terrific player


“I know Mart Poom personally,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Terrific player.”

ONCE,  WHILE I WAS attending a conference in England, I went to visit my wife’s relative. The taxi took me out into the suburbs of Cambridge, where I walked to the door and pressed the doorbell.

{“I should warn you, he’s had a stroke”}

I did notice that one of his hands was clenched when he greeted me, and when he spoke, it did sound like he was struggling. He told me how he had staggered to the neighbor’s house one night, and the neighbor had understood. “Oh, you’re having a stroke.” But he was still very active. The television was on and he was watching football on the couch. Gamely. Leaning forward a bit. His name was Enn, and he had an Estonian flag on top of his TV set. It was beside a framed image of him with Mart Poom, the famous Estonian goalkeeper.

“I know Mart Poom personally,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Terrific player.”

His childhood story had been pretty dramatic, full of war and refugee camps and new beginnings. I had even seen the photo of the two little boys in old-fashioned flat caps fleeing the great disaster.

They were relatives, sons of my father-in-law’s uncle. One was named Tiit and the other was named Enn. Tiit, who became a professor, called himself “Tim,” out of convenience. Enn was just Enn. For his life he remained a man with a name that sounded like a letter of the alphabet.

James Bond had M. Cambridge had Enn.

He wasn’t a big guy, kind of wiry, had a face that was believably English with a little bit of Estonian Lord of the Rings mixed in. He had a working man’s inflection, the cadence of a person who spent a lot of his time hanging out with friends on the corner. There was nothing posh or stiff-lipped about this Brit. And he loved football. I mean, he really loved it. This was obvious from the second you met him. Just watching the movements of the players, sizing them up. “Ooh, look at this bloke, covered with tattoos, seems arrogant though. Ooh, look at that one, he’s pure muscle, isn’t he?”

I tried to appreciate it, but the truth was that organized sports always bored me a little. I never fully understood the pleasure of watching little men run back and forth on a screen. This is probably because I had been raised by people like Enn. In my house growing up, my father, mother, and older brother had gathered just like him at the lip of the couch to watch the little men run, and sometimes get angry and throw things at the TV set and curse the referees.  Whole years of my life passed by like that, with them watching games and me in my room, tinkering with a guitar or something. Once we went to a real game and tried to follow the plays from our stadium seats. It was like watching fleas on the moon. Everyone else was having fun. They had painted their faces. They were crying, laughing, and, predictably, a few were drunk. I asked Dad for more popcorn.

Enn looked up at me from the couch. “I used to play too, you know.”

He had a whole stack of cool old photographs, with a recognizable young Enn standing with various football teams consisting of other players with determined looks on their faces. I remember that one photo was dated 1959. It seemed like so long ago. And yet, it was probably the period of his life that best captured his energy. He seemed to have — even after suffering a stroke — athletic impulses. He showed me photos of his wife, too, who had died, but whom he still adored, and of his parents and his brother, these Estonians that had somehow escaped their native soil and wound up in postwar Britain. Something seemed off about it, like one of those TV shows where they bring in the cast of another TV show for an entertaining, but truly weird special episode.

Enn’s father had been a professor, a musician, and an all-around renaissance man. Many of the men and women in this family were learned people. There were old photos of them with violins and fine suits and dresses, playing in unison, a prewar family, with a well-stocked library in the house, full of musty books. In a word, they were nerds. They were the kind of people tossed around words like filoloog like table salt. And then there was Enn, who didn’t care much for those things, but loved football.

“My parents were good people, they helped us, but they just never took an interest in my games,” he said, tracing a finger around an image of his teenage face in an old picture. “I kept playing for years. I never really quit. If it wasn’t for this stroke, I’d still be playing.”

It was true, his daughter told me later. He had played football up until he was 61. His favorite team was Estonia, but he also supported Cambridge United.

I felt compassion for the man. In my family, it had been the opposite. In my family, it was my older brother’s football heroics and cousin’s baseball victories that filled us with pride. Playing guitar was seen by some as rather regrettable hobby. Enn had experienced the opposite. He had discovered life’s true thrill in athletics. While relatives fiddled, he sweat, he kicked, he knew that full-throttle adrenaline rush.

We should have just switched families.

I didn’t tell Enn this. I watched his game from then on with more interest though. Watched it like I listened to music, or read a good story. It was an art form, too, wasn’t it?

I heard some more tales of football field glory from Enn and, as I did, I remembered that I had also enjoyed running back and forth on a field when I was boy. I realize now that I owe him for that, since word has reached me that he just passed away after Euro 2016. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. A peaceful way to go. I don’t know what team he had been rooting for but I am sure he was watching.

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