Walker Zimmerman pens a letter to his younger self ahead of the World Cup: “There’s absolutely nothing like playing for your country. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Dear four-year-old Walker,
Put down the SEGA controller for a minute and head outside.
I know you hear Dad calling you and your brothers from the side of the house.
“Carter! Dawson!! Walkerrrrrrr!!!!”
Don’t pretend like you don’t hear him, dude. Sonic & Tails can wait, I promise.
“You guys!!!! Hello? For real…come here. I have an idea.”
Just hit pause and head out to the yard, trust me.
Once you do, you’ll realize Dad’s idea is a super simple one. You might not think much of it now, but over the next 25 years of your life, I can promise you’re going to appreciate it more and more.
“OK, so the new basketball court is almost all ready, guys! Now what I want you to do is … let’s all put our handprints over here in the corner. Like right into the pavement.”
At first, you’ll think he’s kidding around. Hey won’t be.
“Then, as time passes, we’ll be able to look back and see how much your hands have grown. We can see … how things change.”
You won’t really get it. Not fully. You’ll basically just nod your head, follow what your older brothers do, and laugh your butt off about how squishy the blacktop feels between your fingers.
But dad will have chosen the perfect word right there.
So much is going to change for you going forward, Walker. Starting pretty much right now.
Up to this point, it’s mostly been lots of running around in the living room for you, lots of video games with your brothers. But with this hoops court on the side of the family’s new house in Lawrenceville, Georgia, you guys are going to take your competitiveness to a whole new level. It’ll be like your very own little arena. And not just for basketball, either. One day it’ll be four square out there, or wiffle ball, and the next morning it’ll be soccer. Some days you’ll spend all afternoon playing HORSE for five hours straight. No breaks. Gatorade bottles propped up in the grass.
Before you know it, you’ll be eight and almost (almost!) able to hold your own on the court with Carter and Dawson every now and again. You’ll do this thing where you think up a code word — kobe! Mountain Dew!! FUN DIP!!!! — then try to make it so that every time you yell that word, it’s a swish. You’ll all be constantly recreating the best shots from the previous night’s SportsCenter. You will dream of someday making it onto that show’s Top 10.
And you won’t just be joking around. You’ll actually believe that you will make that happen someday. Like that it’s only just a matter of time.
You’ll still be little, Walker. But you’ll already be dreaming big.
That’s going to serve you very well as you get older — better than you could ever possibly imagine. And just in case you have any doubts… buckle up, kid.
One morning, right around the start of eighth grade, you’re going to walk out to that basketball court in the yard with a lot on your mind.
The first thing you’ll do is look down at those handprints. Yours will look unbelievably tiny. At that point, only Dad’s prints will be bigger than your hands. And just barely.
You’ll be at a crossroads — your first big decision in life. And, of course, it’ll be about sports.
Thanks to your brothers, and the maniacs you guys become when playing against each other in the yard, any time you went and competed against other kids your age, you flat out dominated. Your brothers basically made you into a ringer on any athletic field. (The Pink Panthers, your U6 team, will go undefeated. You’ll average like six or seven goals a game.) All three of you are going to develop this unique type of confidence. Basically the sense that when the pressure is on, and a big play is needed… you’re going to do something special. You guys will even come up with a name for it: “The clutch gene.”
All you’ll ever want to do as a kid is play sports. And you’ll love them all equally. By eighth grade, though, you’ll need to make some choices. When a handful of Select Soccer coaches start calling up Mom and talking about how you could have a real future in the game, there will be this one quote in particular that you won’t be able to get out of your head: “Walker is an incredible athlete … who also plays soccer. We want him to be an incredible soccer player, who is also an athlete.”
So yeah, look, man… let me be real with you. Your fastball was never going to get up into the 90s. Your jump shot isn’t elite. You’re not making the NBA. When you walk out into the side yard in eighth grade unsure of where to focus your energy going forward, do this: Spend some time kicking the soccer ball against that big piece of plywood you and the guys attached to the side of the house, and just … think about how fun it would be to play soccer for a living.
Before you know it, you’ll have made one of the smartest choices of your entire life.
Soccer. All in!
From there things will move fast. You’ll make it into the Olympic Development Program and be playing on the U14 national team. You’ll hold your own in those settings. Your confidence will skyrocket.
At one point, there’ll be this presentation during camp where they show a PowerPoint at the front of the room that scrolls through photos of the professional players who came out of the ODP — Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff, guys like that.
