On the first day of middle school, my head was spinning. I got out of bed an hour earlier, crammed pop tart in my mouth, and rushed out the door. I zipped up my backpack as I sprinted to catch the bus stop. The kids on the bus waited to ask me about my brother, 'Super-Duper' Julian. He graduated from the school last June. Julian was an all-star football, soccer, and lacrosse player. And, oh, did I mention, he graduated cum laude. Julian made it seem easy. Everyone in school hoped I'd be the second coming of Julian. To them, I wasn’t Jeff; I was a little 'Super-Duper' Julian. Not that I didn't want to be as athletic or smart as my brother, but I learned early, I wasn't born with those gifts.
The next two weeks were horrible. I tried out for all the sports teams. I didn't make one. Out of the ten tests I took, I failed three and averaged low scores on the others. The word spread throughout the school that I was not the second coming of Julian. I was just a regular sixth grader. To many seventh and eighth graders, sixth graders were the lowest form of life.
One day during recess, I practiced dribbling my soccer in the schoolyard. One of my dribbles hit the side of my foot and bounced towards a group of girls jumping rope. They giggled and tossed it back to me. I smiled. After several more kicks, I missed again. My ball rolled towards the girls again. I turned around and smiled, but no one was standing there. In fact, no kids were around me. What happened? I glanced over my shoulder and saw the answer. The Lobuz brothers, identical twins Jedrek and Aurek, marched towards me. They bullied and terrorized sixth graders. The taller brother, Jedrek, bent down until we were nose-to-nose.
"Hey, six grader, me and the other eighth-grade boys wanna play a game of soccer. So you better give up the ball."
He reached for it, and I pulled it back and said, "Not unless I play too."
Jedrek straightened and stared at me as if I had two heads. He turned and stared at Aurek, wide-eyed, puzzled. Aurek clenched his fist and shook his head in disbelief. Everyone who heard my answer groaned.
A student yelled, "Hey, kid, you got a death wish or somethin'? Give up the ball!"
With his nostrils flared, Jedrek stepped towards me as he pounded his fist into his palm. "What did you say?"
I shook as I clutched my ball. I knew what came next. The bloody nose Jedrek gave Timmy when they argued popped into my head. That's how the Lobuz brothers settled their arguments. I closed my eyes and waited.
"What is going on here, Jedrek?"
I opened my eyes when I recognized the booming voice of the gym teacher, Sister McCarthy. The students circled us.
"I–I was askin', this kid if he and the other sixth graders wanted to play a friendly game of soccer," Jedrek explained.
Sister McCarthy raised her eyebrow and stared at him.
"Yeah, Sister, honest. You can ask him."
"Is this true, Jeffrey?"
Jedrek glared at me.
I swallowed. "Y-Yes, it's true."
"Yeah," Jedrek scoffed, "as if sixth graders could ever beat eighth-graders in anything."
All the children laughed at the idea. I don't know if my pride made me do it, but I blurted out, "Oh, yeah? I bet the sixth graders would beat the eighth graders in a soccer game."
The laughter stopped, and everyone gawked at me.
I didn’t believe I said that. I thought the eighth graders would kill us.
Sister McCarthy smiled. "Okay, boys, select your teams and meet me on the field."
We both nodded. Jedrek and a line of eighth-graders strode off, snickering. I looked at the sixth graders and shrugged. I searched the crowd looking for a familiar face, or someone who looked like a player. Many of them avoided eye contact. I felt hopeless.
“Come on, kids, raise your hand. I know we can beat them.”
No one moved.
"Okay, I'll have to pick a team.”
I saw a boy in the third row.
“The boy over there wearing glasses. Do you want to play?”
He pushed through the crowd and stood beside me.
"Hi. my name is Jake." He said waving his hand. I waved back and continued looking into the crowd.
"The boy wearing the Mets' baseball cap and the tall redhead boy standing next to him, do you want to play?"
They pushed through the crowd and introduced themselves as Austin and Benjamin. Benjamin was cross-eyed; Austin admitted he wasn't a skillful player, but he'd give it his best try.
Next, I pointed to a boy wearing red sneakers. As he walked towards me, I noticed he limped.
"My name is Cody."
"Hurt your ankle, huh?"
He smiled. "No, one leg is shorter than the other. Thanks, no one ever picks me for any running games."
"Oh," I whispered, turning back to the students. I pointed to a stocky boy in the second row, but the smaller kid wearing a Yankees baseball cap scurried forward.
"Sorry," I said as I shook my head, "I meant-"
He shook my hand and removed the Yankee's cap to reveal bangs and pink barrettes. "Hi, my name is Ashlee," she said, finger-combing her hair. "Thanks for picking me."
I blinked and smiled.
My team was complete. I led us to the field followed by a crowd of solemn sixth graders.
