I’ve never played a sport. Never wanted to play. Growing up, I was more into dancing and reading and Empire Strikes Back. I’m one of four girls and only one of us was athletic (I’m looking at you, Nikole). People used to say to my dad, “Oh man, four girls! Four? Girls? Wow.” Being the shy guy he was, he’d usually give a little grin and nod. There was never an eye roll or a plea for commiseration. No, there was none of that. My dad was a quiet man. So quiet I found it difficult to break in, to connect. Not when I was little, definitely not then.
Being little meant that he communicated with me, on my level, by being silly and playing. Our favorite was “The Tickle Monster”. My sisters and I would raid drawers and closets, grabbing table cloths, bed coverings, and towels to pile on him. If it wasn’t on a table or hook it was fair game for the pile. He’d lay perfectly still on the living room floor, buried under our Mount Everest of piles. Oh-so-slowly he would emerge, unleashing the ferocious tickle creature. We’d scream, eyes wide, as the beast from the pile roared to life. That was my daddy, and I loved him.
Puberty hit, and everything changed. Pun intended.
My dad shut down. The pull away wasn’t abrupt, it was slow and sad until one day I didn’t squeal “Daddy’s home!” while running and doing a perfect 10.0 spring board into his arms. My teenage voice would nonchalantly mutter, “Hey,” sometimes long after he’d been home. Conversation was either an argument or stale statements like, “Where are my scissors?” or “Unpack the dishwasher please.” It all confused my teenage mind. That confusion led to frustration, and I began construction on the brick wall, the one that eventually separated me from my father.
There were layers to my dad, complexities and unknowns. I longed to find a way back in. And of all things—of all things to do it—it was sports. He loved Philadelphia sports, specifically the Sixers, Phillies, and his treasured Eagles. His ideal Sunday typically involved some yard work, a tuna sandwich on toast, a Genesee Cream Ale, and watching the game. I’d watch him from the kitchen, his smiles and clapping, his groans and anger. That was when my dad came to life. The drudgery of day-to-day seemed to melt away for him with each throw of that football.
My senior year of high school was when I decided to plant myself on the sofa as he watched the Eagles. Did I care about football? Not yet.
My understanding of the game didn’t exist. I needed to understand. With bold determination, I peppered him with questions about what I saw on the TV. I half expected him to dismiss me or give me one of his famous dead-eye-glares, but he didn’t. Were there deep breaths on his part? Often. But he never shut down a single question. Not one.
That 1984 season I learned what it meant to move the ball down the field. The specifics. The whats and the whys. What a down was, when to go for it on a fourth, when to kick, a two-point conversion. What a linebacker did, a tight end, wide receiver, defensive back. Off sides, holding, encroachment, pass interference. All of it.
My dad taught me the game of football, one play, one game at a time. Despite our abysmal 6-9-1 record that year, and not making the playoffs for the third straight season, I was pumped.
I was a fan.
The following summer I went on to pester him with questions about the Phillies, and he taught me that game, too. I appreciate a good Phillies game to this day, but on that sofa in Richboro, PA in the fall of 1984, I became a fierce Eagles fan. There hasn’t been a season gone by when I haven’t cheered and believed and adored that team.
I lost my dad to cancer in 1997. I miss him every day. Last night, as I watched the Eagles do what so many thought was impossible, I missed him with a fresh and raw newness. He would’ve loved it. God, he would’ve loved it. We finally did it, Dad.