I’m going to be up there on that screen someday.
That’s all you’ll be thinking. And you’ll believe it, too. But just when things are starting to look like they’re falling into place, your first taste of adversity is going to enter the picture.
You’re going to go from running circles around your opponents on the pitch, to….
Barely being able to walk.
That’s what it’s going to be. And it’ll hit you out of nowhere. Between eighth and ninth grade you’re going to end up growing six inches. You’ll go from five feet eight to six feet three in less than a year. Sounds cool right? I mean, out on the basketball court, your hands will be way bigger than Dad’s handprints at that point. Awesome!
That’s growing too fast. It’s going to wreak havoc on your body.
Your back will be in near-constant pain. Your heels will be even worse. It will get so bad that you’ll feel like they’re not going to be able to support the weight of your body anymore. You’ll be in tears after games sometimes because it hurts so bad — arm around Mom’s shoulders so she can help you get back to the car.
On the pitch, everything that requires movement is going to feel totally awkward. You’ll have to learn to play with a completely different body. Whereas in the past everything you did was smooth and fluid, all of a sudden you’ll look like a person playing with someone else’s legs out there. What used to be beautiful is going to be, well … not pretty.
And, just like that, your star is going to start to dim — at least in the eyes of the people selecting national teams. You’ll fade into the background a little bit. You’ll stop getting those calls. It’s going to eat at you.
Here’s the thing, though: Use all that as motivation. Use people doubting you as inspiration to get better. And just know that this period of physical pain and awkwardness … it won’t last forever. When it’s all said and done, it’s actually going to turn out for the best.
You weren’t going anywhere as a skinny five-foot-eight player. But a bigger, stronger version of that? With those same skills? That speed? Now we’re talking.
It’ll just take some time, is all. To grow into your body. To make things feel normal again. But when they do…
The new you will be rounding into shape just in time to get back into the national team at U18. And there’s going to be no looking back from there. You’ll notice almost immediately that not only can you hang with those kids, but that you’re one of the best players out there. You’ll be named captain in short order.
Training back home at the local YMCA — riding the stationary bike and swimming, alongside all the retired folks from your town — you’ll be thinking bigger than ever. It’ll be like: You know what, I don’t want to just be on the U18 national team, I want to make the full national team!
But then, as soon as you say that to yourself, something will immediately push you
It feels like it was meant to be. Like Destiny all over again.
You’ve helped build a franchise from the ground up in that city, and playing for the Nashville SC fans is absolutely electric. You scored the first goal in team history! unreal. A moment you’ll never forget!
And it has somehow actually gotten even better from there. Everything you ever will have wanted — both in terms of your career, and in life generally — seems to have happened once you arrived in town. On the pitch, awards and accolades started to roll in. (Get this: You actually scored a goal that had you at No. 1 on the SportsCenter Top 10 that night! So you’ll cross that lifelong goal off your list.) And you feel like a real part of the community. There’s a true connection. You take pride in doing all you can to help make Nashville as great as possible. You’ve bought a house, gotten a dog, done all the things that grown-ups with families tend to do.
But even better than all of that, you and Sally… you’ll be blessed with a beautiful baby boy.
You’ll name him Tucker, to honor your wife’s family name.
Tucker is one now, and as I sit here finishing up this letter, Sally is over in the living room reading him a story. It’s all like a dream come true, like something out of a fairy tale.
I can’t wait to teach him about his grandparents, and his crazy-competitive uncles, and the unbeatable U6 Pink Panthers, and … how to play Mario Golf on the Nintendo. (Believe it or not, I still have the exact same N64 that — spoiler alert! — you’re going to get as a birthday gift two years from now, when you turn six. It still works! Just fired it up last night for some Super Smash Bros.) And, of course, Tucker’s already kicking the soccer ball around.
There’s really only one thing missing, as far as I can tell. But we can fix that pretty quick. When you get home from the Middle East, after taking a few moments to appreciate everything in your life, head straight outside and … take a look at that driveway of yours.
It’s getting about time to replace the surface, wouldn’t you say? You know what to do, right?
Make a few calls and get some fresh pavement poured out there. Take Tucker out to the side of the house, and sink your hands into the blacktop. one big One small. (For now.)
Then, just sit back and watch how things change over the years.
I guarantee you’ll have a big smile on your face.
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