The teams joined Sister McCarthy in the middle of the field. She handed my team blue shirts and Jedrek team wore red. The guys on his team were the best athletes and biggest bullies in the school.
'Ankle-kick' Aurek, ‘Nuggie' Nate’, Swirly' Sven, 'Teasing' Tommy, and the worst, ‘Take-your-lunch' Ted. They growled and snarled at us to intimidate us—and it worked. We stood slumped shouldered and awed-struck.
"Hey wait a minute. That's Ashlee!" Jedrek said, pointing at her.
"I'm not playing against no sixth-grade girl."
"Does this mean you're giving up the game, Jedrek?" Sister McCarthy asked.
"Naw, I just don't want to hurt a girl."
"Don't worry about me, Jedrek Lobuz. I can take care of myself."
"Okay, Ash-lee Ma-ree, but don't blame me if you get hurt."
Sister McCarthy raised her hand. "Enough. You have fifteen minutes."
Jedrek won the coin toss. He threw an overhead pass towards Aurek. Ashlee stepped in front and intercepted it. She dashed away, eyes fixed on the goal.
"Look out, Ashlee!" I yelled.
Sven shouldered Ashlee, sending her tumbling. The crowd booed. I turned to the Sister. "That wasn’t fair, Sister!"
"Play the game, Jeff."
Three passes later, Jedrek's kick soared over Cody's outstretched arms into the right corner of the net. The Red Team laughed and taunted us.
"Ha, ha, ha, that's one goal!" Jedrek waggled his pointer finger in the air.
"So much for fair play," I said to my teammates.
We won the next face-off. Austin dribbled down the field, switching from the left-to-right foot. He side kicked to Jake, who darted between opposing players. Patrick's long strides put him on a collision course with Jake.
"Look out, Jake!" a few kids in the crowd yelled.
He didn’t hear over the crowd noise. Patrick's grin widened with each stride. He lowered his shoulder and launched into his body. Jake slowed to push up his glasses. Patrick howled as he flew by, with arms and legs flailing as he tumbled through the grass. He sat up, dazed, with blades of grass in his hair. Startled, Jake stopped running. Benjamin swooped by and kicked the ball down the field. His path to the goal was clear. The goalie looked into Benjamin's eyes to see where he to kick the ball. Benjamin's crossed eyes confused him. The goalie dove left; the ball went right. We scored. It was our time to celebrate.
We battled up and down the field for the next ten minutes. Neither team could score.
"Score tied at one with one minute to play!" Sister McCarthy announced.
Both teams dug in their heels. Faces grimaced. Bodies strained.
Aurek and Ashlee ran side-by-side, elbowing each other, both kicking the ball. He tugged on the back of her blouse. She stumbled, and Aurek gained control of the ball. He raced down the field. We ran behind complaining, but the roar of the crowd drowned us out. Aurek lined up the ball and kicked it. It spiraled through the air like a baseball pitcher's screwball. Cody shuffled his feet, trying to stay in front of it. He lost his balance and fell. My heart sank. Cody scrambled up, jumped, and batted the ball away.
"Ten seconds!" The Sister called out, staring at her stopwatch.
There was no time for celebration.
In his haste, Cody tossed in a weak one-bounce pass to me. I stepped on the ball twenty yards in front of our penalty box. The crowd screamed, "Kick it, Jeff!"
I moved to the other side of the ball.
I lined up the ball.
I drew back my leg back as far as I could.
With one second left, my foot crashed into the ball. The thud echoed through the spring afternoon air.
Jedrek yelled, "You don't have a prayer this far away!"
Everyone watched in eerie silence as the ball soared past midfield. Jedrek stopped laughing when the ball sailed across the penalty line.
"Oh no, the ball's headin' straight for the goal," Jedrek moaned, falling to his knees.
The goalies' outstretched and straining fingertips scraped the descending ball.
"It's a goal!" someone cried in the crowd. "The New Kid kicked the ball three-quarters of the field into the goal on a fly!"
The ball grazed the top goal post and careened out of bounds. Game over. The game ended in a tie.
I sat on the field, hanging my head. Cheering and clapping came from the sidelines. Eighth graders, I thought. I looked up, and all the sixth graders were rushing onto the field. They were leaping up and down. My teammates helped me to my feet. I turned to Ashlee and groaned.
I turned to Ashlee. "Why are they celebrating? We didn't win."
She patted me on the back. “We sixth-graders never even came close to beating the eighth-graders at anything, ever!
"Yeah," Austin added, "you should have seen the fear on their faces when they thought you kicked a goal. Priceless."
Everyone patted me on the back and shook my hand. Ashlee smiled and said, "Yeah, Jeff, no one will ever forget this day or your kick… Thunder foot."
Everyone cheered, "Thunder foot! Thunder foot!" as we marched back to the school. The Legend was born.