First week of school freshman year, we have our first JV football game against our cross town rival, Mount Pleasant Green Knights. After two weeks of doubles in the summer heat, the team is ready to dominate. Varsity plays on Saturday and JV plays Monday after school against the same team the varsity played two days prior. But, for some reason, to this day I'm not sure why, the JV played on the previous Thursday, two days before the varsity. This would be the last game my dad would watch me play.
You see, I was very fortunate in the sense that my family never missed a game. Never! My dad, Big Ben, was always the loudest guy in the stands. He was loud to the point of humiliation at times, but damn he was a supportive fan, cheerleader and parent. My mom was always there too and just as supportive, but her diminutive five foot stature would always be overshadowed by the screaming and yelling maniac barking over the four foot fence just a few feet from the track, seemingly just inches from the earhole in my helmet.
That momentary embarrassment as a 14 year old kid would eventually be realized as a sense of pride that a father feels for his boy. Today I know this feeling, not from my offspring, but from my athletes that I train at TSS. I occasionally get to see them perform in their respective sport and it always brings me joy to see the fruits of their labor. I realize it is not quite the same, but it's the closest thing I have at this point in my life. And yes, I make my presence known at their games as well. If you're a coach or a parent, you know the feeling.
In sixth grade my father was diagnosed with cancer and he spent a year being pretty sick but made a good recovery. The following year, while I was in seventh grade, he was doing well, working and just being Big Ben. Then in eighth grade, he got sick again and spent an entire year essentially in misery. I recall him once sitting on the couch at the end of the night just before bed, holding his belly in agony, moaning under his breath trying not to let anyone hear his discomfort and pain. Talk about the big fat elephant in the room. I glanced at my mom across the room on the cranberry and navy plaid loveseat, and she motioned to me to give him a hug with a tear rolling down her cheek. So I put my little hand on his once muscular shoulder and basically told him that everything was gonna be alright. I wasn't quite sure of the protocol when a small demon is slowly chewing on your dads guts with relentless hunger. Plus, I was always a shy kid, so initiating any type of contact was always difficult for me, even with dad. Actually, especially with dad. This is one of those moments that will unfortunately forever be etched in my mind, and it was a horrible feeling. I can't fathom what it was like for him to feel that way and be consoled by his baby boy. He was the protector, the provider, and the most powerful person I knew. And feeling this sense of helplessness must have been extremely difficult for him to say the least. The guy probably should have smoked some weed to feel better and increase his appetite at times, but the stubborn son of a bitch would have nothing to do with that. He always tried to be a good role model, I wish I had paid closer attention sometimes.
After a year of frequent and long hospital stays, he finally came home about a week before I started high school. He said he was home for good and we were all excited. A few days later we played Mount Pleasant for the JV season opener. I had several friends on that team as we lived in the same community and went to junior high together. I was the smallest kid on the field, barely five feet tall and maybe 110 pounds with a wet uniform. I was even outsized by a few cheerleaders freshman year, including Carmella, my girlfriend at the time. But it was totally cool because she had D cups, a whole can of Aquanet in her hair, and was regarded by many as the hottest chick in school, and I was one of the few cats on the team who wasn't a virgin anymore. BOOM, winning! Even if I came before my balls touched down, I was still doing it, and most were jealous. Considering it was 1991 and MC Hammer pants were cool, it was hard to stand out as a short, white, shy kid, but I found a way. Anyway, back to the game, one series early in the game we drove down the field to the one yard line. We had a great running back leading the way, but instead of giving the ball to Harold "Rock" Collins for an easy score, they called my number. I came charging in from the sidelines like a scared dear, and shook in the huddle before the play was called; I'll be damned if they didn't give me the ball. The whistle was blown, the ball snapped, my vision got blurry as I jumped out of my stance and sprinted forward, took the handoff from Scotty Mayne and plunged over the goal line from one yard out, straight up the gut, like a man. Damn I felt like a hero. Turns out it was pretty insignificant, as we beat the crap out of those chumps anyway, but it was a close game at the time of the score. That moment was powerful to me. My father was going nuts in the stands and cheered loud enough for China to hear. He was watching from the stands, this time in a wheel chair. He wasn't strong enough to move around on his own, but he made his presence known when I scored. I had mixed emotions at the time when my dad showed up in that chair, I didn't know who was going to tease me or what, but those feelings faded quickly as I knew how proud he was of me. I was proud as well, knowing how uncomfortable he was in that situation. See, Big Ben was an army guy, a jacked up buck ninety just a few years earlier. So being in this wheelchair at a dismal 130 lbs of skin and bones with a protruding belly and no ass couldn't have felt good. But he made it, in fact, he wouldn't miss it for the world.
