Sports, when placed in the context of life and death, can quickly shrink to irrelevancy. There’s only so much a victory can do to ease the pain when a loved one passes away. Defeat is no longer the worst feeling in the world.
Games. They take on such great significance to so many, yet they really only impact a select few.
For those few who do make their livelihood playing sports, the field is not just a pastime. It’s their workplace, and an unforgiving one at that. Opponents have no pity. The box score makes no allowance for grief.
Dale Ervine lost his father to a heart attack earlier this month. Yet he continues to play soccer for the Splash.
“It is my job,” Ervine said. “This is what I get paid to do, is help us win games.”
It’s the stretch drive of the regular season, the team is jockeying for home-field advantage in the playoffs. And he also happens to be the coach.
His duties and emotions tug him in different directions. He tries to do what comes naturally, yet he is reminded how different things are now, since his father, Steve, passed away on Sept. 10. Two days later, Ervine’s instinct took over. He scored the first four goals in a 7-4 victory at Arizona. Two days after that, after viewing his father for the last time, Ervine’s heavy heart got the best of him and he kept himself out of a home game at the Pond.
This weekend he took another step in the process of moving forward and played at the Pond, even though his father did not occupy his usual seat in the last row of Section 213.
“It’s hard not for it to be in my mind,” Ervine said Friday night after a 4-3 loss to Sacramento. “It’s something that I know I’ve got to deal with. I’ve got to move forward. Last week, there was so much emotion and so much adrenaline at different times. The Arizona game, I went there and played 48 hours after his death. I think I was a little in shock or even numb that it happened, really. It was so emotional. I got through it based on that. I came home and didn’t feel that I was in the right frame of mind. Tonight, I thought that I could go out there and help us.”
It wasn’t easy to separate the coach from the mourner. He was critical of the team for allowing Sacramento to take control of the game with a goal in the first 30 seconds. He criticized himself for missing scoring chances. He offers no excuses.
“Any time things don’t go successfully for us offensively, then obviously I put a lot of pressure or blame on myself for not getting goals or creating enough opportunities for us,” Ervine said. “Obviously it’s in the back of my mind, what I’ve been through. But at the same time I’ve got to be able to move forward.
“As hard as I tried to concentrate on the game, there were still periods of the game where it hit me. It’s very strange to explain. But it’s still part of the healing process. I just hope once the playoffs get here, hopefully the process will be far enough along to where I can get through it and help the team the way I feel I can.”
As a coach, he knows that part of his duty is to provide leadership and put up a brave, positive exterior to show the team that he’s OK, so they should be, too. But it’s not too hard to see what’s lying beneath.
His voice still cracks and his eyes become watery when he talks about the situation. Ervine, 33, has played professional soccer for 12 years after an All-American career at UCLA. He has a wife and kids now, but when it comes to sports, people rarely outgrow their parents. For so many kids, sports begin at home, with their parents giving them a ball or taking them outside to play catch. When things don’t go well for professional athletes, they often go past trained, experienced coaches and seek their parents for advice or comfort.
Soccer was the topic of discussion the last time he saw his father, on Sept. 7. The Splash had lost three straight overtime games to drop from 12-8 to 12-11. “As he left the house, he said, ‘You know, don’t worry son, the team’s going to be fine,’ ” Ervine said. “‘When your team gets beat, it’s by one goal in overtime. It shows you’re competitive. When other teams get beat, they lose by five or six goals. I think you’ll win three or four of your next five games and you’ll be fine.’
“I just told him, ‘I just want one right now.’ Then we won two in a row.”
He doesn’t say he’s going to “win one for dad,” which is good. There’s a danger in dedicating sporting events to people. Sports are too unpredictable, the effort does not always guarantee results and if the game is not won there is a sense of failure, as if the defeat failed to honor the deceased.
We pay homage to them by striving for excellence in the daily parts of our lives, the way Dale Ervine is doing in his job as soccer player/coach.
“It’s been very very hard,” Ervine said. “I know my dad [helped in] everything I’ve achieved and everything I’ve done. He coached me since I was 4. He’s given me everything that I’ve got. And I know that he would want me to play, and I know that he would want me to do everything I can to try to win. And that’s what I’m going to do.”