When our son, Paul, was just a toddler, I took him to the yard to try to play catch with him.
After he cried because the squishy ball bounced off his face, I feared I’d have a son who wouldn’t share my love of sports. I had this dream of an idyllic father-son relationship based on sports and other guy stuff. Never mind the reality of a 2-year-old’s hand-eye coordination, or my narrow view about what a father-son relationship should be based on.
Two decades later, I have lived that dream and much more. When Paul walked across the stage Friday in the Frank Erwin Events Center at the University of Texas, he probably winced a little bit from the bum left ankle he hurt playing all those sports. Sorry, Paul. I did my best.
And you did far better than I ever dreamed possible.
During his childhood, Paul played tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball and football and ran cross-country. Early on, I had the crazy notion I could coach his T-ball team. I learned quickly there is perhaps nothing more challenging than trying to explain the rules of baseball to 5- and 6-year-olds: “No, you run to first base after hitting the ball, not third. No, I can’t tell you why.”
Another of my expert tips delivered to Paul’s teammate who fielded second base by sitting on the ground and pouring dirt from his ball cap onto his head: “No, that is not the ready position.”
A few years later, Paul advanced to Little League in Somerville, Mass., where we lived one year during a fellowship I had at Harvard. By then, I had wised up enough to be only an assistant coach, but that proved to be its own adventure.
When I attended a coaches’ meeting before the start of the season, the head of the league lamented the decline in youth participation. I thought to myself that probably was from too many kids playing video games or perhaps the rise in the popularity of youth soccer.
The Little League president had a different theory, though. In a thick working-class Boston accent straight out of the movies, he said, “What can I say? Somerville is changing. I can marry a guy, but I can’t smoke in a bar.”
By seventh grade at Howell Middle School, Paul was playing football with the reckless abandon that had become his trademark. I was a bit callous at that point to his many aches and pains. “Oh, you have a sore shoulder? Rub some dirt on it.”
After finally relenting to his complaints and taking him to the doctor, his mother and I were chagrined to learn he had broken his collarbone. Oops. Mark off Father of the Year as an option.
Paul and I had spent countless hours playing “Champ Bailey,” a game we devised and named in honor of the Denver Broncos’ Hall-of-Fame cornerback. The rules of the game were simple and gave us endless pleasure: Throw the ball high to the other player so he could reach up to make a spectacular snag and drag his feet along the edge of the sidewalk and fall into the grass.
Even so, I cheered inside when Paul decided a rail-thin kid should hang up his football cleats and focus on other sports. Let’s stick with safer sports – or so I thought.
Faster than an Eden Hazard penalty kick, Paul was head over heels in love with soccer. With his select soccer team and his Victoria West High team, we were traveling across this half of Texas. I learned the drive to stadiums, parks and small towns I never knew existed and formed a bond with the other soccer parents as we alternately froze in a driving ice-cold January rain and poured sweat under an unrelenting July sun.
Soccer, as it turns out, is not exactly a safe sport. My heart fell out of my chest when I saw Paul crumple to the ground and not get up after a hard collision on a field in the middle of nowhere, Texas. I raced onto the field as he eventually staggered to his feet. He held on tight as I walked him slowly to our car wondering where the nearest hospital was from this park that seemed to have been forgotten by civilization.
In a panic, I called dial-a-nurse to ask how fast I needed to get a concussion victim to a hospital. She asked matter-of-factly whether he had blood coming out of his ears. When I assured her that, no, I would not be talking to her in a calm voice on the phone if he had blood coming out his ears, she said he should be fine seeing a doctor after the several-hour drive ahead.
During the drive, we managed to hit a traffic jam on a two-lane deserted highway – a tractor-trailer had crashed, stopping vehicles in both directions. Even though his eyes were hypersensitive to light from the concussion, Paul managed to use our GPS to route us around the tie-up.
This story sums up Paul well. Throughout his childhood, Paul has thrown himself headlong into everything he does. He has taken tumbles that scared his parents to death, but he’s always climbed to his feet with a loveable laugh and an unbridled passion for life.
During all those hours in the car, he and I developed the father-son bond I had dreamt about when he was born. Smart, sensitive and funny, Paul can talk in great detail about World War II history, current events and many more sports than I know. We had a beer the other day while his mother and sister shopped, and I thought to myself how lucky I was to have such a wonderful friend who would be with me for the rest of my life. We talked about nothing and everything with complete ease.
In college, he accomplished much more than I ever did. He interned at the McAllen Monitor, the San Antonio Express-News, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune, along with working at the student newspaper. It’s almost inconceivable that a journalism student could have so many internships in only four years.
Next week, we move him to Dallas, where he will work for the Morning News this summer before starting a fellowship covering politics for the newspaper in its Washington, D.C., bureau. I don’t know how I’ll handle having him so far away, but we’ll surely be texting again during Kansas Jayhawk basketball games this winter.
Yes, even though Paul is a proud Longhorn, he has always rooted for my Jayhawks during basketball season, even when we see Kansas play in the Frank Erwin Events Center. That’s what a father will do to you. That’s what a son will do for his dad.