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Offsides by Erik E. Esckilsen
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Richie's Picks: OFFSIDES by Erik E. Esckilsen, Houghton Mifflin, September 2004, ISBN 0-618-46284-8

Soccer coach Frank "Chief" Fallace was one crazy mother. Small, fit, stone-jawed, and wiry haired, he was my Spanish teacher when I was a freshman in high school, and I can still recall the day he turned beet red while doing an awfully convincing imitation of strangling this stoner in class who'd told him to go "f" himself. I learned quickly that you definitely didn't mess with The Chief.

Thanks to the long reach of Google, I can also tell you that "The Chief" coached the boys' varsity soccer team at Commack High School North for 21 seasons, that his teams won a total of 238 league games, and that he was County Coach of the Year in 1978. I expect that he was a pretty good player himself, during his boyhood back in Italy.

Sportswise, it is a long, long way from early-1970s Long Island to twenty-first century California. The strength of today's youth soccer leagues in my neck of the woods easily meets or exceeds the extraordinary popularity of Little League during my childhood. Back then I never learned to play soccer, nor watched any of the games, despite having many friends on Coach Fallace's teams.

Thus, I learned an embarrassing lot about the rules, positions, and basic strategy of playing soccer through reading OFFSIDES by Erik E. Esckilsen. The author does a great job of keeping our interest by providing solid slices of action without drowning us in either waves of technical jargon or endless play-by-play. I was consistently engaged by the battles on the field.

"Hi, boys and girls. I'm Jimmy Carl Black and I'm the Indian of the group."
--from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, "We're Only in it for the Money"

In OFFSIDES, the soccer pitch sets the stage for the tribulations of Tom Gray, a young man who has been forced through economic circumstances to move with his mother to Southwind after the death of his father. An extraordinary soccer player whose "Shot of the Year" sent his former Tin River Union High team to last year's finals, Tom will now attend the school that is home to the squad that ultimately derailed the Tin River Union Ravens despite Tom's heroics.

To add insult to injury, Tom's strong pride in his Mohawk heritage is set up for a head-on collision with both the Indian caricature that serves as the mascot of the Southwind Warriors, and the coach who wants Tom to join the team, but who has absolutely no intention of altering the team name or mascot. Coach Dempsey was a student at Southwind when the high school opened, and he knows all about not letting political correctness get in the way of tomahawks, tradition, and team spirit.

What could easily have become a story descending into a didactic diatribe about the team mascot issue, instead employs some fancy footwork to entertain us with a cross between the Bad News Bears and Crutcher's band of misfits in WHALE TALK.

" 'Allard Angel-Agitator launch log, August twenty-three,' [Preston] says in his 'This is your captain speaking' voice. 'Model three. Model three launch--successful. Altitude--new altitude record established at twelve hundred, thirty-seven feet by measurement of base altimeter, recorded and stored in altimeter chip. Recovery and landing apparatus--total malfunction. Repeat, landing apparatus--total malfunction. Salvage effort to commence immediately' "

To achieve this plot twist, the author employs an amusing ensemble of home-schooled self-described science geeks, a mysterious homeless kid, and a foreign-born paraplegic shopkeeper-turned-coach, accompanied by his hot Russian-born blonde granddaughter, to assist Tom in eventually "bringing it on" to Coach Dempsey and the Southwind players.

The subtleties and complexities in Coach Dempsey's personality and background bring a strong realism to his character. The underlying story concerning Tom's younger years on "the res", the difficulties that he and his mother are facing because of institutional prejudice toward Native Americans (particularly involving his Dad's death and the insurance company), and the snippets of background alluding to the Mohawks' dangerous real-life role--in constructing the iron framework on some of our nation's most heralded superstructures--add a real depth to the story.

And then there is the underlying name and mascot issue which, to some of us, is personal and real. Our own middle school--where Shari teaches--employs both the name "Warriors" as well as an Indian caricature as the mascot, just like in the book. Our School Board turned a deaf ear to my advocacy for change the past two years. Hopefully the winds of change are finally arriving.

But in any case, readers are sure to get a kick out of OFFSIDES. (Whoops! Yellow penalty card given for really bad pun.)

Richie Partington
BudNotBuddy@aol.com ( )
  richiespicks | May 24, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618462848, Hardcover)

To Coach Dempsey, the Warriors teams and their Indian mascot symbolize the honor and glory of the Southwind High School athletic tradition. But soccer star Tom Gray sees little more than a denigrating cultural stereotype in the team’s mascot and the stern, war-painted Indian-head profile. As a Mohawk, Tom knows only too well the hardships Native Americans face in their struggle for respect. So when his father’s tragic death forces him and his mother to move to Southwind, Tom must make the decision of a lifetime: betray his family and heritage, or boycott Dempsey’s team and abandon the sport he loves.
Exciting play-by-plays pepper this tale, vividly capturing soccer strategy and action in a novel exploring the nature of honor and the courage required to stand up for your beliefs.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:06 -0400)

Tom Gray, a Mohawk Indian and star soccer player, moves to a new high school and refuses to play for the Warriors with their insulting mascot.

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