First love: Messi will be many kids’ first sports hero and lasting memory

An Argentina fan holds a replica of Lionel Messi’s jersey. Inter Miami fans are anxious to see the name and number on a Herons shirt.
An Argentina fan holds a replica of Lionel Messi’s jersey. Inter Miami fans are anxious to see the name and number on a Herons shirt. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In 1973, my parents bought me a t-shirt with Henry Aaron’s number “44” on the back and his nickname, “Hammerin’ Hank,” printed across the front. I was a 10-year-old Mississippi farm kid, and the Hammer was closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record (which he eclipsed in April 1974). It was the first shirt I remember owning that celebrated an athlete.

I was never much good at baseball but, in my mind, at least, there was an unbreakable connection between Aaron and me — I had his shirt; he was my guy! To this day, I still consider him my first real sports hero. I met him once, paid $40 for an autograph and, even though I was in my 30s and tongue-tied, when we shook hands, I knew our connection was still strong. I didn’t cry when he died a couple of years ago; he lived a long and good life. And I still have the memories, and photos, and joy and awe. We’re still connected.

And in a few weeks, hundreds of South Florida children will receive THEIR first player jersey or t-shirt or hoodie or polo. It will be pink or black, or highlighted by pink or black, and it will bear the number “10” and the name “Messi” or maybe, for younger children, “Leo.” And somewhere on that shirt will be an Inter Miami logo, and those children, at least some, will make the connection. Maybe their parents don’t know a thing about the Beautiful Game, but are caught up in the mood of the moment. Maybe they’ll take those kids to a match at DRV PNK Stadium, maybe buy them a soccer ball (with Leo’s likeness and mass-duplicated signature, of course!) Maybe not.

But many of those kids will feel the excitement, share it with their friends, search social media for news about Messi and the Herons. They’re going to feel connected — to a time, a player, a team, a sport — and maybe that connection lasts a lifetime.

Messi coming to MLS and Miami will be one of the most impactful moments in our nation’s soccer history. Thousands of words have been written about how his coming will impact the game in this country, the money he’ll make for — and receive from — Inter Miami, MLS and a variety of sponsors. It’s dramatic and overwhelming. But maybe one of the greatest impacts of his coming can’t be measured by money.

Maybe this summer and fall young boys and girls everywhere will fall in love with a special game because of their connection to this special player.