I remember my excitement when my son was born. All the usual stuff, of course, putting the nursery together, bringing a new life into the world, that sense of joy and fulfillment and wonder. But there was also another layer in play: I thought I had just bred and been gifted a sports fan who would share some of my favorite pastimes and passions with me.
This was 1985. Sonograms were still notoriously unreliable. Doctors would not tell if you were having a boy or a girl or discuss the results because things were pretty fuzzy, like the first pictures from the moon or the old Game Boy printer. I had friends who thought they saw something they didn’t on ultrasounds and had nurseries ready that were all wrong. I actually had only seen one arm on our sonogram so was holding my breath in the delivery room.
But then there he was, including both arms and all the crucial parts, save one (more on that in a moment).
And there I was, off to the store (no Amazon) on a shopping spree: Baseball player onesies, a baseball glove softee suitable for use as a pillow or spitting up on, other sports-themed baby accoutrements and ― most importantly ― a lot of red-and-black anything, including a plush Georgia Bulldog football.
I never played for the team and actually went to a different state school, but since early childhood I have had a deep, inexplicable passion for University of Georgia football that borders on the professional (as YouTube suggests below).
My dad was a fan, like pretty much everyone in Georgia, but he wasn’t passionate about it. Or anything else, really. In fact, I had an “aha!” moment in my early 40s when dad finally thought to mention that my grandfather, who neither of us ever knew since he’d been killed in a tornado while my grandmother was expecting, went to UGA. So, you know, aha, and thanks for waiting 40 years. Dad and I never bonded over much of anything, including sports, and…
OK. Wow. Thank you for sharing that Maslow Moment with me. Now that I understand why the sports-bonding thing actually mattered, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
My son was born in November, so the inculcation began right away. We parked in front of the television on game day Saturdays, we watched pro football on Sundays, then came hockey and spring training and baseball season opened and I made sure he saw it all, which was pretty easy because he couldn’t walk away from it yet.
He could by the time he was 3 and showed exactly zero interest in sports. I was concerned. On Father’s Day that year I took him to his first big league baseball game. He was enthralled. I was relieved.
When we got home, he asked for posterboard and markers and privacy. From the other room he started asking questions about the players on each team. I’d call out a name, he’d sometimes ask me to spell it. I was curious but I gave him his rope.
When his labors were done, he brought me the posterboard. He’d drawn a pretty impressive baseball diamond. The starting lineups of the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers were scrawled along either side of the field. I was thrilled. At 3 ½, my son was finally a baseball fan!
Oh and he could read and write too, which was also cool, but, yeah, baseball!
Red herring. It actually was about the reading and writing thing, something that had started a few months earlier (Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers for the Nintendo provided the breakthrough moment).
The years went on. He didn’t want to play football in the yard with the neighborhood kids (and me) because he (correctly) surmised that he could possibly hit the ground pretty hard. He didn’t want to play catch with me because he (correctly) surmised that the odds of being hit in the face by a thrown baseball, while minimal in practice, were literally nil if he just didn’t play catch.
When he was nine he surprised me by wanting to sign up for soccer.
He watched a lot, played very little. I never got mad at the coach for the limited playing time, because for all 11 years of his career that coach was me. He liked being on the team, liked having all the kids over for parties and hangouts. It was just the sportsball part that didn’t do much for him.
And that never happened. We bonded over many, many things – music, movies, video games, books, jokes, board games, travel, favorite candies, favorite colors – but never sports.
I was a full-time single father from the time he was two. Eventually I met a wonderful woman and her four children also became a part of my life. Two of them, thankfully, are sports fans.
But none of them are anything else we expected them to be. Number One Son never became a sports fan. The youngest, who was so sports-crazy he’d watch (and understand) curling, is wrapping up a master’s degree in project management – we were certain he’d be coaching.
The middle son, who we thought would be a businessman, just graduated from the University of Central Florida and began his career as an athletic trainer at a college in North Carolina.
One daughter’s in marketing, one’s in management (since “Disney princess” is not a career option, turns out). What the girls do isn’t a surprise – but we thought given their personalities they’d be switched around the other way, so that is.
In terms of what and who we projected our kids would be, we’re 0-for-5. (That’s a sports reference, I’ll point out in case Number One Son’s reading...).
