I was just a kid, innocent and full of dreams. Well, one dream anyway….no, no, no, actually that’s not true, there were many dreams. Perhaps they were fantasies, based on the books I was so fond of reading (Conan the Barbarian; the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings; the Grey Mouser; the Wind in the Willows; the westerns of Louis L’amour)….But there were dreams there, dreams of being a silent presence that stood for truth and justice. a dream of doing heroic things….Yes, dreams and fantasies filled my young head.
But one dream seemed to stand out among them, head and shoulders above all else, to live and breathe inside me: to play football. Yes, my world revolved around the Miami Dolphins and the National Football League. I watched every sunday and I died when the Dolphins lost. I loved the playoffs, the super bowl, even the all-star game. when the season ended, it was like the day after christmas, minus the presents.
The only thing that could tear me away from a football game on a sunday back then was the promise of a game of catch out in the street. Well, before I describe playing catch on the street, I ought to first let you in on how I got started with my imaginary football career: I first taught myself to play catch in our playroom in a giant old farmhouse in Lancaster Pennsylvania. I was in first grade when we moved into this place, and it was huge: it had to be several thousand square feet, with three bedrooms upstairs (each with a big closet and its own bathroom) a massive family room and a balcony. the downstairs had two (!) foyers, a large eat-in kitchen and massive dining room, a piano room and a large bedroom with its own bath also. the piece de resistance, though, was the playroom that was just for us kids, about forty feet long and fifteen feet wide, with cabinets all along one side (the cabinets stayed empty; we may have lived in a giant house, but I think we were still on the poor side of things; anyway, it’s not like we had toys and games coming out our ears that we needed storage for….)
Well, I was the only one among us who liked sports, so somehow I ended up playing my own game of catch in the playroom. I would underhand the football against the wall at a certain trajectory, from the side-like, throwing it in the direction I was running, and I could throw myself a pass, actually nice spirals if you can believe it. And I would pass hours doing this, running and catching, reliving the heroics of my favorite wide receivers, mainly Paul Warfield of the Miami Dolphins. (besides the fact that he played for my beloved Dolphins, how could I not be enamored of him, with that name?! Warfield!!! Wow, with a coat of arms featuring a suit of armor and three lions, how could a warrior find a more fitting name? I loved this guy, his speed, his moves, his ability to make amazing catches….and all done in an era that did not really feature a strong passing game)
So in the fourth grade we moved to Miami….I want to cry as I write this, forty years later, thinking of how I felt. Look, let me backtrack: in my life up until then we lived in New York, Atlanta, Detroit, and the quiet pastoral environs of Lancaster Pennsylvania….whence did my dad’s fandom of the Dolphins come from? He employed off-season Atlanta Falcons in the late sixties; he was born and raised in New York and his baseball leanings were New York; we had lived in Detroit and near Philly. he could have been a fan of a half dozen other teams or more…but somehow he was a Dolphins fan (I want to cry also thinking how I never thought to ask him about this)….
Okay, this is still the backtrack, give me a moment: the Miami Dolphins were born the same year as me, 66. Their coach for all of my early memory until adulthood was the iconic Don Shula. I find it fitting that my dad was a fan of this team, as the coach was a disciplined guy, his teams always noted for being among the least-penalized….This epitomizes my parents in my mind, fairness and playing by the rules; playing hard and playing to win, but having class and dignity at all times.
So I was in the fourth grade and my father gets transferred to Miami, Florida. How did this happen? Well, I guess his company just wanted him to go there, but the question of How is about me, and my favorite football team. Perhaps this is the one time in my life that the divine powers thought me worthy of their attention and gave me such a beautiful gift. (for reals though, this is a joke, as the divine granted me my dream come true two years ago, my real REAL dream come true, the wonderful and beautiful Kari…..but other than her, the move to Miami was the one time…….)
Miami from Pennsylvania, and not only that but Lancaster even. From quiet, bucolic farmland to hot and sunny palm trees and ocean and a big city. Miami was the first time I saw a homeless person: we stopped at a stoplight, of course it had to be at night so that young impressionable sensitive worried and frightened me could be properly scared at this, and a one-armed dirty and down-and-out homeless person ran over to clean our windshield and ask for change….I had never seen such a thing. Oh, Miami, the city that taught me a little about the world. Now, we lived out in the suburbs, in a little community called Sweetwater, and you’d think with a name like that it’d be a, I don’t know, something. Well, it was a something, but not really a community, it was a town, but not a community.
