Published 12:00 am Friday, March 14, 2014

SALISBURY — For several years, I have been driving by the kids’ makeshift soccer field, rubbed out of an open space of ground between busy N.C. 150 and the trailer park where they live.
I finally stopped the other evening on the way home.
Moments after I stepped from my truck, an errant pass skimmed over the field and the ball rolled toward the other side of the highway.
One of the older boys, Carlos, seemed to have no fear of the approaching cars. He timed his move, like a matador judging the next pass of a bull, retrieved the ball near the center line and kicked it back into play.
He told me it happens all the time.
Probably because I had a camera in my hands and said I wanted to take pictures of their play for the newspaper, I made fast friends with Carlos, Pedro, Irving, Samuel, Jonathan, Diego, Brayan, Guillermo and Santiago.
They were a mix of ages and sizes. Three of the boys said they attend Hurley Elementary School; three, Knox Middle; and three, Salisbury High.
There’s no league here. No uniforms. No officials. No parents. No halftime snacks or coolers full of drinks.
After school and up to dinner time, the boys migrate singly or by twos and threes toward the field, hoping someone thought to bring a ball.
Given the small dimensions of their pitch, the goals are hardly bigger than hockey nets. Boundary lines are non-existent. You keep playing until you run out of room.
The grass has long been worn away in the heavy traffic areas in front of the goals. Depending on how much rain we’ve had lately, these spots are either dust or mud.
One good kick or long throw by a goalkeeper can send the ball the length of the tiny field, so there’s more of an unspoken premium on ball-handling, one-on-one moves and tight passing.
When someone does score, the ball has a 50-50 chance of going through the goals’ mesh netting, which resembles Swiss cheese.
Strongly struck misses toward the western goal often fly over the tall fence behind it and into a neighbor’s front yard. That happens a lot, too, Carlos says.
Bantering in both English and Spanish, the boys seem to fall into a natural rhythm of play.
Irving takes the ball toward the road for a corner kick, and the others maneuver for position in front of the goal as the ball heads their way.
When it comes time to choose sides for a quick game, the decision on teams is made within 5 seconds. Irving, Pedro and Diego on one side; Brayan, Jonathan and Samuel on the other.
The boys’ soccer field is a noisy place. The passing cars and trucks create a constant buzz. Overhead, planes come and go from the Rowan County Airport.
I was shocked that a couple of cars slowed down so passengers, leaning out of rolled-down windows, could shout obscenities toward the kids. The words had a racist tone to them.
Some kids on the field shouted back the swear words.
Over time, I think I’ve taken my drive-by glimpses of these kids out of both envy and pity.
The envy came in when I saw them playing by their own rules, settling disputes among themselves, deciding on the best balance of teams and continuing games until it’s time to walk back home.
You hardly see it any longer — these pick-up games on sandlots or playgrounds. Today’s society doesn’t seem to trust or encourage our kids to play on their own, and I have to think we’re worse off because of it.
The pity seeped in when I thought how much the kids might like a better field and equipment.
From playing all the time, they are skilled. Wouldn’t they treasure a flat, regulation-sized soccer field with lines, standard-sized goals, impervious netting and fancy soccer shoes?
Wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t have to chase balls onto the highway or over fences?
I guess another shade to my feeling sorry for the boys was knowing they live in a little community of singlewides and doublewides, crammed into a flood-prone area near Grants Creek.
But after my brief amount of time with Irving, Carlos, Pedro, and the rest of the boys, I think I was right to envy, wrong to pity.
I still envy the democracy of their games, and the joy they find in playing them, no matter what they lack in space or equipment.
And when it comes to pity, they probably feel sorry for me.
What kind of fool drives for years by a soccer field without ever stopping to play?
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or