The sure-handed former middle infielder bobbled the ball.
He then booted it. And bobbled it again.
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My-my, that Mikasa gave him fits.
We wouldn't have dared laugh at our new head soccer coach, in part because so many of us were equally lucky to get just two touches on those beat-up Mikasa balls before they hit the grass and bounced away.
Juggling, after all, was something circus clowns did.
It was late summer 1981, and Dave Ekstrom had just arrived at Mundelein High School, minus his baseball glove and basketball high-tops. A reserve point guard on the 1974 Proviso East basketball team that won the Class AA state championship and a three-year starter for Eastern Illinois' baseball team, he was 25 and, basically, a soccer novice.
"One of the hardest things is juggling the ball," Ekstrom says. "I had just started playing when I was 22 years old, when I started coaching."
His first Mundelein team included some gifted, experienced players -- Jonathan Zepeda, his kid brother Oscar, Steve Getzinger, Rolando Revelo -- and some not-so-gifted, completely inexperienced players.
Me, for one.
"One of the first days I coached you guys, I wanted you to work on juggling," Ekstrom remembers. "So I said, 'OK, all you got to do is toss the ball up.' I got the ball in the air and I'm like (to myself, laughing), 'Oh, man, I just stink at juggling.' I had a couple of bad touches. I was so embarrassed."
Fortunately for our new coach, all our eyes were on the quiet Getzinger, who was juggling the ball effortlessly. The super soph with the thin mustache didn't stop and the ball didn't touch the ground until Ekstrom finally (thankfully) had us move on to another drill. I think we stopped counting how many consecutive touches Getzinger had on the ball after he reached 100 and after he had juggled the ball from one side of the practice field to the other. Seriously.
"The skill level of the players here at Mundelein when I came was better than mine -- as the coach," Ekstrom says.
He caught up quickly.
Now, nearly 30 years after coaching his first soccer team at Mundelein, after he had coached three years (two as head soccer coach) at former Shabbona High in DeKalb County, Ekstrom's "juggling act" is over.
Abbey, the last of Dave and Peggy's four daughters, just graduated from Mundelein after playing four varsity seasons for her dad. Ekstrom plans to assist his former player and varsity assistant the last two years, Ernie Billitier, next season and retire from teaching at the end of the 2011-12 school year.
"He's taught me how to run a program and how much time you have to put in," Billitier says. "It's been special."
Ekstrom, 55, departs with 423 career wins (boys and girls teams combined), humbled along the way by both a game he never played until after college and by life.
Gretel and the girls
It only makes sense that the man who started the girls soccer program at Mundelein in the spring of 1982 had four girls of his own with Peggy.
He and Peggy, who celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks, met at EIU and got married right after graduation in 1978.
They had Heidi first, then Gretel, then Trina, then Abbey.
A picture of each of his daughters is displayed in Ekstrom's driver's ed office at Mundelein.
The amazing Gretel was 6 when she died in 1991. She was born with severe heart problems in April of 1985, was rushed to Children's Memorial Hospital and wasn't expected to live through the night. She had heart surgery at 2 months, another at age 2 and a heart transplant when she was 6. Two weeks after the heart transplant, which took place in Philadelphia, she succumbed.
"We prayed for her from Day 1," Ekstrom says. "The doctors were amazed that she kept living.
"She was a happy kid," Ekstrom adds. "She lived with pain every day ... and she was still a sweetheart."
Ekstrom hasn't been the same man since then.
"That really changes your perspective on life," he says. "It's had a big influence on my life, on my teaching, on my coaching. ... As a coach, you can get so upset over losses, over something that goes wrong. Then you come home and you realize that there are bigger things."
Gretel's struggles no doubt made big-sister Heidi stronger. A talented dancer, Heidi, 28, was named 2006 Miss Illinois.
"Great opportunity," Ekstrom says. "She talked to, I don't know, 20,000 school kids throughout the year. Traveled Illinois. Went to Las Vegas for the Miss America pageant. It was cool to see her up on stage."
Trina, 22, was born during the boys soccer season in 1988.
"All the kids were at the hospital when my wife was in labor, waiting for (Trina) to be born," Ekstrom recalls. "That was pretty cool. All my players went over to Condell."
Equally awesome for Dad: He notes he coached Abbey for 95 varsity games. She was named all-conference and all-sectional the last two years. The Mustangs won a school-record 19 games last season and captured two regionals in Abbey's four seasons.
"It's been great having my kids at school," Ekstrom says.
A program is born
Despite having never played soccer growing up, Ekstrom figured out the game quickly.
He was an athlete, after all.
Ekstrom facts: He was an EIU baseball teammate of both former NFL Pro Bowl punter Jeff Gossett and current sports agent Pat Rooney. Ekstrom once held EIU's single-season stolen base record and, as a senior, he helped the Panthers place fifth in the Division II World Series.
"I think soccer and basketball are very similar -- your angles of passing, your angles of defense," Ekstrom says. "You move the ball by either dribbling or passing, and then you shoot when you get an opportunity. It's just all done with your feet, instead of your hands."
The physical education major became a student of game when he became Shabbona's assistant soccer coach in 1979. He earned his national coaching license in Texas, right before coming to MHS.
He's coached close to 50 varsity teams at Mundelein, taking a seven-year break 11 years ago, when Chris Sell ran the boys and girls programs, and yet Ekstrom remembers Year 1 like it was last fall.
"I think the first year you experience something it really burns into your memory," Ekstrom says. "I remember the (season-opening) Lake Park tournament. We lost our first game to Wheeling, 7-0, I think."
It got better.
We had a winning record in 1981 and finished second to hated Libertyville in the conference.
"We came within one goal of winning conference," Ekstrom remembers. "Getzinger hit the post against Lake Forest. If that would have gone in, we would have tied that game.
"That first year," he adds, "I remember the team so well. It was my first experience with what I thought was a quality team and guys who were really interested in soccer and had a lot of skill."
Loyola-recruit Zepeda scored 31 goals -- I got my only 2 goals crashing the net because I knew goalies couldn't handle his shot -- and Zepeda's single-season total still stands as the school record.
Getzinger, who earned a scholarship to Wisconsin-Green Bay, graduated with career totals of 70 goals and 53 assists, both of which are still school records.
Our '81 season ended with an overtime loss to -- argh -- Libertyville.
"It was a free kick that they served in and the one guy headed it in," Ekstrom says. "I still remember plays from that year."
Ekstrom's best team, he says, might have been his 1999 squad, which won a regional and included the sophomore Billitier, who later played for Massachusetts.
"He was always so gracious to me (as a player)," Billitier says. "My seventh- and eighth-grade year, he let me train with the varsity. I lived right down the block from him. It was great playing for him. I didn't expect to play as much as I did freshman year. ... Him just believing in me and giving me an opportunity was great."
Today, Ekstrom still looks like an athlete and still gets his kicks playing a game he fell in love with as an adult. As an adult-league player, Ekstrom became an all-star, Billitier says, and got the chance to play at Toyota Park.
"I don't play in basketball leagues. I don't play in softball leagues," Ekstrom says. "But I still play in soccer leagues. I love playing it. I love coaching it."
We enjoyed playing for you, Coach.