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An Exercise in Caution

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The soccer field loomed large in the mind of Denise de Bombelles. True, it was in an urban setting in Northwest Washington, with congested streets that could hamper a quick getaway and make it a less attractive target. But the trees bothered her. They would provide ample cover for a sniper with a rifle and a will to kill.

She obsessed about the odds of the shooter finding the soccer team she manages, one small group of 11- and 12-year-old boys kicking a ball on one small field in a sprawling region of 5 million people.

She had a decision to make, not unlike the thousands of choices between fate and chance that people are making each day the snipereludes capture. Public decisions such as shutting down the Bethesda arts festival this weekend or forging ahead with yesterday's Clarendon neighborhood celebration in Arlington. And private calculations on whether to take the kids to the playground or stay in and turn on the tube.

For de Bombelles, this was the toughest call of her life: Should she go on with the bootleg outdoor soccer practice she had called for yesterday? 

Twice before, de Bombelles had her team, the Force, practicing outside, during a time when all area schools were in lockdown and had canceled outdoor athletic events. Most other recreational sports teams followed suit and had pulled their players inside.

As recently as Wednesday, her parent club -- the DC Stoddert Soccer League, with 400 teams and more than 5,000 players -- had issued orders prohibiting outdoor games and practices. If she went forward, as planned, there was the risk of sanctions.

And yet, the team needed the practice. Half of the 15 boys are new this year. They don't know each other well, and they're still gelling on the field.

Last year, the Force didn't do so well. The boys play in the more competitive "travel" team league, where children have to try out and be selected. But they're on the bottom rung. And last year, their record was so poor that they were dropped from the prestigious National Capital Soccer League. Now, they play in the less desirable Old Dominion Soccer League and have to travel as far as Winchester, Va., for weekend games.

There was pressure to perform. "It reflects on the prestige of the league," one parent explained. And the boys, like all cooped-up children in these fearful times, were bouncing off the walls.

In the early days of the shooting crisis, de Bombelles' decision to stay outside to play was easier. The six people shot in Montgomery County and just inside the District line in a 26-hour period Oct. 2 and 3 were all adults, she reasoned. They were all alone. A group of kids kicking and tackling didn't fit the profile. "Initially, I thought the threat was quite minimal," she said.

And if she could show that she felt comfortable letting her son, Luc, stay out on the field, perhaps she could be a model for others.

She not only continued practicing outdoors, but that weekend of Oct. 5 and 6, all Stoddert club teams played their regularly scheduled outdoor games. Nervous parents who usually just drop children off stayed on the sidelines, eyeing the woods, looking for white box trucks and continually moving themselves so as not to be easy marks.

The calculus of risk changed Oct. 7, the Monday that a 13-year-old boy was shot outside his Bowie middle school. A shaken de Bombelles canceled the outdoor practice that day. But by that Wednesday, she had her team back outside when others were not. She and coach Mohamed Benanni, a former professional soccer player from Morocco, found an "unofficial" field where they could play; the District and area schools had pulled permits for theirs.

"I had been influenced by some of the e-mails flying from other coaches and administrators saying that this guy cannot force us to retreat, we can't let him win," she said. "And I felt it was important for the kids to play together as much as possible. These are 11-year-old boys. They're locked down during school hours. They need to get out. They're going wacko."

Still, de Bombelles was nervous. She had let parents know in an e-mail that practice was voluntary and that no one would be penalized with reduced playing time for failing to come. Six boys showed up.

The picture changed once again Oct. 14, when Linda Franklin, 47, was shot in the head while loading her Home Depot purchases into her car in a crowded Seven Corners parking lot. This was a woman like de Bombelles. And the area's congested streets were not that different from those around her soccer team's unofficial field.

Two days later, Stoddert Soccer club commissioners, in an agonizing rush of e-mail exchanges, decided to suspend all outdoor activity.

Some commissioners stridently opposed the move, calling it shameful. They argued that the league was being too cautious and depriving children of fresh air, camaraderie and exercise. Children play soccer in other world hot spots all the time.

"This country is not Beirut. It is not Israel. It is not Northern Ireland," said Richard Gersten, one of the commissioners who grappled with Wednesday's decision. "There's a lot of anxiety, and we didn't want to take risks with the lives of kids."

