The first hint that this particular amateur soccer league is a little different comes from the rules.
No slide tackling. Players may come on and off the field at any time. Bad throw-ins aren’t called because many players can’t raise their arms above their heads.
Welcome to over-60 soccer, where love of the game is far more important than the final score, which isn’t kept accurately anyway.
“We have two players with only one kidney, two who can only see out of one eye, two who have upper heart valve replacements, three who have stents, one with a knee replacement, several who wear knee braces and one who used to have a pacemaker but now has had two liver replacements and a heart transplant,” said John Cannon, 74, a public insurance adjuster and musician. “I’m not counting the hamstrings, Achilles tendons and the numerous injuries common to the game.”
Or, he quipped, “mental issues, of which there are many.”
Yet, each Sunday at a park in Thousand Oaks, “they all keep plodding along,” Cannon added.
Well, some plod; others barely shuffle. And then a few run like people half their age.
More than 50 men are registered in the league, with as many as 40 showing up most Sundays mornings, enough for three full teams and two games.
“This, to me, is really special,” said Peter Mogg, a 64-year-old former Masters track champion. “You have 40 guys over the age of 60 showing up every Sunday to play this game. That’s crazy.”
In their younger days, the men were national champion middle-distance runners, semiprofessional soccer players or soccer dads who went decades without intentionally breaking a sweat. And the roster is diverse in more than athletic ability. On a given Sunday, more than two dozen countries, from Greece and Gibraltar to Israel and Iran, are represented by retirees who once worked as lawyers, bus drivers, insurance adjusters, Hollywood prop managers and bakery chefs.
“You get older and you’ve got to exercise the heart a little bit. And running is just a lonely sport,” said Ron Orum, 78, a former gas company worker who, along with Patrick Futvoye, a 76-year-old Army veteran, helped organize the games. The men used to play in an over-50 league but broke away when that league began admitting players in their mid-40s.
“It’s not the World Cup,” Orum said. “Five years difference after 60 makes a big difference in your running and your skill level.”
The games are competitive, Cannon said, within reason — although last month a player was suspended for a year after he threw water on a referee who had ejected him from a game.
There have been at least three heart attacks during games.
“The most dangerous heart attack episode was when a player left the field and we thought he was just grumbling, as he often did,” Cannon said. “Another player went to him and discovered he was having chest pains and called 911. Another five minutes and he would have died.”
That player still shows up every Sunday.
Surgical scars are like badges of honor; the more recent — and serious — the procedure, the more respect it commands. One man is said to have had heart and liver transplants at the same time. Now he’s one of the fastest players in the league.
“With all this,” Cannon said, “pulled muscles don’t get much sympathy.”
Few players have earned more field cred than Marcos Gaitan, a former semipro player from El Salvador. Last month, Gaitan turned 90 — and four days later played two full games against men nearly three decades younger.
This, to me, is really special. You have 40 guys over the age of 60 showing up every Sunday to play this game. That’s crazy.
”Marcos, when I grow up I want to be like you!” Wade Lazareth, 75, who plays with one leg wrapped in a metal brace and the other in an elastic bandage, shouted at Gaitan after a recent game. “We all do.”
A head shorter than most of the players, Gaitan usually plays forward, where the only concession to his age is an agreement that he can collect the ball and make a move without being touched. He’s also allowed to be offside “within reason.”
“This is a gift from God,” Gaitan, a former truck driver, said in Spanish when asked why — and how — he is still playing at 90. “There are three things I’ve done all my life: I never drank, dancing and soccer. That’s my discipline. That’s been my path in life.”
Asked how long he’ll keep playing, Gaitan’s angular face broke into a wide grin.
“For the rest of my life,” he said. “Until the end.”
Of all the players in the league, Gaitan was probably the most accomplished as a young man. In El Salvador, he sustained a serious knee injury as a teenager yet went on to star for Atlético La Constancia, a semipro team formed by brewery workers in 1958. Seven years later, the team, renamed Alianza, was promoted to the Salvadoran first division. But by then Gaitan, 36, was too old to start a professional career.
That was one of the few times timing wasn’t on his side. His long-haul truck route used to take him between El Salvador and Costa Rica, and one winter he stopped in Nicaragua to pick up some cargo only to be told his truck wouldn’t be loaded during the Christmas holidays. He left Managua with his trailer empty; hours later the city was destroyed by a massive earthquake that pancaked the hotel where he was booked to stay.
A couple of years later, with tensions in El Salvador building toward a civil war that would claim more than 75,000 lives, Gaitan narrowly escaped to the U.S. where he joined a cousin. With another cousin, they now carpool two hours round-trip from the San Fernando Valley each Sunday to play soccer.
“He still has a touch. He makes good passes,” Rosendo Gaitan says of his cousin, who is 20 years older and still troubled by that balky right knee. “He’s still moving around.”
Rosendo has his own theory about Marcos’ longevity.
“He likes to eat small meals,” he said. “He likes to clean up the yard. He likes to paint his house. He’s always active.
“But most of all,” he added, “he likes to dance.”
If soccer keeps Marcos young, Rosendo said, the sport gave him peace as his wife struggled with a health condition that eventually led to a lung transplant.
“This was my escape, to come here,” Rosendo said, pointing to the field from a beach chair set behind one goal. “This was a diversion.”
The league’s home is the North Ranch Playfield, a 12-acre park tucked into the middle of a quiet neighborhood surrounded by hills that were scorched in last year’s wildfires. Only a few players reside in the area, but they’ve become such regulars “we have dog friends,” Orum said.
The players even claim to have brought a tree in the corner of the park back to life by dumping the ice from their coolers at its base each week.
“Now it has leaves,” Cannon said proudly.
The tree isn’t the only thing that has been given new life by the Sunday soccer games.
“I honestly think this keeps us alive,” Orum said.