Staring at the Son

“Do you think I could be good at Soccer?” he asked me from the back seat. My ears perked up. Soccer? That was a surprise. He hadn’t played for three or four years since the last time a cage-rattling ball to the face ended his budding career. His own teammate, a big oaf with an undiscriminating lead foot, managed to drive a clearing shot up into his bespectacled nose. It knocked a lens out of his mangled frames and drew blood and tears from an otherwise civilized season-opening match. And that was it. He was done. He sat out the rest of the game nursing a fat lip and avoided aggressive competition from the safety of the sideline like a draft dodger crossing the border into Canada. Try as I may with words of encouragement, distraction, playful challenges, or sordid bribery, our little Mahatma’s protest against confrontation on the playing field was unwavering. We’d continue to encourage his ‘participation’ and ‘team spirit’ for the remainder of the season, while he simply stood there in non-violent protest watching the balls roll past.

“Soccer?” Now it was time for me to put on my game face… “Sure you’d be good at it.”

“Cause I was just thinking about Fall sports and maybe I could do that one”, he said seeking assurance.

“Sure. Well, you haven’t played for a few years, but you’re fast and you can kick a ball. That’s all you need to start.” The trick here was not to oversell it. You see, one of the things I’ve come to learn about myself as a parent (and a spouse) is that I like to talk way to much. I’m inclined to explain things and offer support and encouragement when the opportunities arise. It should be endearing, and yet my captive audience is not afraid to remind me when they’ve had enough. Either their eyes glaze over with disinterest, or they wander about the room searching for asylum. Sometimes Mom attempts to rescue them from my droning, herself a survivor of my knack for exposition. I used to joke that when she wanted to ‘rest her eyes’ on a long car ride, all I had to do was offer up a fascinating soliloquy on the way anything worked. I don’t do that anymore. They have their electronics while I listen to my music. It’s as though they’ve formed their own little support group for coping with the mechanically inclined. Someday they’ll appreciate the gift of my insightful observations, but for now I waive off the urge to describe a variety of conditioning exercises he might want to try to get in shape and reacquaint himself with his old nemesis, that infernal soccer ball. Instead, I change tactics and redirect the conversation… “Have you thought about any other sports you’ll try this year?”

“I’ll probably do Freshman basketball this winter.”

“Any Spring sport? You gonna play baseball again?”

“Mmmm, I’m not sure. I mean, I liked it last year, but….” he stalls, “ehhhh… I’m not sure.”

“That’s ok. You don’t have to do it again.” Now you’ll have to admit I did pretty well to avert my natural inclination to elaborate. It could have been fun to bequeath my four years of high school soccer experience unto him, but I’m convinced I showed considerable restraint…. until I had another brilliant idea: “You know what you’d be good at?” I asked, cleverly leading my audience into the trap. “How about Track?” Do you see how I did that? I brought the conversation right back around to my own agenda of insightfulness. I wouldn’t belabor the point other than to jokingly assure him that Track was certainly not a contact sport and that the odds of getting smashed in the face with another soccer ball were low. I just thought he would be fast.

He’d been playing basketball for a few years and what he lacked in confidence taking it to the net under defensive pressure, he made up for with darting speed and gangly arms that challenge an offense. His full court dash is noticeably quick and I take great pride when other parents notice that he runs on his toes and wonder aloud “Who is that?” I was understandably optimistic this Spring when he was grouped with the sprinters. In fact, the next day we made a special trip to find a pair of spiked sprint shoes and I was anything but offended later that night when he apologetically asked if I’d mind exchanging the pair we just bought for a different style. He’s never been one to want too much attention and it was nice to see him stepping out of his comfort zone, even if his ruby slippers were to be fluorescent pink with steel spikes.

When I finally managed to catch the tail end of a Home meet with his younger brothers in tow, I made special effort to respect his anonymity. I spotted him when the officials called for the 4×100 relay. He must have been a last-minute substitution. He’d never run a relay before, so I was reasonably uncertain how this would pan out. The handoffs can be tricky and he’d be running with and against upperclassmen. Even though he’s tall at 15, he’s still lanky. Some of the older kids were already built like men. The guy in lane 3 needed a shave.

My boy would be running the anchor leg along the straightaway in front of the home field bleachers so I ushered his brothers toward the finish line. “Guys, let’s move down to the end for a better view.” There were only two schools competing and the stands were virtually empty save a few other parents. “Now listen, you know how your brother doesn’t like to draw attention, right? We’re just gonna sit up in the back so he doesn’t notice us. I don’t want him to get distracted, okay? We don’t need to make a lot of noise.” I think I made myself pretty clear. Just then came the crack of the starter pistol. “Ok, look guys! The race started. Let’s watch…” I astutely narrated for the boys as the action unfolded. By the end of the first three legs, the teams seemed fairly even and despite a clumsy handoff and nearly stepping out of his lane, he was off! From 75 yards out all I could see was that they were close. The tap-tap-tap of spiked plastic soles pounding against the hardtop grew in the few seconds it took them to reach us.

He looked pretty good on approach. His posture was upright, broad shoulders even and square with arms pumping and driving through each coordinated stride. “Here he comes guys!” I pointed like I’d just spotted a whale off the starboard bow, and then suddenly – “OH SHIT!” I jumped up at the sight. The veins in his neck bulged as he strained against the ground. His eyes widely searching as if to glimpse a bear chasing him.

“Look at your brother, guys!” But this bear was racing next to him, a strapping young lad with arms as big as mine and the waistline of an seventeen year old. Shoulder to shoulder they charged past as my pride surged. In my excitement, I forgot the thoughtful restraint I had just asked the boys to maintain and boomed “GO JACOB! GO, GO!!!!” Like Zeus ushering Apollo across the sky in a golden chariot… Like King Leonidas commanding Sparta’s son to victory, a primal reflex blurted “RUN! RUUUUNNNN!!!” I’d lost all reserve and filled the air with a hollering racket to spur him on “GO JACOB! RUN!!!”…

… Now, I will admit that other accounts of the scene I made may not be as flattering. My ‘roar’ may have been more scream-ish. I cannot testify as to the level of the competition that particular afternoon and his team only came in a close second, but in that moment my fleet footed son was glorious!

As I sat down and regained my composure my little 6th grade protégé, an eager student of my infinite wisdom, caught my attention with a clever smirk and said rhetorically “Hey Dad, I thought we weren’t supposed to draw attention with all that cheering?”

“Wha-?” Oh sure, he picks this moment to show me he’s been listening. As the hypocracy of my unabashed enthusiastic outburst sank in, an I-gotcha grin spread across his face. “Yah, but did you see him?! That was my boy right there!” I boasted. “He use to be this big,” I would say cradling my hands together against my chest the way I used to hold all 3 pounds of him the first time he shot out of the gate… Come to think of it, that too was faster than expected.

sunrise

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