A big consideration was risk and liability, Gersten said. When all the schools and other soccer, Little League and organized sports teams were deciding to stay inside, how could they justify leaving themselves exposed? "None of the coaches or commissioners wanted to call off soccer, but we felt we had to do it because everyone else did," one commissioner said. "We didn't want to be in the position of saying, 'Come catch us, Mr. Sniper.' " 

The commissioners wanted to shoulder the responsibility, relieving parents of the burden of deciding whether the simple act of playing outside put children's lives on the line.

That was a decision that each parent of players on the Force confronted with every call of outdoor practice.

Roger Mingo didn't think twice about sending his 11-year-old son, Ben. Mingo is a statistician and engineer who finds comfort in numbers, in the seemingly impossible odds. "I never win the lottery," he said, "so why should I get shot?" 

Mingo has continued unabated to jog his regular route along major thoroughfares. He still pumps gas at the same exposed station because the gas is the cheapest he can find. His son lives for soccer and was going nuts. Ben was grumpy and wasn't paying attention in school. "I let my sons go in cars with drivers who aren't as good as I am. I let them go skateboarding, and that is risky," Mingo said. "Managed risk is what life is all about."

His wife, Amy Shapiro, a first-grade teacher who is more cautious by nature, agonized over each decision. Since the shootings began, they no longer let Ben walk home from school. She's noticed that once bustling playgrounds are empty. That children in her classroom have begun chewing on their clothing, a sign of sustained stress.

She's allowed her boys to throw balls and roughhouse in the basement for the first time, scuffing the walls and leaving the stink of sweat, because she knows they need to run around. "I found myself in a huge conflict," she said. "When the soccer team makes the decision for me, that it's going to have a practice, I try not to dwell on it and just go along with it."

That wasn't the case with Anne Molofsky. She has been preoccupied since the sniper crisis began, and the thought of sending her son outdoors into the lethal unknown made her too uncomfortable. She decided to keep him home. "This is something I can control in this uncontrollable world: whether my child will go or not go to soccer practice."

Lisa Herrick, a psychologist, was at first ambivalent, but a talk with her ex-husband persuaded her to keep their son, Nick, indoors. "Maybe that wasn't the greatest decision. But how do you know which decisions are foolhardy?" 

With the next outdoor practice on the horizon, the parents were uncertain that theirs was the right decision. For those leaning toward going, the thought that they could be wrong weighed like a stone. Even Mingo, who had no qualms about his own son's participation, conceded that he would never allow the team he coaches to play outdoors.

By Wednesday, de Bombelles was in a quandary. Then the rain made one decision for her. She called off that day's outdoor practice. Unlike the slow seep of previous decisions, her final call came with crashing clarity.

That night, out of town on a business trip for Freddie Mac, she lay, sleepless with indecision, on her bed in Bath, Maine. All day, her investor clients had asked her how it felt to be living in such constant danger. Away from it, she felt for the first time how tenuous and random the situation had become. A nor'easter shook the historic inn. The wind rattled the windows, and the rain lashed the roof. She felt the portents of danger.

In her mind's eye, she again saw the outdoor field where they would practice on Saturday. She saw the boys, half in bright yellow jerseys, racing up and down the field. She saw how open it was. How visible the boys were from all sides.

She saw her son, Luc, standing at the goal. The most stationary player on the field. The easiest target. And in a flash, she saw the blood, bright red, oozing through the yellow on her son's small chest.

Her heart raced. "I thought, no, no. It's a mistake. It's a mistake to put them out there," she recalled. "Nothing is worth taking this risk. It's not worth taking a stand. It's all too arbitrary."

On Friday morning, she found a small private school gym where they could practice for $150 a session. She sent an urgent message to Benanni. And she e-mailed the entire team, telling the players that they, like everyone else, would be coming inside.

"So be it if the record suffers and there are people who are unhappy and say it's wimpy. It's safe. And a small price to pay for the life of a child," she said. "So what. We'll play another day."

And so yesterday, a crisp fall day with leaves just beginning to yellow, 12 rambunctious boys ran drills and kicked balls so hard they bounced off the four small walls of the indoor gym.

De Bombelles, watching the play from atop a stack of folded blue mats, was finally at peace. When will she let the kids go out to play again? 

"When it's safe," she answered resolutely. She did not offer just when that will be and how long it will take to get there.

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