I'm at the Notre Dame 29-yard line and Joe Theismann's errant pass
is zeroing in on me. I intercept it and run it back to the 14.
Tailback Joe Hudson takes a pitch from our quarterback, Dave
Shelbourne, and we, huge underdog Northwestern, are up, 10-0.
Yeah? Huh? How do you like that, you screaming, green-derbied,
Now, all these years later, I'm the man in the middle. ¬∂ And the
middle is a swirling place. I am, to varying degrees, baffled,
amused, overwhelmed, depressed, eager, angry, melancholy,
innocent, guilty, cheerful, yearning, daffy. And I know this is
a life condition. ¬∂ Draw a circle and label the area outside
the circumference death and label the inside such things as mice
in the cabinet where dog food is, bad knee, 401(k) uncertainty,
bald spot, bad back, proms, oil changes, credit-card shock, boy
who won't listen to Dad's sex talk, woodchuck under porch,
finger that bends sideways, press boxes, family's five
cellphones with incomprehensible bills, tuition, thousands of
hot dogs, lingering affection for Jack Daniel's, unfinished
projects from books to the door that won't close on the garage
that has raccoons running rampant inside, Madonna (the
children's author) nausea, dog nightly rummaging through home's
waste cans, stained carpets, clogged gutters, fear of darkness,
girls' hair dryers everywhere, girls' hair on floor, hair
everywhere, endless MTV Real World crap, ridiculous auto
insurance premiums, basement from hell, fear of nuclear war
('60s style), memories.
But most of all label the inside of the circle children.
And shade everything with sports.
December 29, 2003
"Did you wear a jock?" my 12-year-old son asks. His name is Zack,
but he doesn't like being written about, so I will call him Z.
"Hell, yes. Absolutely." I'm in the kitchen, watching
SportsCenter. "Boo-yah!" was the last word I heard.
"See," says my wife, Judy. Something was under discussion. As
always I am, like the title of my daughters' favorite movie,
"You have to wear one," says Judy.
"But it's too hard!" Z whines. A set-to is coming. The conditions
"For what?" I ask, involvement forced.
"Football, and I don't want to."
"The plastic thing hurts."
"What plastic thing?"
"The hard thing. You know!"
I spin away from the tube.
"That's a cup. A jock is the soft thing."
"Oh," says Z.
I'm 11, maybe 12, about Z's age, and my dad has stopped the car
in our driveway. It's gravel, and I covet cement or blacktop. I
dream about a surface that is smooth and true. This is Peoria,
Ill., early '60s. My backboard is nailed to the garage wall above
the twin, pale green, hinged doors of the unheated garage
connected to our house by what was then referred to as a
breezeway. My court, such as it is, consists of the uneven,
crushed-limestone trapezoid that spreads from the garage toward
Picture Ridge Road in front. I groom the driveway often--raking,
shoveling, filling in pits--but I can't change what it is.
The sun has set, and before we go into the house for dinner my
dad is giving me the speech. "The penis of the bull..." he is
saying, and I want to disappear. I see my backboard through the
windshield of our wood-paneled station wagon, see the garage
doors, which are so close to the hoop that a kid can demolish
himself on a layup, but which also can be used for
Spiderman-style, two-handed dunking.
"The egg is fertilized..." Dad is saying, and I am reminded, not
for the first time, of the liberating vacuity and prescribed
simplicity of sport. Now, so many years later, I see where Z is
There are four kids: Lauren, 21, Cary, 19, Robin, 16, and Z. Last
spring Lauren and Cary's respective club water polo teams made it
to the national collegiate tournament held at Carthage College in
Kenosha, Wis. Carthage, as fate would have it, is a mere 45
minutes from our house in suburban Chicago.
Lauren goes to Colorado. Cary goes to Dartmouth. Their teams were
on opposite sides of the bracket, so they had a chance to meet in
the championship game. I had determined in advance that I would
not be present for that. I would be in a hallway, or in the
parking lot, or quite possibly in a Wisconsin roadhouse, talking
to my friend Jack.
Well, it didn't happen. Dartmouth took third, behind Cal Poly and
Michigan State. Colorado finished eighth.
But I was amazed when the entire Dartmouth team came to visit us
at our house during the tournament. Two nights later the Colorado
girls did the same. There were my daughters, tall and tough and
pretty, with their sports buddies. I grew up when girls were
How did I grow up? Like every other kid I knew. My dad was a
bomber pilot in World War II. My mom took care of the household.
My dad's nickname in our neighborhood--a name that stands to this
day, in his 83rd year--was Sweetie. He would come home from work,
and I'd say, "Let's play catch," and he'd make a few tosses,
jokingly complain about "bursitis" and "rheumatiz." Like every
other kid's dad I knew, Sweetie worked. He came to my games when
he could, supported me in whatever sports I wanted to play. And
that was that. Guys I knew didn't play catch with their dads.
They played catch with one another.
Somebody was smoking in the basement at the Friday night
get-together--"Not me!" comes the refrain from each of the
kids--and somebody opened one of the screenless windows down
there and, unbeknownst to anyone, a squirrel sneaked in. I walk
downstairs today, Sunday, and nearly have a heart attack when I
see something move. The crazed rodent has already chewed away at
the frames of all the basement windows. Of course, the offending
window is now thoughtfully closed. I crouch on one side of the
messy room with the Rainbow Brite dolls and Barbie cars and
plastic soldiers scattered about. The squirrel perches on the
other. We stare at each other. Now what?
I am in my backyard in Key West in 1979. This is where I moved as
a young single man for 3 1/2 years because I had no
responsibilities. I wanted to get away from Chicago winters, yes,
but year-round 70-game softball seasons were the spice.