Amazingly, looking at my friends’ grown children, none of them are what I thought they’d be either. And even in a coaching career that spanned a decade-plus with close relationships, quite a few of which continue today, there’s not one person I, as an adult, have ever known during their childhood who grew up to be what I thought they’d be.
Someone Who’d Be A Perfect Me...
It’s surprising. Like every other parent in the history of the world, I thought I’d created a miniature version of myself that I could bring up without all the bumps and wrinkles and brain farts I have. Someone who’d share every joy, who’d understand every heartache. Someone who’d be a perfect me.
Not the way it works. It becomes especially confusing as they get a little older because you see so many things that remind you of you that it will sometimes be difficult to remember this is an entirely different human being.
They could get by without you, raised somewhere else, by wolves or foster parents; those things that came purely from your DNA – like that weird little way they scratch an ear, or the fact that they can remember all the lyrics to obscure TV theme songs but not one word of high school French ― would still be there but everything else would change.
Research suggests society has as much influence on children as heritage. Notice I did not say parenting; I’m talking genetics. Different things. But there are many studies that say the strongest influence on a child’s development as they move through adolescence and their teens is the peer group they associate with, not mom or dad.
Your training and teaching has to be done before they get there. It will continue through those years, sometimes awkwardly. It will, believe it or not, continue after those years.
Many times, it’s tougher to be the parents of adults than of toddlers. The needs are greater, the impact more significant, the price tag usually higher and the reward quotient lower. You help because you can and because you want to – but you don’t get the same buzz you get from teaching them to, say, ride a bike or climb a tree.
Which were two other things Number One Son was awkward at. He wore water wings until he was 9, which was about the same age I finally convinced him to let me remove his training wheels. He never did get to the tree climbing part – the ground seemed much closer and, he (correctly) surmised, perfectly safe and he was right on both counts.
OK, So What Happened To Number One Son?
I never did tell you what Number One Son did become. He’s a free-range adventurer, leading wild and far-ranging expeditions for the National Geographic from broiling deserts to frozen tundra. He faces all manner of danger daily with aplomb and once rescued a baby from a raging hippo on the African savannah.
None of that is true. I made it all up just to surprise you, same way your kids will surprise you no matter what they become or do.
What he did become is a hard-working, happily married, major bookstore manager who’s slowly finishing his undergrad degree with an eye on launching a high school drama program, like the one that finally gave him a place to belong, the one that he (correctly and blessedly) surmised would be a safe haven.
When he was 24, I got a phone call. He had the afternoon free and wondered if I – brace yourself – wanted to play a game of catch.
I was bewildered but thrilled. As he was on the way over, I rummaged through the garage for some gear. I could only find one baseball glove. Fortunately, Sports Nut Son had been a hockey player and had left behind a goalie’s catching glove when he left home. Awkward, certainly, but I figured I was up to the challenge and it was worth looking like an idiot to finally get to play a game of catch with my son for no reason at all except that he loved his dad and…
… what do you mean there’s a show coming up? Ah, I should probably mention that before he went back to school and got married, Number One Son spent a few years in a professional touring theater company. The troupe toured up and down the East Coast throughout the school year, changing the show out every few months.
Next up was a show that had a girl throwing and catching a baseball for quite a long time during an ongoing dialogue. She was very good at it. Unfortunately, he was to be the other actor in this staged game of catch and was not, as he’d found out at the first rehearsal.
So there we were, in the yard, me wearing a hockey goalie glove, him 24 years old and being outpitched by a girl. And it was beautiful.
By the time we were done he could passably pitch and catch. He did not get hit in the face, not even once. I did not mention that fact. No need to rub it in. I watched him drive away, with that same tug of emotion I feel every time I watch him drive away – it’s still hard to let him go. But then I looked down at the ridiculous glove I was wearing and started laughing.
He is a beautiful, brilliant, wonderful young man and I could not be prouder and I would not change one thing about him. OK, that’s a lie. I still hope he’ll wake up one day and go, “Oh, I get it, sports is a microcosm of life’s struggles and triumphs, a play without a script!”
Probably he won’t, he’s 31 now.
But when the grandkids start coming, I’ll get a second chance and make my best pitch. I’m older now, and wiser too — I learned a few things the first time around I wanna try out.