Sunday, June 21, 2009
Slant-outs, buttonhooks, and Dad
I have been athletic all my life, and I have two people to thank for that. One was a boy named Michael, who lived on the street where I grew up. The other is my father.
First, Michael. When I was 4 years old, my family moved from Wilmington, Delaware to Munster, Indiana, and Michael, who was the same age as I, showed up on our doorstep the day we arrived, a football tucked under his arm, hoping that the moving van meant a new playmate. If he was disappointed that our home had only two girls, he never let on, and Michael and I soon became inseparable best friends. He taught me how to play football, baseball and basketball, and in a neighborhood rife with boys and short on girls, I was just one of the guys when it came to sports.
Now my father and mother were pretty traditional, but they never seemed troubled by my tomboyish ways. My father encouraged me in all of my athletic pursuits. I think he was genuinely happy to have someone to practice his knuckleball and curveball on, or toss the football with.
Playing catch became a daily ritual with us when he arrived home from work in the seasons that offered enough evening light. Football was our favorite sport, and we would spend hours devising and practicing pass plays that we would later use on unsuspecting overnight guests and in the pickup games that often took root in our spacious, treeless backyard. My father and I were good — really good, if I may say so.
When I was 14, we moved back to Delaware, where I faced a different school, different friends, and different neighbors. But all through high school, my dad and I kept throwing the football around, and challenging each other in other sports as well.
We were ridiculously competitive when it came to table tennis. My mother would just shake her head when my dad and I would emerge from the basement after playing, drenched in sweat, the victor taking verbal jabs at the loser. Winning wasn't always everything, but it sure was important to both of us.
After I moved away from home to go to college, and later moved to New England, the football came out of the closet fewer and fewer times each year. As I got older, I managed to play touch football every so often with friends and coworkers, but those games always paled in comparison to the ones I remembered from my childhood.
My father is 83 now, but still relatively fit and active. The last time we tossed the football around together was two years ago at Thanksgiving. His arm was clearly not what it was once, and I could no longer run a post pattern with the utter abandon I once did, but the joy was still there for both of us — the joy of movement, sport, the outdoors and competition. Those were the lessons I learned best from my father.
So thanks, Dad, for teaching me that to "throw like a girl" can be a good thing. I still get the occasional chance to throw a football around, but I miss having someone who knows my routes well enough to lead me perfectly. Happy Father's Day.