The following Monday I remember getting ready for school, and when I went to say goodbye to my dad. He was blank, he had kind of a hollow stare and just moaned a bit. Meanwhile, my mom made me and my brother, Craig, and sister, Katie, say bye and go to school. Later in the afternoon, Craig and I got called to the principals office and were instructed to skip our after school activities and go directly home. I knew right then when the secretary told me to go straight home that something was very wrong, I knew since I left that morning. After school today was supposed to be the day we played Mount Pleasant, I probably would have ignored my instructions and went with the team, but we already played last Thursday and dad was there. So, because it was only a regular practice day, I decided to obey and went home. That's when we got the news.
I recall years prior to this event, when I was in the seventh grade, I played football for the Holy Rosary Bears; it was 7th and 8th graders. It was the only time the coach ever made a 7th grader, me, team captain. I wasn't the best player on the team, and I was the smallest, but I worked hard. I was the Rudy, so to speak, and coach respected my tenacity. At the time I didn't realize why my coaches did these things for me, like make me captain or give me the chance to score when others were bigger and better then me. But years later I understand what was happening. My coaches were giving Big Ben a chance to see his boy do his thing. And in the process, they gave a young athlete, with tons of emotional problems at home, a place to feel needed, wanted and valued. The gridiron was my place! Here is where I could excel as an athlete and grow into a man. I put that helmet on and transformed into a different person. I eventually grew into an exceptional athlete because my coaches believed in me, gave me responsibility and made me work hard.
I had hard times as I grew, and I was an asshole quite a bit to a lot of people, especially those close to me. I regret that. Junior year, I had a decent season and thought I was better than I actually was. Thus, I didn't work hard going into my senior year and I injured my leg in the first game. I came back and was able to play, but it was a disappointing year. When you get slack, you are going backwards, there is no place for complacency. You must make a conscience decision to work hard to get better, or do nothing and get worse. Maintenance is a fucking joke. I made it a point to never be outworked again. This proved valuable as I had a stellar college career and broke several records.
During these years I had thought about my father a lot and usually did things in his memory, stating things like, "this is for you, dad..." In the meantime, my poor mom, who was there for me the whole time, working her ass off, was just getting back seat attention. I put all my focus into doing things in memory of my father that it never even occurred to me that I should have focused most of my energy into dedicating more things to the person who was there for me now and supporting me every step of the way. My dad was gone but not forgotten, and I dedicated everything to him. My mom was here the whole time, with undeniable support, and barely even recognized and certainly not appreciated enough. I feel bad about my lack of recognition and appreciation for her to this day.
Make sure you recognize the people around you that support you and help guide your journey. No matter how alone you think you are or how much of a leader and maverick you want to be, there is a whole support system around you that you need to be thankful for. If it weren't for them, I promise you, you wouldn't be where you are today.
There is so much more to my story, but I'll save it for another time. The take home point here is two fold. One, always try to notice and appreciate the things that you have, the people that are supporting you, and the growth you get from the people who love and help you. Its important to remember the things you lost, but put your focus in the things you have presently and move forward. Two, if the opportunity ever comes along in your life when you can pick someone up and give them hope, build their confidence, and generally make them feel good about themselves, you better realize the power you have at that moment and do the thing that needs to be done to make that person feel great. You will be remembered forever in their mind as the person who gave them a chance, built their esteem, and literally changed their life. Those moments don't come along with flashing billboards, they are barely even recognizable at the time. But they happen every day. Hopefully, we all notice it and do what we can to empower to next guy, pay it forward. Being a coach is more than showing someone how to get stronger muscles, its about building a better person, from the inside out. This is my way of giving back. This is the real role of the coach, the teacher and the leader in general. Help the other guy be the best they can be and not take responsibility for others success, just teach them what you know and let them flourish.
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