Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fourth and inches

It’s a weekday midafternoon and I’m sitting on on wooden bleachers at a local high school. Its early autumn, breezy with a few wispy leaves. And middle son Braden is playing in the first organized football game of his life – the big Landon-St. Albans clash of the 6th grade titans.

Kids’ sports are a crazed part of the national pysche. I know. I’ve got three sons currently on 8 separate teams. I coach my youngest son in 3rd grade basketball with my winning “Cycle of Fear” motivational tool and have a car full of sweaty athletic gear all year long. And since I sat on the bench in high school and college in three sports, I bring a good-natured resilience to All Things Sports.

First, I naturally have a little pep talk before the big game, full of a homespun Nellie advice: “Son, pretend the running back is a Democrat after Dad’s job. Don’t let him get by you!” Just kidding. Actually, I say, “Take if from your old man, when it's fourth and inches, go long."

Second, I’m past getting nervous or uptight about games. I once figured out that since all three of my three sons started playing organized sports, I’ve watched more than 680 games, matches, and meets, no kidding. I tell myself it's making me a better person -- as far as I know.

Third, I’m also past the point of putting some phony smile on my face and saying to my kids after some atrocious mistake, “Ohhhh, that’s ok! So long as you have fun!” To hell with fun. A lot of the sports scene is a grind and the takeaways for the kids willing to stick it out, even on the bench, are teamwork, perseverance, discipline, selflessness. If it was always “fun,” everyone would score a ton of points, even the geeks.

Fourth, I don't get crazy anymore about playing time, no matter what coaching conspiracy is going on. Braden plays nose guard and doesn’t start. Big deal -- it’s his first season. He'll either learn or become president of the Stamp Club. But he’s a solid athlete. Last weekend during a lacrosse game, Braden was playing defense, scooped up a missed shot near his own goal, got out of traffic cradling the ball, went over midfield, got body checked hard by four different guys, kept on his feet and then shot and scored from 10 feet out. Coast to Coast, baby. Now that’s athleticism. He's just got to learn it on a different field.

Fifth, I admire initiative in a kid. Braden is parked on the sidelines, in full game viewing mode, when the team runs out of water. Suddenly, I see him go go speak with the coach, leave the field headed toward the team bus, and then come back holding a plastic crate of full Gatorade bottles. I laughed out loud at the subtle perfection of it all. Yes, truly his father's son.

Last, I always look for best in a less-than-desirable situation. Braden got on the team bus right after the game and I went back to work in the city. Later that night at home, I told him, “Well, well. Your first football game. Man, I really liked the way you manhandled that Gatorade crate.” He grinned, and familiar with my shtick because it’s rapidly becoming his, replied, “It wasn’t going to get by me.”

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