Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : November 2007

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Tom Valkenet credits his high school soccer coaches with keeping him “relatively straight and narrow.”

“[The game offered] some structure,” admits the litigator, whose office sits just around the corner from the Friends School of Baltimore, where Valkenet coaches Junior Varsity Boys Soccer. “When you move out of your house at the age of 15, as a freshman, you desperately need that from someone. If I wasn’t playing soccer, my coaches and the principal knew that I’d be off in the woods, stoned somewhere. So it kept me alive. It gave me a segue into college – even though my grades didn’t warrant it – and I went to a Catholic college that took a chance on me.”

The Connecticut native persevered, eventually relocating to Maryland and attending law school. Despite his own debt to the game, however, Valkenet never considered coaching until a few years later when, as a young associate at Venable, a partner at the firm approached him with a suggestion.
“[He] was the head of some league,” Valkenet recalls. “He said, ‘You played in college’ [and that] he had a group of 16-year-olds…the parents can’t handle them, they’ve run out of ideas – what can I do. And I thought, I can teach this game.”

As earlier in his life, Valkenet seized the opportunity being offered; likewise, it seized him.

“I had a boy on my team – some of the parents said, ‘He’s trouble, he drinks, he skips school,’ and all that sort of stuff. So I picked up the phone and talked to a couple of his teachers and his guidance counselor at Towson High, and they said, ‘Yeah, he comes from a broken home, messy divorce and all of that,’ which resonated with me.”
Valkenet went on to coach various private and recreation council teams over the years, all the while continuing to play himself in sundry adult leagues. Along the way, he struck up a friendship with Friends Varsity Boys Soccer coach Doug DeSmit, who invited Valkenet to coach JV soccer at the school. The offer intrigued Valkenet, but circumstance prevented him from accepting at the time.

“My sons played soccer at Calvert Hall, so I said to Doug, ‘Until my soccer players are graduated, I’m going to be following them around, watching them play,’” Valkenet recalls. “My last player graduated in ’05. Within one month of graduation, I get a phone call, and it’s Doug saying, ‘Well?’ I knew exactly what he meant.”

Valkenet accepted the position, and has since become so vested in his “extracurricular” activity that he relocated his office from Hunt Valley last January.
“I’m 300 yards away from the practice field,” he laughs.

Outside of Friends, Valkenet also conducts “coaching clinics” for parents from the local recreation council.

“We don’t talk theory – I know the theory, I can tell them the theory, but they don’t need to hear it,” he explains. “It’s just, ‘Here’s how you structure a practice for kids who are 10 or under. Here’s how the game shows itself and evolves in the kid’s mind to these activities.’ And after an hour, the kids have had fun, you’ve had very little stress, and at the end of the day they’re a little better than when you started. And hopefully, when they reach the high school level, they’ll be good enough to play on a high school team and have fun, because let’s face it: 90 percent of the kids playing in high school will only play through high school. And if they continue to play it’s because they love the game.”
Popular worldwide, soccer has gained momentum in the United States in recent years, though Valkenet is concerned that it’s not always for the right reasons.

“You do not see American kids playing barefoot on the beach,” he explains. “Competitive soccer has become highly organized in this state and in this country. The Maryland State Youth Soccer Association and the United States Soccer Federation are trying to make things even more uniform and even more organized. It’s almost militaristic. And soccer, I think, is the antithesis of that. It’s the kind of game where you throw two sweaters on the ground and make a goal and play for an hour before dinner.”

Too many kids, Valkenet contends, do not play pickup games outside of the organizational structure. “It’s become a rich, suburban white kid’s activity,” he adds. “And the kids are grumbling on the bench – my son saw this at Calvert Hall, which, at the time he played, was No. 1 in the state and No. 8 in the nation. They were undefeated, and kids on the team are unhappy because they’re not getting playing time, because they want to be seen by certain college coaches. That’s entirely the wrong reason to play.”

A lifelong city-dweller, Valkenet hopes to one day offer the sport to children in the inner city. “When I don’t have the same financial burdens I have now, with college tuition and all that, I want to go in and do something in the city, whether it’s a club team or not – kids who aren’t being reached by the suburban clubs and get them involved in the game. A million barefoot kids are playing in the alleys of Rio de Janeiro – why aren’t they playing here in Baltimore? Is it because there aren’t people willing to coach? I drive by lots of vacant fields in the city that could make nice little soccer fields.”

More than anything, Valkenet hopes to instill the kids he coaches with “a love of the game” and “a sense of decency and fairness,” on and off the field.

“I just have this vision that when I retire, I’ll quietly put my law books away, and then – maybe when I’m 80 – there will be a rusty plaque on the backstop of some field that says, ‘Coach Valkenet Field,’ and that’ll be it,” he muses. “But more importantly, there’ll be some 30- or 40-year-old guy who says, ‘You know, I got something out of that,’ or he’ll still be playing.”

 

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: November  2007