Nevertheless, it was close enough to Miami to be considered living in Miami, and I loved that thought, the exotic nature of the place, the sun, the heat, the football team. Oh, my Dolphins. Once I was even a little bit starstruck to hear that Mercury Morris’ (the famed running back for my ‘Fins) son was in my school, albeit a couple grades behind me. Well, perhaps the best thing to happen to me in moving to Miami was my neighbor Elliot. We moved into a duplex at 10981 SW 5th street in Sweetwater (perhaps the only address from my life before the current one that sticks in my mind) and the other half of the ‘plex was occupied by the Martinez’: the grandparents, from Cuba and non-English speaking; the parents, also non-English speaking; two older sons, the eldest of which sported a strong Spanish accent, but spoke English; the second oldest and the most silly of the bunch, partly because he wasn’t so bright, Nestor; a daughter, Annabelle; and Eliezer, a year or two ahead of me.
Everyone called him Elliot, the Anglicized version of his name, but regardless, the point is that he became my sports buddy. He taught me how to play soccer, at which I would become pretty good. He and I would play catch football or baseball (with a tennis ball and our gloves) for hours in the street; we would kick a soccer ball back and forth–we even would play a whole soccer game using the sidewalk as our field! He was always just a little bit better than me at everything, except for catch football, and we were both the best in the neighborhood.
I always had a football as a kid, and often two. I had a rubberized smaller-than-regulation ball from Sears, the Wilson Indestructo (on the ball the indestructo was all lower case, my claim to fame) and a Nerf ball. Oh, blessed powers that be, I loved my footballs. I’ve worked through a few footballs in my childhood, using them until they popped or fell apart, no joke.
Well, Elliot and I would throw a ball back and forth like crazy, we were perfect age for each other, we both loved to run a lot and it was just fun. And the fact that he lived next door, like right next door, exactly right next door, on the other side of the wall for pete’s sake, was like we lived in the same house. It was the next best thing to having a brother who wanted to play with me. And it’s funny, I don’t think I ever thought it was odd that my brother Scott didn’t want to throw a ball with me. He and I never did that, he was easily as athletic as I was, maybe more so, but it wasn’t his bag, not at all. And I never bugged him about it. But me and Elliot would go at it constantly until it was too dark to play any more. Wow, what fun those times were.
And that leads me to the crux of the story.
I can tell you, I felt special. I was good, I mean just about anything thrown in my vicinity was a catch for me. I could catch anything. I could jump pretty good, I had great coordination, I had what they call in the profession ‘soft hands’, meaning that I had excellent touch and could control a ball thrown to me (contrast this with hands of stone, which any ball thrown to them would simply bounce off…get it?).
So here I am, in my heyday (whatever that means…’period of success, vigor’ from wiktionary…whatever): playing catch football just about every day, the Miami Dolphins are perennial contenders, we live close to them, close enough that I got to go see a couple of games with my dad during those years, and when the stadium where they played, the famed Orange Bowl, switched from artificial turf to natural grass, I got to buy a square foot of turf for a keepsake….which I still have today!!! Anyway, I’m in my heyday, my period of success playing football, the best in the neighborhood, the most knowledgable by far (something I’ve always been, in most things I’ve participated in) but yes I was a bit of an authority among the other kids because I knew more of the rules and such.
With all of this in mind, it is no wonder that I felt confident in my prospects to become a professional football player, particularly a wide receiver to follow in my hero Paul Warfield’s footsteps. Granted, I had not played on a team because my mother thought I would get hurt, I had only played lots of catch and two-hand touch, but nevertheless I thought I was the best out there, and I was ready to be groomed for the next step.
One night at dinner the feeling was bubbling up in me, I could not think of anything else, actually I was probably extra-high on some really acrobatic leaping catch I’d made that afternoon out in the street. Here we are, sitting around the dinner table, something the whole family did every night; well, us three youngest kids and my folks were always there, I cannot remember if high-school-age Kay was at dinner all the time. But we were around the table, my father at the head of the table, of course, mom to his left, me on his right, Scott and Net in some order which doesn’t matter anyway. We’re eating some delicious meal mom had made, as she did every night, something with meat, probably white bread and butter, and a vegetable or two, probably mashed potatoes. Mmmmm, maybe it was roast beef and gravy….crap, I can’t remember the particular meal, does it really matter to set the scene?
