This is the text of a speech delivered at Trinity University on March 27 as part of the 2nd annual Timothy Isom fund-raising banquet. Dozens of soccer jerseys were auctioned off to raise money for a memorial. Isom died suddenly at the age of 22, just after his graduation from Trinity.
Soccer’s great poet-historian Eduardo Galeano recounts the tale of a Gimnasia de La Plata fan who, knowing he was going to die, asked to be buried in the shirt of their bitter rivals, Estudiantes de La Plata. His lifelong friends, shocked that he would betray them at the end asked, ¿por qué?. He responded: so I can take one of those bastards with me.
From a distance, you can tell this is a soccer shirt. It’s not a Hawaiian, or a polo, or a tee, it’s a soccer shirt. It has a badge, distinct colors, a history. Sure, it has a sponsor and a globally recognized corporate icon and is probably manufactured in a sweatshop, but it’s stylish, comfortable, embodied, laden with meaning. You have likely seen this shirt before, in person with tens of thousands, or tele-visually with hundreds of millions. You are receiving messages; the shirt is doing the talking, it awaits your response.
Manchester United formed in 1878, when Florida was still a Spanish possession. Arsenal first took the pitch in 1886, the same year Geronimo surrendered his guns after 15 years of resisting the U.S. army. Liverpool first kicked about in 1892, just as British ships left ‘Pudlian docks for the Opium Wars in China. Chelsea arrayed themselves on the pitch in 1905, prompting Einstein to propose his theory of relativity. Red Devils and Gunners, Reds and Blues their histories contained within the collective memory of those who have worn and loved the shirt. The shirt is talking to you more than it was a minute ago.
Lao Tzu (sage footballer that he was) was asked by a student how he could best demonstrate love for his team. Master Tzu, who practiced a form of goalkeeping known as “saving without diving”, replied: score goal, kiss shirt.
One of the greatest signs of respect in the beautiful game is to trade shirts with a worthy opponent. With this act, you give your number, your shield, your identity, your sweat and blood, your shirt for gods’ sakes, to your adversary; a mutual exchange that years later, when you find it in your bottom drawer, you will remember the man, the moment, the game, the stadium, the result. The shirt gets heavier by the day.
Shirts bring us closer to those who see them hanging in their lockers. We buy their likeness so we can be part of the team, even though we could never play for it. The Argentines respect the shirt of the fan more than that of the players, because the fan will wear it for longer. You may easily pull one on, but it may be impossible to take off.
It is time to call it what it is: a complex symbol of multivariate interaction that both defines and transforms the individual while communicating socio-geographic messages of identity, place, and meaning. It is a symbol, a fashion statement, encapsulated history, a marker of identity, a sense of belonging, a memory, a man, a teammate, a son who is no longer with us.
Shirts. What do they tell us?
FIFA thinks they are so sacred that you can’t take one off in joy or anger. Referees tell us to tuck them in, opponents pull them to gain advantage, they expand in the middle over time. Archaeologists may have discovered that the shirt was born when a group of cave dwelling lads decided to go out hunting rabbits. “What shall we wear to hunt rabbits?”, they asked. “How about a shirt?”, they answered. It is unclear what the rabbits wore.
A shirt does not only function in one direction. The shirt takes everything you will give it: your heart, sweat, blood, passions, your life. Ideally, it comes to represent that which is best in us, shows us our limitations and helps us to overcome them through a collective commitment to something greater than ourselves. Although it is not necessarily a badge of courage, the badge is worn with courage (especially in enemy territory). It is defended and honored and kissed and held high. When a sea of fans transforms a stadium with their shirts, they become greater than the sum of their parts – they create and participate in history.
Tonight we ask you to think about the value of a shirt. You can walk into any soccer store and pay $80 dollars for any shirt you want, scribble a name on it and Bob’s your bloody uncle. The shirts collected here tonight are special because they come directly from the grandest temples of the beautiful game. These shirts have touched human greatness, handled personally by the earthbound gods of our time. Their namesakes have performed on our brightest stages for incredible stakes. This is a chance to touch that, to wear it, to feel the power of the shirt.
These shirts represent the apex of an entire complex of relationships, spaces, places, and events. Right now, in Manilla and Marfa, San Antonio and Sao Paolo, Durban and Dublin, there are millions of kids practicing, dreaming that one day they will pull on one of these shirts in a competitive match. They have been doing so for more than a century.
With this global context in mind, these shirts are much more than they appear. They are powerful symbols recognized the world over. Tonight they take on extra significance, an extra level of respect and meaning.
We are brought together by the shirt, the team, and the community that meant so much to Tito. Tito wears the Trinity shirt in his final resting place. To remember his life, his love for the shirt, and what he gave to us, we gather to create place, to build a stadium, to erect a memorial so that those who follow will better understand the meaning and memories behind the colors.
We are here to honor and remember those who have worn the Trinity shirt, lived with this second skin, been marked by it and left their mark on all that follow. This is a Trinity University soccer shirt. This is me, this is you, this is us, this is Tito.
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