SAVOR EVERY MOMENT
Years ago, Joey Tavernese learned to savor every moment he has played the beautiful game.
In 2020, his love for the game and life in general was tested to the nth degree after suffering a stroke and losing sight in his right eye.
"I was in a bad place headed down a dark path and it happened and gave me a whole new outlook on life," the Utica City FC forward said. "I think I'm better off now than I was before."
Instead of continuing down that path, Tavernese took a much more positive turn.
"It's like a second chance at happiness in life. I can't be upset over things that happened," he said. "Break-ups happen, things happen in life, so on. It is what it is."
Despite that liability,
Tavernese leads Utica City with 17 goals and nine assists in 22 matches as it fights for the two remaining Major Arena Soccer League playoff spots in the regular season’s final week.
"I'm legally blind but I'm not 100 percent blind," he said earlier this week. "I have little pockets that I can see through on my right eye. As time has gone on, I have been able to adapt to it. The body is definitely a world class machine. It has malfunctions, but it also has ways of helping out certain aspects as well.
"Most people if they didn't know about it, they wouldn't know. ... Other times when the ball hits glare I can't really see it as quickly as I normally would. There are times where a runner hits a spot where I can't see, and I lose him for a second. There are different things that I've tried to do to position my body differently, set myself up differently to compensate for it."
Two years ago, Tavernese had broken up with his girlfriend and was ready to retire after completing four seasons with Utica City FC/Syracuse Silver Knights.
"I was going through a tough time of that break," he said. "I kind of lost where I was heading in life."
Playing with the Florida Tropics, Tavernese suffered the stroke in Dallas on Jan. 31, 2020. He had a lot on his plate, playing with the U.S. Futsal men's national team, which was preparing for the Concacaf Futsal Championship and his coaching business in Garden City, N.Y. on his native Long Island.
"Everything was all good," he said. "I went to sleep. In the middle of the night I went to go to the bathroom, and I couldn't see out of my right eye. I just thought that I was groggy or that I've been traveling so much maybe I was dehydrated and maybe my body was just not functioning. I was like, I'll just go to sleep. When I wake up, I'll be fine.
"I woke up and it was still like that. But I didn't want to jump to any conclusions right away. I wasn't going to panic. I went to the gym. Got a little workout in, went to the [morning] kick around. We were messing around playing. I said to [teammate] Drew Ruggles, 'Don't say anything to anyone, but I can't see out of my [right] eye.' No one could tell. I played."
Tavernese saw an eye doctor in Dallas. The visit took hours. He was told he needed a retina specialist, which he planned to do when he returned to New York. Tavernese told head coach Clay Roberts and CEO and majority owner Panagiotis Iakovidis about his situation. Iakovidis, a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon, told Tavernese that he couldn't play.
He visited a retina specialist and went through a battery of tests.
"Basically, they said I had a stroke in my sleep," Tavernese said. "I lost the vision in my right eye permanently. There's no cure for it. There's nothing to do. They really couldn't deem a diagnosis. There was no real reason why it happened. I just think I was in a bad place. I was depressed. My body shutdown. Something went wrong."
As drastic as that was, something eventually went right in Tavernese's life.
The 5-9, 155-lb. forward felt he had to continue to pursue what he loved, even if it was playing with only one fully functioning eye.
"It was kind of ironic," he said. "Kobe [Bryant] is my favorite athlete of all time. He passed away the same week I had my stroke."
Bryant, who had a Hall of Fame career with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, was killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.
"I just thought to myself, this guy, he really figured out how to do life," Tavernese said. "He had his ups and downs. He had his own issues and relationships and things on and off the court. He just passed away but I'm still here able to do this. I'm going to do what I love. I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. I'm going to enjoy every moment of it because no one's promised tomorrow."
Tavernese's road in indoor soccer began when he distinguished himself during a Major Indoor Soccer League combine in 2012. The MASL plans to hold a combine later this year in Mesquite, Texas from Oct. 20-23. For more information, visit: https://www.maslsoccer.com/masl-pro-combine
He first tried out with the Syracuse Silver Knights. He didn't fit into then head coach Tommy Tanner's plans (Tanner is now the Utica City FC general manager).
Tavernese understood. There were no hard feelings. Tanner was his coach at the MISL combine and a more seasons in the MASL.
"Tommy was at a certain place with what he felt he needed at that time," he said. "He knew his squad better than I did. I've been in this league so long now. I've played with kids who were rookies when I've been a veteran. Now they're superstars. Their first year, they're making all the rookie mistakes that I've made. It's a cycle. People grow and teams need different things at different times."
Tavernese stood out at the combine.
"It takes a long time to learn the game, so I'm trying to learn on the fly from watching YouTube videos," he said. "I'm trying to use the boards. … It happened to be a good weekend. My team ended up winning it. I scored a bunch of goals."
Rochester Lancers owner SoccerSam Fantauzzo, who attended the combine, was impressed.
