Wolverines Only: Charlie Mendes

Wolverines Only: Charlie Mendes

Credit: Ryan Albert/Chronicle

I started playing soccer when I was five. My parents never forced me to play, but, as a Brazilian, soccer was ingrained in my life from the second I was born. One of my earliest memories was setting up two trash cans in my front yard as goals and playing my dad one-on-one or listening to him yell at the television as his team played.

When I was about six, I would wake up early on Sunday morning to drive out to Moorpark to watch my dad play in his Sunday league soccer games. They were called the Sporting Bellies because it was a bunch of overweight 40+-year-olds, but we didn’t care. We were just happy to be attached to the game in any way we could.

I can’t remember a specific moment that I fell in love with the game because, for me, my passion for it was always there. When I started playing as a five-year-old, I was that one kid who would never pass and just try and out-dribble the entire team. For a couple of years, I was the star forward of every American Youth Soccer Organization team that I was on, but once I got selected to play on the all-star team, I realized that I was nothing special. There was a whole group of boys just like me, and thus, my journey to the back of the field started. In my first game with the team, I hurt my knee. Not wanting to miss any playing time, I volunteered to play goalie. I had never played before, but everyone on my team despised the position, so there was an opening. I ended up being pretty good at it, so even when my knee healed, my coach still forced me to play goalie. I hated it. All I wanted to do was run around on the field.

A couple of years later, that team disbanded, and when I went in search of a club team, I told myself I would never tell any coach that I could play goalie. Around this time, I started to grow a lot. As I got taller and my legs got longer, my brain wasn’t able to adjust, and I soon found myself unable to run the way I used to. I was just a skinny uncoordinated kid running around the field trying to help. I was not as talented as before, so I slowly started moving further back in the field. One year, I was a midfielder, then a defensive mid, until I found my place at center back.

One day, our goalie didn’t show up to practice, and when it came time to scrimmage another team, I again volunteered to play goalie. I didn’t have any gloves and hadn’t played for years, but I was tired and wanted a break. I don’t know what changed, maybe it was the fact that I realized I could have just as much fun playing goalie without having to do any of the running, but I remember absolutely falling in love with the position. However, we already had a goalie, and I was our starting center back. Suddenly, I was begging my coach to give me a chance. At first, he thought I was joking, but after my continual pleas, he let me start training as a goalie, with the exception that I would play center back during our games. He gave me the smallest of opportunities, but it was all I needed.

This was right before I came to Harvard-Westlake, and up until my first tryout, I still was unsure of what position I wanted to go out for. I realized that if I wanted a chance to play varsity, I couldn’t stay a center back. So, by the time I was a sophomore, I had earned the starting goalie spot.

Since I was five, I played for countless teams, have had experience at every position on the field and have had just about every level of success. For me, playing soccer was about being around the game; I didn’t care how, I just wanted to be a part of it. I got lucky in high school that I hit a big growth spurt because honestly, without it, I don’t know if I would have amounted to anything. It also doesn’t hurt that we are probably one of the only high schools in the country that has a designated goalie coach, but even if I weren’t getting playing time, I would have come back year after year because all I wanted was to be near the sport I loved.

When I stepped off the field for the last time in our playoff game a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but tear up knowing I would never get to play the sport again. Soccer was my childhood; it’s a part of my culture; it runs through my blood. It’s going to be strange not playing soccer in college; I know that I’ll never have any other experience like it.

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