No, it does not. We are around the table and I finally blurt out in my super-excited state: ‘Dad, do you think I can be a professional football player?’ And there it was…my dream and fantasy, my hope and aspiration, laid out on the table. It was no big secret, I had spoken of it before, of course, as kids do with things they love and partake of. But to actually ask it, to ask permission and opinion, to put it out there as a reality for my fifth grade mind, this was new. And my father answered simply and straightforwardly, the only way he knew how; he did not hesitate or equivocate, he did not gesticulate, he calmly and easily answered me, as a matter of fact.
Crash, tumble, shatter. My world was an avalanche of disappointment, a cascade of broken glass, a tsunami of rejection. I was overwhelmed, blown over, kicked in the gut of my soul, smacked in the back of my head. The whole world was laughing at the curtain closing on my dream, everyone pointing and snickering at me, AT me.
But at our dinner table no-one probably noticed. I can’t recall if Scott, Net or Mom was listening as I asked my dad that question. Nobody took me seriously, I was the youngest, the baby, mom loved me (they all did, that I won’t even joke about) but Scott and Net had no time for my little dreams. And of course in my mind it didn’t matter if they noticed or not, if they were paying attention or not, as the shame and devastation was there and I had a vivid imagination towards embarrassment as a youngster so I could believe they were laughing at me even though in reality they were probably eating and talking and all of a sudden they noticed me, the youngest, crying at something.
Because yes, I cried. My father had reasons for his decree, his opinion, and I will get to those, just be patient, but in that moment it mattered not what those reasons were. I needed softness; if he was going to reject me, he ought to have done so with kid gloves, and let me down gingerly and tenderly. But his ‘no’ negated all that came after, because the ‘no’ was like a hammer shattering the glass of my dream; not like a glass cutter line after line cutting deeper, allowing me to take it in; no, it was a goddam dirty hammer with a clown face painted on the head of it screaming at my dream-glass at a hundred miles an hour and hitting it with a shriek and a shatter and a shrill, piercing laugh that hurt my inner-baby’s-soul ears and pummeled me with an after-rush of shame-filled hot air.
Damn I was hurt.
Well, the old man (he was barely fifty at the time, my current age…) well he went on to explain a little bit. Now first, let me tell you that he did not do so with kid gloves at this point either. He wasn’t consoling me; he wasn’t chastising or patronizing me either, I’ll give him that. He was just pretty matter-of-fact about it all: “It’s really hard to make it in the pros. First you would need to be playing in high school, and playing good enough to get picked up by a college team. And not all high school players make it to college. And then if you play in college, only a handful of those guys make it to the NFL. It’s tough, you need to be the best of the best, and there are hundreds of guys competing for every spot. So I don’t really think you’d make it to the professional level.”
Now, I’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter how much sense that made, I was hurt. I was in elementary school, and I didn’t need to hear the breakdown of how hard it would be to make my dream come true. I probably just needed to hear someone believe in me. Wow, what a concept that would have been. I mean, would the dream really have lasted through the next seven or eight years of schooling? No way, I would not have held on to it and then been crushed to find that I wasn’t going to go to college on a scholarship.
I just was excited right then, and he was not buying into it. And you know, I just thought, right now for the first time, that maybe he was having a tough day, maybe he was in a crappy mood, maybe he was supremely distracted by something and could not really be present. Yeah, that’s all crap too.
I can acknowledge that his words made sense. I know that it would be crazy hard to make it at that level; I know that you’d need to start young. I know that his reasoning was sound and that he was just stating what to him was a fact, common sense. But that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. And anyway, there were much more compelling things he could have used on me: my height, for example, my physical body. He could have pointed out that he wasn’t very tall, actually on the short side of things, and it was likely that I would be about the same, and then he could have pointed out how few small guys made it at that level.
Well, it doesn’t matter too much now, but I’ve got lots to say about this stuff. Mainly my dad could have been a bit more imaginative with the whole thing. Why could he not have seen my intelligence and made a connection there? “well, making it to the big leagues is tough, and it’d be quite a stretch. But have you ever thought about being a coach? You know the rules pretty well, and you love the game, maybe you can continue to learn about it and then you can use your brain in the game. Wow, how about that, creating strategies and drawing up plays? Exciting, huh?”
