17 July 2011

LSFC’s One-Armed Warrior

In 1986, some seniors in my high school History class who were friendly with me asked if that one-armed sophomore in my Under-15 team had any chance of really making it in the game and in my team. I will let everyone in on a 25-year old secret: I said no!

Many of those who had played under me will know that I could tell just by looking at the way a fresh-faced new try-out stood if he would ultimately be a star player or just another one to complete the numbers.

I do not recall exactly when Jonathan Casas came to the team. It was either late in his freshman or early in his sophomore year. Nothing in itself was extraordinary about that; and indeed, I have had players join the team in the junior year.

What was extraordinary was that here was a young boy wanting to join the team; but he only had one arm. I know… I know! I can imagine all of you reading this all starting to admonish me that football is played using the feet.

But the arms are necessary for balance…

That was exactly what I told those senior students who wanted to know; and at that time, I was sure he was not coming back, anyway!

But allow me to digress… I am not sure if it was after the first or the second quarterly grading period when Jonathan’s father came to see me. His son, he told me, was too enamoured with playing football that he had not been paying attention to his studies at all. He showed me the boy’s report card to prove it; and indeed, even a Valentine’s card could not be categorically said to have more red in it!

But the father promised that he would allow the boy back into the team if he could pass all his subjects at the end of the school year… Before father and son left, Jonathan made me a solemn promise that he would work on his grades so he could play again.

And being me, naturally I did not believe he would make good on his promise…

Odd as it may seem to many, but the truth of the matter is that I never really used to think of football as a great motivation to the young. I mean, this was Lipa; and we were in the boondocks. This was decades before the Azkals age; and truth be told, nobody gave two hoots that we had a football team.

Of course, I underestimated my own game; and who else but Jonathan would shred to pieces my pessimism. As sure as I was in telling my History students that the one-armed sophomore was not coming back, that very same one-armed sophomore was working hard to ensure that he got back into my football team and that I would eat my own words! I am not entirely sure, but I seem to recall that he did not fail any more subjects all the way till he graduated from high school.

By the start of school year 1987-88, I had a large pool of players and could break them up into two teams. The advanced juniors went into the Under-17 team. The leftovers went into the Under-15 team. Jonathan was one of these.

The Under-17 team was excellent! In all three decades of coaching football teams, I think only the 1984, the 1989, the 1999 and the 2011 teams could match the 1988 senior team in terms of panache. All these teams played short quick passes that had opponents chasing shadows. The football was always a pleasure to watch!

When the 1988 Coca-Cola Go-for-Goal came around, I could no longer use my senior players. I had to merge the remaining juniors from the Under-17 teams with the better ones from the Under-15 team. Jonathan was among these.

The junior core of the Under-17 team was oozing with quality. I had exceptionally gifted players like Robert Samaniego, Joseph Ilagan, Jericho Magnayi, Tony de Vicente and the reliable midfielder Emerson Dagpa. The real concern – for me – was that practically the entire defence was coming from the Under-15 team.

Despite my concerns, we narrowly lost our opening match of the National Go-for-Goal tournament to eventual finalist West Negros College. We also felt hard done by some of the calls that we all felt had not just a little to do with the football regionalism that was so typical of the local game.

I did spot a worrying lack of mental toughness in Jonathan, who in parts of the game looked like he could not handle the pressure and did not seem like he had the stamina to last an entire match. It was time to bring out the magic potion!

Gary Gardoce – a player from the Class of 1984 who I had brought along as assistant – and I left quarters to get some Lipovitan for Jonathan. I gave Jonathan a bottle and told him to drink it before the next match – it would guarantee him the stamina to last the entire match, I told the boy.

I knew from my college playing days, of course, that what I told Jonathan was pure and utter bull! Lipovitan gives anyone who drinks it a mega-dose of caffeine so that the mind stays awake. It sure as hell does not give stamina!

The drink had the desired placebo effect on Jonathan, anyway; and that was all that mattered. He finished both of our remaining matches in top form as we swept aside the teams from Dumaguete and Iligan by similar scores of 3-nil. In fact, our scores against these two teams were better than those of West Negros. Were it not for some really questionable officiating in our opening match, we could easily have contested the final!

As for Jonathan, the important thing was that – with a little help from Lipovitan – he managed to overcome a psychological barrier that would have prevented him from becoming the football player that he eventually became. There was no looking back after that match against West Negros. His partnership with Jerry Acosta – forged in the Under-15 team – I rank to this day as the best ever in three decades of LSFC football!

So how did Jonathan become LSFC’s great one-armed warrior? From the story that Jonathan himself told me, his family had gone somewhere when he was still only eight years old in the jeep that they owned and had an accident. The jeep fell onto its side and – regrettably – the right arm was chopped off.

I seem to remember Jonathan telling me that they even gave the arm a proper burial – and that he would, even as a player under me – continue to feel mysterious itches along an arm that was no longer there!

Losing the arm was a handicap; but Jonathan was never one to dwell on it! In fact, he could even draw humour from it. Once, during a RIFA match, the ball hit the stump that was all that was left of the arm. The referee blew his whistle for handball.

Jonathan looked quizzically at the referee, raised the stump and cried, “Ref?!” The referee could only grin back at him. For the record, it was indeed a foul, the missing forearm notwithstanding.

One of his teachers also could not get over the fact that, in her Religion class, when she asked the class a question, Jonathan would always comically raise the stump to call attention to himself. “Why could he not have just raised the left arm instead?” she would laughingly tell me.

It has been almost 25 years since Jonathan graduated from high school and left my football team. The fact that I still remember so much of what he was to me and my team is testament to the impression he left upon me – the coach who was so sure that he would not make it in my team; the coach who was so sure, after his father had pulled him out, that he would not be coming back.

Subsequent teams will remember that I used to ask the question, “Am I right or am I right?” In football, I am not the sort who is frequently wrong; and neither am I the sort who likes to ever be proven wrong.

There is, it is said, to every rule an exception. In my case, Jonathan was the example of when it actually felt great to be proven wrong!








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