There's just something about a soccer ball.
We're seeing this today in Knoxville, as the story of Austin-East High School, where in 2021 five students have been killed by gun violence since January, captures the entire community. Their boys team, which had never won a title before, claimed regional, district, and state titles this spring–the state title won in the most dramatic fashion, 5-4 in PKs, last weekend.
Back in 2013, I went back to college looking for stories like these. For years, I had been writing about soccer for Bleacher Report, minor sports blogs, and had even started my own blog, A Peach of A Goal.
My dreams of being a professional soccer player died in high school, so I settled on the next best thing: becoming a professional soccer writer.
At the University of Tennessee, where I did my master's degree in journalism, I covered the Tennessee women's soccer team (then a top-25 program nationally) for the student publication, The Daily Beacon, and hustled my way into writing profiles of the players for UTSports.com and writing game reports for TopDrawerSoccer.com. In the summer of 2014, I interned at ESPN headquarters, where I was production researcher for the 2014 World Cup and other sports broadcasts. After returning to Tennessee, I wrote about high school and college soccer for The Daily Times of Maryville.
As part of the professional track for my master's degree program, I had to complete one big project (equivalent to a thesis for those on the academic track) and defend it to a committee in order to graduate.
I decided to write about soccer, and that project eventually became "Brotherhood of the Turf," a cover story for a now-defunct newspaper, The Knoxville Mercury.
A lot has changed since 2015, when the story was published. A few of the indoor soccer complexes, where I and dozens of other spent many nights a week playing, changed ownership or closed. Competitive youth soccer opportunities have ballooned (I spent 2016-19 as a girls club soccer coach). Knoxville is getting professional soccer back next spring, with an energetic group of young owners who have been the ones primarily responsible for documenting A-E's journey to the state championship. Immigrants and newcomers continue to show up, and I have no doubt they will be the driving force for whatever soccer becomes in the city.
As a Knoxvillian and the father to a daughter who will play on these fields soon enough, I'm excited for the future. And I'm also grateful for what I've gotten to live so far.
You can see other photos from "Brotherhood of the Turf" by the very talented Tyler Oxendine on his website.