The following essay was sketched out recently on an airplane on the way to my father’s funeral.
When a father is appraised, he is often given great credit for the time he spent showing up for his children’s sporting events. My father, being given his due this week, has been lauded for his greatness in this regard, and rightfully so. He was at almost every sport event that I or any of my five brothers ever suited up for. That’s a lot of boys. That’s a lot of cutting out early from the office.
I know it was a gesture of love, but there was nothing he ever did that embarrassed me more. He wasn’t a belligerent father shouting from the stands at refs or demanding from coaches more playing time for his son. No, he just sat silently in the stands. What embarrassed me was that he was there — and that I was on the bench.
In the earlier grades, there was more of a let-em-all-play spirit, and it wasn’t so bad. He saw my collective 20 or 30 points of grade school basketball (over 4 years, mind you). But as I got older, the playing time got more sparse. I would cringe when I heard my father was going to be at the game.
Now, in football there’s a buffer. The parents are way out there in the stands; the players, covered up in helmets. My mother once showed me a photo she snapped at a junior high school football game she attended. She climbed down to the sidelines to get a shot of me in my football uniform on a clear fall afternoon. When the photos game back from the developer a week after the game, she handed the photo, to me. “There you are,” she said pointing to a guy wearing the red school jersey and a white helmet with a red stripe. I looked at the photo, deep into the cavern of the helmet, and then down at the jersey number. It wasn’t me. It was my teammate – Dan Campbell, who was about my size and had a number one more than mine. Who could tell with those pads and helmet on? I hope my parents watched that whole game thinking I was Dan Campbell. Dan Campbell was the well-toned athlete that we all called “the Specimen”. He started every game and made all the tackles and sacked the quarterback and caught slant passes from the tight end position. I hopefully imagine that my father had the joy sitting up in the stands, just that one game, and nudging another parent and saying “You see number 81 down there? That’s my son. Unreal. ”
In basketball there is no hiding. The gymnasium is much more intimate and the players are wearing nothing but shorts, knee-high socks, and tank-top jerseys. There’s no mistaking who’s me and who’s the Specimen.
But he was there. He never commented on my lack of playing time and said supportive things about the things I did in the limited time I played.
But where I want to give him his due is that he also knew to find other things to support — things that I was better at. There was one thing I remember he commended me on. It was encyclopedia reading. This was decades before the internet and that’s what I had, kids, for insights into the facts of the world. I would drag 3 or 4 volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia to my bedroom many an evening and digest the information contained within. The seven wonders of the ancient world, check. The flags of every nation, check. When there was playground banter about this thing called sex, it was to the World Book that I went for explanations – it is amazingly silent on the subject, much less so than the internet.
But my father, he was supportive of such things. He told me on more than one occasion that he bragged to his friends about his son who read the encyclopedias. Now that was something where he could nudge his friends and say, “hey, look at my boy”.
I imagine that there’s an alternate universe where there is a thing called the National Encyclopedia Reading League. And I’m there, on the field, after the Championship match. There is a reporter there from ERPN (Encyclopedia Reader Programming Network) with a microphone in my face. In the background, the fans are still cheering. There is a man in a suit nearby holding one of those really large checks with a number written on it with lots of zeros. And the reporter claps me on the back and says to me, “Wow, that was incredible. How did you ever know that North Dakota was the number one flax producing state? What do you have to say?”
And after pausing to throw my jersey to a kid with a Coke bottle, I’d turn to the reporter and say, “I’d like to thank my father.”