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The result was an unscheduled rendezvous with the past (as well as tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System) as one of the stops on the way back to Atlanta was an elementary-school field in north Bethesda, in Maryland, where I had first encountered soccer in its suburban form. As 8-year-olds we subscribed to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” school, kicking and clawing without tutelage in a dusty midfield. The “organized” game came to our fields within a few years. My switch to soccer from baseball occurred courtesy the right fist of a red-headed center fielder, who took exception to my misplay of a pop fly over a drawn-in infield. He struck me in the solar plexus. I missed many practices after this, so the problem of my youth-sport participation had to be solved. The solution was recreation-league soccer. The boy who had slugged me, leading indirectly to my finding a game better suited to my temperament, died earlier this year in California. The news came shortly before a 25th-anniversary high school reunion.

Such thoughts seem self-referential and lacking wider purchase: a missed plane and youth soccer. Who cares? But I read an extraordinary essay a couple of days ago by Martha Saavedra, associate director for the Center of African Studies at the University of California–Berkeley (“Excavating the Field”). Saavedra is an authority on soccer and women’s soccer in Africa, especially in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. Called “Excavating the Field,” the essay muses about Saavedra’s own background in youth soccer. She was raised in a neighboring county, Prince George’s, in the Washington area.

The Mitchellville Tigers, forerunners of the Washington Blacksox, circa 1948. They played on a former cornfield in Prince George’s County. The cornfield was to become soccer fields for youth on the cusp of the youth-soccer movement.

The influence of her coaches, teammates and the ground itself works even more profoundly than my own memories. Her team’s home ground, Blacksox Field, has only belatedly been recognized as the home of two sandlot, African American baseball teams, feeders for the Negro Leagues that operated parallel to Major League Baseball during segregation. “A lot of things clicked,” writes Saavedra, remembering a recent visit in which she could process some of the influences of these playing spaces.

During my unplanned, sorrowful passage from New York, I had the same experience of “clicking” based on having been raised and having played games on suburban ground, where pasts have been decimated in the name of homogeneity and an American dream. Saavedra mentions the influence of William Levitt and his advocacy of suburban development, and the rapid pace with which histories are swallowed. Unknown to me, for instance, until these last few months were some of the stories from the north Bethesda community where I played soccer and wandered about, considering whether the lanes of our subdivision represented the only reality. The fields and homes were developed in the 1940s on several thousand acres of a former plantation, the plantation where the man who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Josiah Henson, spent his formative years as a slave.

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