Carolina, my shame
In my early 20s I found myself playing soccer in Colombia as a sub for the national team. Though I was never incredibly fast or strong, I could always really kick the shit out of a ball. The team covered room and board and I got to tell people I was a professional athlete, so it was a pretty decent gig. I knew it was probably temporary, like so many other things, so I just went along for the ride, taking it at face value.
It turned out I was an excellent place kicker. Though I couldn’t keep up with most of the other guys I was always the go-to in for penalty kicks. I enjoyed playing soccer. It’s a very straightforward game. And to be a pro soccer player in South America is comparable to being a movie star in the US. Still, during this time I led a fairly ascetic lifestyle, comparatively speaking. I had a girlfriend who didn’t speak any English, who was saving herself for marriage, and I exercised with the team every day. I enjoyed the wholesome simplicity of it all, just walking Carolina to her parents’ doorstep for a sweet peck on the lips, then heading home to bed early.
But then I discovered poker. Or maybe poker discovered me. What began as a harmless diversion quickly degraded into a full-fledged addiction, and I found myself in underground casinos with local mobsters and millionaires. They all knew who I was and tolerated my presence because of my relative fame—until my debts went beyond anything reasonable or even sane.
I won’t get into the specifics of a “Colombian Necktie” here for the sake of cultural sensitivity, but suffice it to say I found myself begging for my life in a roach-infested basement with a flickering overhead lamp. And after they threatened Carolina’s life, it was agreed that my debt could be settled if I did what I could to throw the championship game, for which my debtor was betting on.
I remember the moment, in sudden death, when I had the chance to win the game. I knew I could make it; that goalie was mine. The arena around me, shaking with the voices of adoring fans, all went silent in my mind. Everything was in slow motion. Time stopped and I heard something saying, do something right for once.
Following the game I ran off to Burundi to teach goat farmers how to make solar ovens from scrap metal because I figured no one there would recognize me. I was too ashamed to look Carolina—or anyone in all of Colombia—in the eye.
Every championship game, t-shirts and baseball caps are printed up for both teams to be distributed if they win. You ever wonder what happens with the ones for the losing team? They get sent over to places like fucking Burundi, as it turns out. One morning I awoke to some humanitarian organization distributing t-shirts with my team name, reading, Ganadores. Champions.
I never felt like more of a loser.
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