"We tried to sign him right away," he said. "He reminded me of a young Doug Miller."
Miller, the current coach the Lancers (who are sitting out this season), finished his indoor career with 513 goals and 202 assists in 398 matches.
"He was really fast and opportunistic. That's what he is right now," Fantauzzo said. "He's scored a lot of goals. They're not pretty. They're not like he gets the ball in midfield and picks out five guys. He just knows where to be. He reads the game so well. I saw that at the combine. An amazing career."
Tavernese played three campaigns with the Lancers, contributing 35 goals in 45 appearances. He also competed for Syracuse/Utica City, Ontario Fury and Tropics. In 170 indoor games, Tavernese has collected 159 goals and 111 assists.
He might be 32, but Tavernese has stayed young at heart. He was nicknamed Peter Pan for his devotion to younger players.
"I've been in the league a long time. I live my life a little different than some of the other guys who are older," he said. "I gravitate towards the rookies, the younger guys. I like to try and help them on and off the field. I'm trying to stay young, keep my youth. I'm single, I still hang out with them. I got the nickname Peter Pan and people would joke that the rookies were my Lost Boys."
Tavernese remembered when veterans helped him when he was a rookie.
"They were just so good to me, treated me to things because I was on a small contract," he said. "They were on some bigger contracts and took me under their wing while teaching me the game on and off the field. This game and life are a cycle. What can I do to continue the cycle and repay what they've done for me?
"I try and teach them things off the field, things that are important to life, like handling money and trying to put them down a path that will make them successful after indoor soccer. It's not like we're millionaires from this game and we can play forever. I also try and explain to them that the time will come when it ends. You're not going be able to wake up and practice every morning and play soccer every day. You're not going to have the camaraderie of the guys in a locker room. Eventually you're going to be married and have kids and your life is going change. You're going to look back and say, 'Did I enjoy it to the fullest? did I make the most of my time on and off the field?' "
Given his joy for the game, it should not be surprising that Tavernese's most memorable match came in a losing cause. He scored four goals and assisted on two others in a 25-23 defeat to the Baltimore Blast in March 2015 (the MISL awarded two and three points for goals) in front of a sizable home crowd.
"I's probably one of my best games of my career ... against Baltimore who's probably one of the best teams ever in the history of indoor soccer," he said. "It was just amazing to play in that atmosphere, all those people, how loud it was, how competitive it was. It was so enjoyable."
Entering this weekend's action, Utica City FC (8-14, 22 points) still have hopes of reaching the playoffs, however slim. The team has very little room for error to secure one of the eight berths.
With the San Diego Sockers, Florida Tropics, Kansas City Comets, Chihuahua Savage, Baltimore Blast and Dallas Sidekicks already clinching their spots, Utica is battling the Milwaukee Wave (9-12-1, 28), Ontario Fury (9-12-2, 28) and St. Louis Ambush (8-12-2, 25) for the final two berths.
Utica needs to win both its remaining home games - vs. the Tacoma Stars on Saturday, April 2 and Chihuahua on Sunday, April 3 - and get some outside help.
This is how thin of a line Utica is walking. On Sunday, March 27, Tavernese scored the game-winner in overtime in a 5-4 home triumph over the Tropics. As opposed to a three-point regulation victory, Utica earned only two points as the visitors secured the other point.
If he had scored the winner in regulation, Utica would have taken all three points.
"We can't have any overtime wins, which is why I was a little upset when we won in overtime," Tavernese said. "I didn’t even celebrate when I scored because we needed three points. I was a bit annoyed. We need to win in regulation, and we need some help. Hopefully, things play out.
"I'm hoping we get some big crowds as they try and help push us along. I would love to sneak into that seventh or eighth spot. I told the guys in the locker room after the game: 'Regardless of what happens next weekend, I've gotten nothing but respect for you. I'm just extremely proud of the guys who have been here and put the jersey on week after week.' "
Utica, which finished a healthy 14-6 during the 2019-20 season before shutting down last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, endured some visa issues for its foreign players. So, head coach Ryan Hall switched to Plan B.
"Running so many rookies and veterans towards the end of their career trying to do everything they can to push the team over the line and get into that spot," Tavernese said.
"That's the point of playing. You want to see where you match up with the best teams and that's something that I've instilled with the rookies. You want to prove that you're good enough to be in this league. You’ve got to do it against the better teams in the league, the juggernauts of San Diego and Florida."
Given what transpired on Jan. 31 2020, Tavernese is just enjoying life to its fullest.
"If today is the only day I get to play that game, I want to do it and enjoy it," he said. "I always like to joke with people. I love Frank Sinatra. If I'm going to do anything, I'm going to do it my way. That's just how I've always been.
"It's been nothing but happiness. I've really found the love for the game again. I found the love for friends and family again. I've just done things a little bit more out of my comfort zone. I've just tried to enjoy every moment possible because we don't know what tomorrow holds. I'm just living in the moment."
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.