Or what about this one: “You might be able to make it to the pros. You sure do love the game a lot. But I’ll tell you what, you’re going to need to work real hard at it, okay? It’s not going to come easy. You play a lot out in the street and you run a bunch, but you’re going to need to practice, and practice, and then when you’re real tired, you’re going to need to practice some more. And then you’re going to have to run a bunch. Getting in physical shape for that kind of pounding won’t be easy. So yes, I think you can make it to the pros. But you’ll have to be dedicated to the game, day in and day out. Let’s see if you can focus on it like that for a while, and then we’ll talk about it again.”
For pete’s sake, he could have talked about being a sportswriter, or an announcer, or a trainer or sports doctor. There could have been so many different avenues for him to take that would have meant something to me, his son, and resonated for years to come. Instead I got stuck with his ‘no’. A flat, simple, deflated ‘no’.
On top of that, when i was a grown man my dad told me several times, after my mom was passed, that he thought she was too easy on me. Okay, but he could not stand up to her because ‘she was the mother’. What the hell does that mean?! She was too easy on you, but I did not feel responsible enough or that I had the authority to tell you or her any different. Ugh.
I should be clear: I am not trying to bash my father and his childrearing tactics or abilities. I am relating a story and my reactions to it, but I believe in him. He did an overall wonderful job with his kids and his family and even friends and coworkers. In this one instance I may have some disappointment, but I am not trying to really get down on the guy.
I am in the process now of writing some letters to him, to explain some things about me to him and to possibly let him know how I would treat a kid. I am using the prose piece ‘Desiderata’, going through it line by line and interpreting it to him, in order to explain myself; part of this process that is powerful for me, is that I am letting him know how I feel he has done a wonderful job of being a dad and just a person in this world. (if I haven’t said so, my father passed away about three years ago.)
So I want to express that I love this man, my Father, and I have always had lots of respect for him. This one incident, as brief as it was, I feel could have changed the course of my life had it gone down differently.
Now, let me tell you a converse story: last year I met a retired airline pilot. This guy had flown in the navy and then for major airlines for about thirty years, many different types of aircraft. He’s now retired, I believe due to health concerns, but he sails his own sailboat out of Florida part of the year, he plays piano daily, he is very bright and personable. He spoke of a day in his youth, probably in his teenage years, growing up in the midwest in a large city. He was laying on the family car looking up at the sky and he saw a plane fly overhead. He commented that he would fly one day, that he’d be up there piloting one of those things. His mother, an abusive, mean-spirited person by all accounts and married to a violent abusive alcoholic man who was this guy’s father (by all accounts), well his mother laughed at him and said he’d end up driving a garbage truck there in that dirty town.
I asked him how it made him feel. He said he went out and became a pilot. Plain and simple, no big revenge talk or anything, but he sure as hell didn’t let her stupid opinion of him hold him back. Nope, he went out and did it and had a long career doing it.
Man, I heard that and felt small. Why didn’t I defy my dad’s predictions and go make it in the pros. I could have taken it on myself to become a sportswriter, or a coach or a trainer and sports-medicine guy. (I am not trying to compare my old man to that mean old mom, either; please don’t take it that way, I am simply comparing myself to the pilot, not the parent to the parent. My dad was never abusive, and generally was very supportive.) Yes, I could have done it myself, I could have made it in some way on my own, and I know that if I had that my dad would have been quite proud of me.
But I didn’t. I tried to figure out what I wanted out of life, and it took me quite a while to get there, although I feel pretty good now in saying that I know what I want out of life. I have probably allowed my own fears to get in my way too many times in my life, and I believe I have a lot of fear inside me just on my own, but I also believe that my mom instilled some fear in me, and this one talk with my dad didn’t do anything to help with that funk.
Yes, I should not blame him, this is true. But oh the opportunity he had in that moment to give his kid a big idea. He could have helped me see myself as a giant, as a winner, as a dreamweaver and a cloud catcher. He could have really propelled me onto a different trajectory. Perhaps I could have revisited the question on another day and tried to find a different mood and a different answer.
But that was me. I have always taken things at face value and not put too much curiosity and exploration into them. Well, here at the later stages of my forties I am realizing some things, and now it’s time to realize my childhood dreams. I will not kid myself to think that I can switch gears and get involved in professional sports, and I don’t know that I would even want to now…..But I will make something of myself, and I will not let fear decide what that is.
And I will honor my father’s memory by loving him and speaking of him in positive ways, and pursuing happiness in the most beautiful ways I can imagine. Thanks pop, you grumpy old fart, you turkey. You did a great job.