I could hear the screams of “Take it! Take it upfield!” and “Shoot!!!” far before I even saw the field that crowned the gradual hill upon which I was strolling. I rounded the corner to a soccer pitch surrounded by people – families, friends, supporters – cheering on their girls. The dry whiff of soil and the green bouquet of torn up grass hung in the air like incense. Both teams battled out their game plans midfield, neither one gaining nor losing. It was already destined to be a classic match.

This afternoon’s game was a deciding match for my daughter’s soccer team, the Madeleine Mustangs. If they won, they’d move on to the Catholic League championship. If they didn’t, well, they’d go home having known they’d played a hell of a season.

However, the two teams – All Hallows and St. Charles Academy – that were playing as we arrived held everyone’s attention in a grander fashion. The winner would be the team that the Mustangs would face if they were to win, and the struggle was as apparent as fireworks in a dark summer sky. St. Charles was special, though, not only because they were amazing in the execution of their skills on the pitch, but because the sidelines held a secret that I’d yet to know as I walked from under the shady walking path.

I noticed a group of men on the St. Charles side that seemed much more invested in the match than most parents I’d observed over the last few years. Mostly younger men, I noticed that they not only were emotionally involved, but they seemed to be having an amazing time watching the girls move the ball back and forth. I was still positioned downfield, so I didn’t really have a close look at them. I figured I’d mosey further down the field to get a better look at the hooligans, if not get a better view of the heavily favored St. Charles.

As I approached, I saw the youngest man ecstatic at the forward movement of the ball. He was screaming for them to pass the ball to the center, “Cross it!! Cross it!!” The young man knew what he was talking about, as well as I should’ve known as evidenced by his t-shirt with “Portugal” emblazoned across the top back. “He’s Portuguese!” I thought, almost aloud. My mouth fell agape. It was then that I realized that his shirt was not only the clearest sign that I was in the company of some of my most favored people in the world. Other signs such as a t-shirt with the words “Linguica Charter” and the last name Machado, or the accents that became apparent once I knew to loisten for them, or the group of older Portuguese seniors sitting in a row in their wheel chairs, cheering on their grand- or great-grandkids all stuck out like a sore thumb once I put all this together.

I quickly ran over to the playground, where Kim was watching our other daughter. After calling her over, I whsipered loudly, “Kim! They’re Portuguese! You’ve gotta come see this!” I returned back to the sideline and watched the families along with Kim. We laughed as they reacted with such deep animation to missed shots, good kicks, and good ball play.

The five men – two younger, two middle aged, and one older – were all on their feet, cruising the sidelines screaming pointers out to their girls on the pitch. They discussed the finer points of passing at the correct time. The pontificated about how the team could better organize for a strong assault on goal, as both teams were at a 0-0 tie heading through overtime. They regailed themselves by remarking at how good #6 was on the All Hallows team. I found myself wanting to root for St. Charles, just so that if Madleine won, we’d play these guys in a head-to-head challenge of sideline coachery.

As the match wore on, and as the girls became worn down, they were faced with the inevitable and unfortunate challenge of settling the entire match over a bout of penalty kicks. I’d never seen a bunch of men so nervous and cheery at the same time at the prospect of the match coming to an end in this manner. Portuguese smiles can be the best. They’re so filled with pride and spirit. I couldn’t help but get into their match, and my daughter’s had yet to even start! I had butterflies for these girls because I knew how matches like this make you feel. The last match I ever played as an eighth grader, and the last I’d ever play as an adolescent, came down to penalty kicks – and I was the goalie. After coming off an undefeated season in which only four goals were scored on me in ten matches (and all four came in one match), to go down, which I did, under the nerve-racking penalty kick sequence hurt like hell. It was the only time in my entire eigth grade year that I cried. I knew how these teams were about to feel.

The Portuguese cheering section all moved onto the field to get a better view of the shots. They were tense, but were positive and encouraging. I could see in the older men the wrinkles of laugh lines and of hard work in their brows. The heritage was plain as was their love of their culture in which football is so prominent. I felt something in watching them that I hadn’t felt or thought about in a long time. Not being sure what it was, I figured I’d dwell on it later and return to the pitch and the final kicks. After the initial five kicks, All Hallows and St. Charles were still evenly matched at three points apiece. It came down to sudden death penalty kicks in which the first team to score while the other missed, takes the match. Sadly, as St. Charles missed while All Hallows scored, I felt the sorrow of a team so invested in their game. I saw the tears in the girls’ eyes as they came off to reorganize and congratulate All Hallows in their hair-raising win. Admittedly, I felt somewhat relieved at the prospect of Madeleine facing All Hallows instead of St. Charles. They were that good.

As the girls came off, all the men smiled, congratulated them, and hugged them. It almost made me cry because the scene was so poignant. The men were so present in the match. You’d think they were watching a national team match. It was so inspiring and humbling. The camaraderie was as apparent as was their culture and their love for one another. Then it became entirely clear to me:

This is why I am Catholic. Removing all the political bullshit, extracting the facade of papal control, erasing the lines that divide Catholics leaves just this – Catholicism as a culture; an expression of our roots and our history. It comes down to men, women, kids all identifying with one another and living life to its fullest. It comes to playing soccer on the field on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Polish, Italian, Irish, or Portuguese – it’s all the same and it is incomparable in its beauty and simplicity.

And, yes, The School of the Madeleine Mustangs won their match (1-0) against Sacred Heart and will be facing All Hallows this week for the championship. I kind of wish it was St. Charles, though, because I want to see those people again. They’ll never get to know that without speaking a single word to me, I was changed.

Wish us luck.