My dad died on December 19. He was 91 years old.
While Mom and I were sitting with him in the hospital one night, I started making notes for his eulogy. (He’d suffered a heart attack, and we knew he wasn’t going to regain consciousness. If you’d like to read the eulogy I gave, it’s here.) And while I was writing notes and reminiscing, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in literally decades.
When I was seven or eight years old, I was a football junkie. I would spend hours playing football with my friends. Our favorite game was “Smear,” which had a fairly simple set of rules:
- Tackle the person with the football.
- When the person with the football was tackled, he or she would toss it in the air and someone else would catch it.
When friends were around, this was the game of choice. Sometimes, though, friends wouldn’t be around. And whenever they weren’t, I’d bug my dad to throw the football to me.
Now, you’ll have to take this on faith, but I was a pretty good receiver when I was younger. I wasn’t big or particularly fast, but if the ball came anywhere near me I could usually catch it. My secret fantasy in the early to mid-70s was that one day Bear Bryant would drive past our yard while I was catching passes, stop his car, and walk over to me. He’d shake my hand, and say “Son, I’ve never seen anyone catch a football as good as you. When you get old enough, you’ve got a scholarship to play football at Alabama.”
I hope I’m not spoiling this for you, but I’ll go ahead and tell you that never happened. Didn’t stop me from dreaming, though.
So whenever my friends were absent, I’d bug Dad to throw the ball to me. Couple of quick notes: First, my parents were older when I was born. Dad was 44, and Mom was 41. I was not a planned baby. I was a “Surprise! Middle age isn’t hard enough, so here’s an infant!” baby.
Second, Dad worked shift work at a paper mill. He was a dispatcher, which meant he spent most of his days (or nights) on his feet, walking back and forth on a concrete floor. By the time I was born, he already had bad knees and hips.
So by the time I was seven or eight, and Dad was 51 or 52, he would come home from work tired and sore. His knees and hips would be swollen and throbbing. I, of course, didn’t know this. All I knew was that Dad was finally home, and now there was somebody to throw the football to me. He’d barely get through the door before I’d be dancing around him, bugging him to come outside and play.
Looking back on it, I’m honestly surprised I didn’t get clouted upside the head at least once. Dad wasn’t that kind of man, though. I know he couldn’t have played catch with me every single time I asked, but in my mind’s eye he said “Okay” a lot more times than he said “Not today, I’m too tired.”
Of course, after an eight-hour shift on the concrete floor of the paper mill, standing in the yard and throwing a football was too painful for him. Again, I didn’t know this. He solved the problem by getting a folding lawn chair - the kind with the woven plastic or vinyl straps as the seat and back - sit down in it, and kind of fling the ball across his body to me. He was surprisingly accurate with this unorthodox approach. I, of course, was mortified that my dad would sit in a lawn chair to toss the football with me. Buster Sanders, father of my best friend Slade up the street, would actually play Smear with Slade sometimes. That’s how cool HE was. Still, even I knew Dad was was older than Mr. Sanders, so I tried not to complain TOO much about the lawn chair.
I would run patterns, and Dad would fling the ball to me, and sometimes I’d make a spectacular catch and he’d brag about it later when we were eating supper. He never once said anything about his hips or knees. I took it for granted that he enjoyed playing catch as much as I did.
Now I’m 47, not even the same age Dad was when I’d bug him to play catch. And I’ve got young boys of my own, and sometimes when I come home from work (in an air-conditioned office, with an ergonomically designed chair and carpet on the floor), they’ll ask me to play a game or play baseball or whatever. And sometimes I do, and sometimes I say “Not tonight, guys, I’m too tired.”
And it struck me that night in the hospital that my Dad was a much better man than I’ll ever be. I didn’t realize the sacrifice he made at the time, and it humbles me and inspires me at the same time.
So: What sacrifices or other things did your mom or dad make or do for you that you didn’t realize were a big deal at the time?
And, if you don’t mind, one word of advice - tell them “Thank you” if you can.