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Op-Ed \ Rob Kerby

Legacy of Albert Medina, 20, will be realized with growth of Ozarks soccer.

(Sunday, November 28, 1999) -- On Tuesday, at a factory in Harrison, Ark., a bolt came undone, a bracket snapped and a large piece of equipment fell onto a 20-year-old soccer player. He was crushed under its weight. And now I sit thinking about Albert Medina's legacy.

Sincere and focused as a high school player, the boy slept through referee class. His miserable test scores and worse re-test scores prompted us to begin what has become an institution around here, mandatory referee tutoring for kids. We try to make it fun for those who think they want to ref. We want them poised on the edge of their chairs, ready to impress the visiting instructors that they know the dimensions of a field and the five things a goalkeeper can't do unless they want to have to defend themselves against an indirect free kick.

Because of Albert, just yesterday, we instructed seven 11- and 12-year-old referee candidates on restarts, then drove to a local church where a junior high youth group was taught a few secrets of 3-v.-3 soccer. We then rode with the church kids to a youth center in Harrison where everybody climbed and rappelled down an artificial mountain and swung on a trapeze-like contraption called a "barn swing" and bowled with a frozen turkey -- and had a great time.

Our guys loved it. But quietly, they all wanted to talk about Albert.

He was a member of the first-ever Green Forest High School soccer team, a squad that beat everybody in northwest Arkansas just a few short years ago, astonishing our area, raising immense hopes in town that we might take a state championship -- and inspiring a lot of folks that the impossible could happen here.

Albert's was a ragtag team at best. Three girls, including my oldest daughter. Several delinquents, including one that is serving time in prison today. The goalkeeper was an assimilated Hispanic boy with a carefully developed Arkansas drawl who hated for anybody to know that he had been born in Mexico. The coach worked at the local poultry plant under an assumed name since he had slipped into the United States illegally.

Albert was the team captain. He was a tall, muscular junior whose main talent was tenacity. He never gave up. Never.

Well, if his heart wasn't in something, he didn't try. Referee class is a prime example. He attended out of respect for me -- because I wanted him to go. But paying attention was too much. Sitting around talking about soccer was beyond his comprehension. Soccer is to be played. Soccer is to be lived. And who wants to be an "arbitro" -- a referee -- anyway? Come on, coach, can't we just play?

Albert's services were Friday at Nelson's Funeral Chapel in Green Forest, Ark. We cut short Thanksgiving plans with family in Tulsa to return for the funeral.

Albert's was the first soccer team in our area that successfully mixed local longtime residents' kids with the newcomer Hispanics -- and demonstrated that truly superb soccer can be played on uneven hayfields. His was the first soccer team that got the attention of the local newspaper and radio station -- when they caught the vision that a bunch of country kids in T-shirts emblazoned with "Gary's Backhoe Service" could play this newfangled game darn well against the big-city yuppies in their fancy Umbros.

Albert was certain we would take the Arkansas State Scholastic Cup. But in Little Rock, we were humbled. The whole weekend was physical. It was rough. Our girls were battered and bruised and crying on the bench. Our macho boys were furious and dishing it back -- only they didn't know how to get away with it -- so they were getting the cautions while the real culprits were snickering behind the referees' backs.

A livid and determined Albert took it upon himself to win this thing single-handedly out of sheer teen-age will. He went down so many times in hard tackles that we lost count. We'd carry him off the field, ice him down, then he'd demand to rejoin the fray. Somewhere he'd picked up a favorite pair of aluminum shin guards. They'd been padded once upon a time, but had deteriorated down to bare metal and straps. They had to be worn over a pair of socks and under a second pair. But he attached special significance to these weird shin guards. He wore them no matter what.

As he pulled them off on the sidelines, I was astonished that they were bent and distorted. He twisted them back into shape. Suddenly, I understood what was going on out there. He went back in -- only to go down again. Then again. And again. The final time, he was so disoriented that the referee ordered him -- forcefully -- off of the field. Protesting, the high schooler retreated to the bench where he nursed his wounds and demanded to return. We sent him back in.

We lost. And he wept. Private, bitter tears of disappointment. He had been so sure of victory. He had dreamed of holding high the State Cup. He had talked of playing in front of a cheering stadium. He had worried about whether he could look good on TV, talking to the news media. I had tried to explain that even if we did win, there would be no stadium and certainly no clamoring press.

He just smiled. He knew that glory was just around the corner. Albert was a leader. A dreamer.

We weren't equipped yet to provide him what he deserved. But because of Albert, we began taking the next group just younger than him to tryouts for northwest Arkansas' premier squad, the Arkansas Comets. Because that worked, and because of Albert, we saw there was a need for our own program, The Quest, which actually beats the Comets upon occasion.

But it all came too late for Albert. He didn't go to college. He never got to play in that stadium with the press waiting to quiz him under TV lights.

Because of Albert, two weeks ago, we took six kids to the State Select tryouts. We're holding our breath -- believing that maybe this will be the year that one of our kids makes the Olympic Development Program.

Albert helped prove so many things. A team could be fielded mixing our two cultures. Our little town would accept a team coached by poultry plant workers who spoke little English. Good soccer could be played in the middle of nowhere. But now it will go on without Albert.

He was airlifted to the big hospital in Springfield, Mo. There, he fought tenaciously, as was his way. But his body had been crushed. I am told that he fought long and hard on the operating table -- refusing to give up. In the end, Albert was carried off the field -- protesting furiously, I am sure. Arguing until the end.

We will miss Albert Medina terribly. His legacy continues. Someday a kid is going to walk onto the soccer field at the Olympics from the rural Ozarks. Eventually, a northern Arkansas player from Alpena Pass or Green Forest or Eureka Springs is going to show up in the World Cup. And long before that, local kids are going to go to college on soccer scholarships.

They will be the legacy of Albert Medina. A kid who deserved a chance. A kid who hated to give up.

Rob Kerby is the coordinator for the Central Ozarks Soccer League. He has a National Youth Diploma from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and is a national referee, assignor and associate instructor. COSL's web site is /www.welcome.to/ozark.soccer.

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