It was at 6:40 p.m., Sunday, April 18, 2010, that I finally hit Middle Age.

Scratch that.

It was at that moment that I finally realized I had hit Middle Age. In truth, I’d probably been there for years. I was on the back half of 39, after all, and could tick a good number of items off the Middle Age checklist. I drove a station wagon to parent-teacher conferences. I had trouble staying up past 11 o’clock. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the bands playing the local clubs. Sometimes I found myself sitting on the back porch fretting about dandelions.

My body—hardly the Spartan norm even at its peak—was starting to show signs of wear. I carried twenty pounds more than I did at my wedding, my chin was starting to sag, and crow’s feet had settled sagely into the corners of my eyes. I owned three pairs of orthotic insoles, and, truth be told, I had started selecting my morning cereal based on fiber content.

Still, as late as 6:38 on that evening, I thought I was young. I was playing full-contact soccer, after all, holding my own in the Over-30 B League on the storied pitches of east Asheville. I had just pulled off a pretty nifty play, separating our opponents’ most dangerous striker from the ball. I started dribbling upfield, feeling as strong and swift and nimble as a mountain goat. I came upon a burly midfielder and cut to the inside to avoid him.

It was at that moment that Middle Age struck. It struck in the form of that lumbering brute, who took one look at my grade-school juke and barreled into me, throwing all of his 240 pounds into the effort, knocking me ass-over-the-proverbial-tincups to the turf. I swear I saw a hint of dirty joy in his eyes as he lowered his shoulder to my chest.

The blow launched me off my feet, and I threw out my arm to cushion my fall before landing on my hip and elbow. My shoulder tried to absorb the shock. It was not up to the task. The referee blew his whistle, called a foul, and gave that beardy red homunculus a few stiff words, but the damage was done. As my teammates tried to pull me to my feet, I begged them: “Grab my left hand instead.”

I walked to the sideline and surveyed the damage. No bones were broken. Nothing that required plaster, then, but a mess of strained muscles, stretched ligaments, and steady pain all the same.

The defender’s blow was reckless, but it was hardly flagrant. Over thirty years of playing soccer, I’d seen hundreds of such tackles. I’d been on the receiving end of dozens, and delivered a few myself. In my younger days, I would have popped up from that collision. I’d have gone back to my position a little pissed off, but no worse for wear. My shoulder would have held. But not that night.

I watched the rest of the game from the sideline, my lips pursed in a sad grimace. More than resentment, I felt resignation. If I’d had a white flag, I might have waved it. With my left arm.

My physical therapist said it might be a mild subluxation. I like that—at least it sounds like a real injury—although most likely I’ve got a common muscle strain. She put me on the 30-day DL, and says when I join my beer-league softball team, I have to play catcher. And throw back to the pitcher underhanded.

The fifty-year-old will tell you not to complain about how your body feels at forty; the sixty-year-old’s telling him the same thing. People age, joints fray, muscles wilt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Be grateful for what you have.
And I am grateful. I’ve got years of active life ahead of me, decades even, half a century with some luck. Still, there’s no doubt that I’ve crested the hill, and now stand face-to-face with the long slow slope toward death and decrepitude. It’s a grim slope to consider, even with the benefits of a muscle relaxant and a couple of cold beers.

It’s been three weeks since the injury. My shoulder still pains me every day. I pick up the milk with my left hand. I am loath to roll over in bed, and putting on a t-shirt makes me wince. I aggravated the injury just yesterday, when I made the foolish mistake of trying to close the kitchen window by myself.

As the final whistle blew on that Sunday evening, I wondered if I would ever play soccer again. I have no desire to retire from active life, but it may be time to start playing the percentages. I want to be playing hoops in my fifties, tennis in my sixties, and taking off on bike rides through bluegrass country at age seventy-two. To do that, I’ll need these joints of mine in good working order, and I can’t go banging them on the pitch every time some bull-headed cretin decides to show me how the game is really played.

In sum, I need to find sports that involve fewer collisions. That rules out bullriding, rugby, and mixed martial arts. I’m pretty sure I won’t take up bicycle jousting either. Soccer? It’s dicey. And so I find myself on the verge of tossing out my shinguards and hanging up my cleats. With my left hand, of course.

I played the game for thirty-three years, as near as I can figure. I never was much good, but I had a lot of fun. Was the final whistle the last I’ll ever hear?

Time will tell. •