My dad once told me a story that after his last collegiate football game, my grandfather glided up to him and said, "I enjoyed every one of 'em." His father never missed a game, sometimes suffering through a four-hour ride back home with work the next day. His line to my father was never forgotten, and as my father picked me up at Grand Valley State University a day after my last knee operation, knowing that my career had hit a flatline, he quietly, but proudly said, "I enjoyed every one of 'em." Through my tears and disappointment, I was honored to hear that.
As a former athlete and a lover of sports, it is hard to sit in the stands, and it becomes much more complicated when watching my kids play. Like other parents, my kids are my everything; I want them to have fun, to play hard, to be a good teammate and, yeah, to be the best. In everything. And that makes it complex. I never want to be That Guy: that fool in the stands we all detest and that guy whose kids are embarrassed to have at the game, but it is easier said than done to be the quiet, content spectator when watching my kids. I am a teacher, so when I see an opportunity to correct, to help, to teach, it is a reflex to jump in and do so—but maybe not here, maybe not at the fields where my kids play. My presence, and just that, can be their presents.
As a teacher, I love to learn, and watching my kids play ball has taught me a lot. Sports are their experiences, their sanctuaries, their escapes. Not mine. I nag and rant enough at home about their rooms, their dishes, their manners. With sports, I want to be seen and not heard.
As my little athletes get older and play in more advanced leagues, I know they feel the expectations and weight mount. My daughter is a soccer goalie—the next Hope Solo (the one without the legal issues, please) in my dreams—and man, is it stressful to be a goalie's dad. The excitement swells when she makes a big stop. When she lets in a goal, I worry for her. But she grabs the ball from the net, throws it to the ref, and is ready to stop the next rush. I have learned she doesn't need me chirping or advising—she has great peers and mentors on the field who make her stronger and better.
I have watched my son—the next Miguel Cabrera in my dreams—strike out, and immediately look back at me. I want to instruct him, but also hug him because he feels let down. Like my daughter, he just wants to please everyone, his parents mostly. When he does well at his hitting lessons, and Coach Bob praises him, he gets an unbelievable smile. I have learned that hearing "sweet nothings" or constructive criticisms from someone other than his dad can do more for him.
What my kids' teammates, coaches and opponents offer them right now far outweighs what I provide from the stands. By a lot. That is hard for me to say. Hard for someone who needs to have some control, for a dad who thinks he knows what to do and what to say.
I someday plan on telling both my athletes, "I enjoyed every one of 'em." Because I do. Hopefully it won't be for a long time, and hopefully it will follow a World Cup and maybe even a World Series. (It's almost Father's Day, so let me have that fantasy, OK?) My biggest dream, though, is that someday my kids will say they just loved knowing that I was there, watching them from the stands.
Written by Cliffton Young who teaches English at Muskegon Community College and is married with two children. Collegiate scouts interested in either child athlete may contact him directly at his Rockford home (Division 1 inquiries only please).