate developer, knows all about how competitive sports can be. As an offensive lineman, he played football in the early 1980s at USC.
Garrett was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was 3. Mike and his wife, Olivia, 46, have since sought both to enhance Garrett's talents — he loves music, has played piano since age 4 and, his proud dad says, has perfect pitch — while keeping him in the mainstream of school and other activities. For instance, Garrett does some 20 hours a week with an educational specialist but is every bit a part of the second grade at American Martyrs School, one of the institutions of civic life in Manhattan Beach.
Soccer was Garrett's idea. He saw so many other kids were doing it and said, "Hey, me too."
According to Mike, Garrett's motor skills are still developing. Spatial awareness and reasoning can be a challenge. Social interaction, too. "So soccer is really hard for him," Mike said. "But he loves being out there with the kids, the interactions."
The AYSO leagues in Manhattan Beach are divided by age. Garrett was among those in the boys' 10-and-under division. The coaches on his team turned out to be Jill Veghlan, 31, office manager for a lawyer in Torrance, Calif., and Charlie Garnsey, 26, a production assistant on Fox's "Best Damn Sports Show Period." AYSO coaches are volunteers; this fall marked Jill's eighth year as a coach.
Before the season got underway, Jill said, "Mike had called to let us know that he was autistic but high functioning. I didn't think anything about it...
"Then you meet him and he's an absolute sweetheart. Just a friendly child. I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach these other boys — who don’t have any physical or developmental disabilities — something about someone who does, that it would be a great situation for these children to understand that we’re all different and you don't judge.
"That was the theme all year long, and we had unbelievable support from the get-go from all these boys."
The Blue Lightning did not, truth be told, win very often. Indeed, in one of the final regular-season games, on Oct. 25, Manhattan United defeated the blue, 4-0.
"We didn’t win many games. But we learned how to lose. How to support each other and come together as a team," Jill said, adding, "It's why I love soccer. It's such a team sport. You have to rely on each other."
The two teams were matched up again Nov. 8 in the playoffs. The Blue Lightning had to play at a considerable disadvantage because one of the team's best players had recently broken an ankle. Nonetheless, the Blue Lightning scored first, in the first half; held that 1-0 lead at halftime; and kept holding on until just two minutes remained in regulation, when Manhattan United tied it.
The teams played a five-minute overtime. Still 1-1.
Another five-minute overtime. Still 1-1.
Now came penalty kicks.
After the first five kickers, the score was 2-2. Still tied.
Onto another five kicks.
The last of the Manhattan United kickers in that second penalty round made his shot, putting them up 4-3. Garrett was now up for the Blue Lightning.
Garrett ran right up to the ball and asked, "Can I go?"
"Not yet, G," he was told. "Wait for the whistle."
The referees then waved their hands and summoned Jill and Charlie onto the field. Quietly, the refs explained that Garrett did not have to take the kick; the Blue Lightning, per the rules, had the option of using a stronger kicker. Without missing a beat, both coaches said, "No way. He's kicking."
Garrett again lined up for his shot. The opposing goalie, Chasen Ozawa, a third-grader at Meadows Elementary, would later tell his dad, Mitch, a 47-year-old banking executive, he wasn't quite sure what to do. Should he play it for all he was worth? Or should he let Garrett score? Wait — was that fair to Garrett? Fair to Garrett's team? Fair, for that matter, to his own team?
"Chasen is a kid who’s well aware of those with special needs," Mitch said. "He sees them in his classroom. This is a guy who plays soccer, he plays club baseball, he plays fall-ball baseball, he plays basketball, he is a sports competitor — and yet he has a huge heart for people who he feels are less fortunate or have issues. He realizes they don’t have the same advantages he does.
"That’s why he got out there and he struggled. He wasn’t sure how he should do this. He finally thought, 'He's playing, I'm playing,'" and resolved to play it straight up. Garrett was going to give it his best shot; if the shot got near the goal, Chasen was going to try to stop it.
The ball was positioned on the spot. The kids and parents grew suddenly very quiet. The whistle blew.
Garrett ran right up and kicked the ball. He kicked it straight toward the goal. But just not hard enough.
Chasen stopped the ball's roll, and the game was over, Manhattan United a 4-3 winner.
The Manhattan United boys did not tear off by themselves to celebrate. Instead, on their own accord, they surrounded Garrett to congratulate him.
"I gave him a high-five," said Merrick Wong, another Meadows third-grader. "I was thinking he did a good job."
Chasen Ozawa told his dad, "I’m happy my team won, but I’m happy he tried hard and he got a chance to kick."
Of course the Blue Lightning crew, kids and adults, joined in to celebrate Garrett's good and great effort as well, Mike Roth saying, "Even though we lost, it felt like we won."
He also said, "You never hear the story where things are done because it was the right thing to do. About working with integrity. This was teaching. It was," and this from a USC guy, "a John Wooden moment."
He also said, "It's really what sport is about. You're there to help mold the kids to play through adversity."
As for Garrett, even though his shot didn't go far enough, he threw his hands up, touchdown-style, as soon as he kicked the ball. It went straight and true, and that was plenty good enough for an 8-year-old boy.
And then the other kids came over to tell him, good job. And that, he said, felt "so, so, so good."
Courtesy of © 2008 NBC Sports.com