Tuesday, December 9, 2008

All About....

(Above: In keeping with his sense of fair play, Nellie takes it to the goal on barefoot 12-year old kid at Bordley Field, Landon School, in Bethesda, Maryland.)
“The thing is, Betty, I’m not into this for me. No way. Sports is all about what the boys want – it’s what they feel comfortable with.” The woman with whom I’m speaking on the sideline clucks appreciatively at my magnanimity and balanced outlook on kids’ athletics.

Of course, its Nellie talking so you know there’s a catch. In fact, it is All About Me. Every league, every practice, every game, every piece of equipment, every day. Why look -- I’m chatting up this mother at the famed Fairfax FallBrawl Lacrosse Tournament. It’s 22 degrees outside at 8 a.m., and I’ve got two sons in two different divisions playing all day. “I don’t care how cold it is! I want to see you jack up some people!” I tell them with fatherly calm during the dawn ride to the fields.

Harsh, eh? The boys know that maybe I’m kidding. But they certainly know that I have a relentless belief in kid’s athletics and team sports. I’ve seen what both have done for the men and women I most admire and respect.

Lacrosse, as it happens, provides a perfect example of the lifetime edge that sports confer. First, a kid builds true confidence in gaining athleticism, catching and throwing a small ball while on the run and getting pounded. There’s the instant decision-making, the physical endurance, all translating into a mental toughness. There is the extraordinary camaraderie: You have to get along with the good guys – and the knuckleheads. You have to strain to keep up, obey a coach. And the coaches are, for the most part, rough-hewn, stern and demanding. There is no relativism in lacrosse (or in most serious sports); no political correctness about “Everyone has fun! And everyone plays!,” no "be nice to Billie" smarminess, and no darn "snacks." Each kid endures 30 to 40 collisions in a raw, hard, fast game and it builds, like many sports, a self-confident attitude and paradoxically, selflessness.

And, like an astonishing number of parents, I practice what I preach. In 2008, the three Nelligan boys played in 28 different leagues spanning five sports – football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and lacrosse. We’re talking more than 230 games and meets, and that’s a lowball figure because all three are very good at lax and thus went into post-season and post-tournament play at least half a dozen times. Not that I’m counting or anything.

Or that I boast or anything – like about Darby, in his flag football league playing quarterback and calling plays, facing off every game, unbelievably, against some parent who insists on playing permanent QB for the other team. Hey, suit yourself, Suburban Joe Farve.

And if lacrosse is emblematic of the priceless lessons of sports, the FallBrawl is emblematic of the lax world. More than 90 teams come from all over the Mid-Atlantic. Braden’s team grabs first in its division, Devlin’s team gets third place. Braden is a tough guy, plays defense and puts more than several kids on the ground. Once he gets his stick under a player's arms and rips upward, sending the kid’s stick spinning end over end into the sky. “That’s what I mean, Brady boy!” I shriek. Dev is a finesse guy, gets assists and scores a couple goals, one shot bouncing into the bottom corner of the goal as Dev dives past a defenseman. “Princeton here you come, buddy” I whisper under my breath. Ah yes, the endless fantasies of a father.

Yeah, all these teams and sports require driving and games and practices. And, most important: Time. But what else are the three sons going to do with their Time? Listen to Nickleback while playing X-Box and text messaging on their cell phones? Since all three have none of that gear per Nellie edict, we’ll just leave that scene to the kids who are growing up to be IT professionals and will make tons of dough. My kids are going to focus on sports to the detriment of everything else and matriculate to an obscure Division III school, sit on the bench, and major in Sociology. Like dad.

When the championship series ends at dusk and we jump in the car to ride home, the sons are wiped out but exuberant -- 14 solid games between them, fired up by being with their closest friends, all that adrenaline and movement, sweaty, bruised, cuts on their legs, and two trophies.

We’re pulling out of the parking lot with a phalanx of other cars and the windshield wipers have frost on them and my breath is condensing in white clouds on the inside of the car window. Suddenly, Dev says with near alarm, “Dad, weren’t you cold watching the games all day?” “Are you kidding me?” I reply with disbelief. “I was watching you and Braden light it up out there. I didn’t notice anything else, pal.” Yeah, all about me, indeed.