I am looking through a slit in the ragged cane fence, the kind
you buy at the lumberyard and unroll, at my backyard neighbor,
Peter Taylor, a kindly, 62-year-old writer from Tennessee, who
will, in the not-too-distant future, win the Pulitzer Prize for
his novel A Summons to Memphis.
Peter is telling me that he has been diagnosed with diabetes.
"The doctor allows me 1 1/2 ounces of vodka per day," he says
stoically. "And he'd prefer nothing." He describes the way he
anticipates and stretches that single, frowned-upon drink, mixed
with a small portion of tonic and slice of lime, every evening on
the porch with his wife. And yet, he says, the single drink,
sweet as it is, is almost more pain than comfort, as it signifies
in its frugality what is lost. As I look at first one then the
other of his sad blue eyes as they appear through the narrow
slit, I think of the recent days I had spent on assignment with
Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in Gainesville.
The three of us were in the dugout at a University of Florida
game. Mantle asked Maris why he quit baseball so soon after going
from the Yankees to the Cardinals.
"Aw, Mick," said Maris to his old roomie. "I hurt my wrist, and
when they saw I couldn't hit the curve, I was done."
Peter Taylor and Rog--they sounded the same.
I walk into the kitchen, and Z is watching the Cubs on WGN and
standing and singing. He is singing to the tune of Handel's
Messiah, and these are his words: "And Hee Seop Choi, for-ever,
and ever. Alleluia! Alleluia!"
A boy is standing inside the front door of our house. He is
wearing a tuxedo or something like one that looks about as
comfortable on him as a starched collar on a rapper. He is here
to take one of my slender, athletic, shiny-haired daughters to
the high school prom. He seems nice enough, though after saying
hello, we don't speak. What could I possibly say to such a fraud?
"Dad," says Cary, "we had the homecoming bonfire last night. They
wouldn't let us wear our swimsuits--the administration said it
was sexist. And, I mean, that's our uniform. So we wore cutoff
T-shirts and grass hula skirts instead, and we had writing on our
stomachs. It was great!"
"Didn't it snow in Hanover last night?"
"Yeah, a little. I'll send you e-mail photos. Bye!"
I am falling, falling, falling. Mel Gray is catching a touchdown
pass from Dan Pastorini over my descending body in the East-West
Shrine Game many years ago. Falling, falling.
Z wants to play on the junior high heavyweight tackle football
team. He weighs only 123 pounds and should be a lightweight, for
which the cutoff is 130. But if he plays with the lightweights,
he will have to be a lineman. As a heavy, he will be perhaps the
lightest kid in the league, but he'll be able to run with the
ball or catch it, and play strong safety, which is all he wants
I don't want him to play at all. And yet, I am proud that he
wants to. What is wrong with me?
It is after midnight as I come down the outdoor stairs from my
office above the garage. The moon is out, illuminating my yard in
shades of pen-and-ink. I see a basketball next to the driveway. A
Frisbee. Two bats, one a Chicago Tribune-sponsored giveaway from
old Comiskey Park, the other an illegally weighted 16-inch
softball bat, made by a former men's league teammate two decades
ago, in his basement, with a lag bolt being the ingredient hidden
beneath the epoxied sawdust. There is a skateboard, a Nerf
football, a real football, a bike on its side, a hard plastic
baby Jesus that was obviously stolen months ago from somebody's
outdoor nativity scene. "I have no idea how it got here," Z said
when I accosted him. "It was just here," agreed his friend Alex.
All this stuff was supposed to have been picked up, put away. The
plastic Jesus, I don't know. It rained earlier and there are
puddles in the depressions on our blacktop driveway--the driveway
of my childhood dreams. They are precisely where Robin parks the
girls' car, the one her sister rolled several years ago on a
gravel road and that has a missing fender, an ill-fitting
windshield and a passenger-side door that doesn't close right. I
drive the car into the garage, into the stall with the door that
is permanently open. It is the stall into which a raccoon came
two summers ago and craftily figured out how to scale the car,
the door, and then steal the drying fishhead I had dangling from
the ceiling on a string. It was the head of an eight-pound
northern pike Z had caught on an Upper Peninsula lake on the very
day his grandfather Hansen died back in Chicago. I cut the head
off, propped the ferocious-looking mouth open with two pine
sticks, let most of the stink evaporate in the Michigan sun, and
then brought it home for final drying and shellacking. It would
be a trophy of joy and sadness. Then it was gone, just the string
The puddles in the driveway wound me. Here in the still night, I
feel myself sliding, slip-sliding, unable to slow anything down,
to accomplish anything, to feel in control, to be more than a
rider on a runaway bus. The growing dents in the pavement will
fill with water, then with ice, then they will crack and split,
and soon Z and I and his pals, and even Cary and Lauren and their
boyfriends will no longer be able to dribble properly on this
court of which I am so proud, the one Z and I laid out with a
lane and blocks and free throw line, using blue and yellow and
white spray paint, spending one afternoon getting the dimensions
right, just like at the high school.
"I am not parking in the garage!" Robin had declared. "I was
stung four times by bees when you were out of town, and my leg
was so swollen! And you still haven't gotten the nest."
But I will get it. It's in a hole between the doors. I know I
will. I just need time.
Cary has used my airline miles to fly to Hawaii this summer to
visit one of her Dartmouth swim team pals, Kristin Simunovich. In
L.A., Cary joined up with another swimmer, Nicole Zarba, from the
Boston area. There was the trauma the three went through, with
all the other Dartmouth swimmers and divers, male and female,
when the swimming and diving programs were abruptly cut before
Thanksgiving 2002. Cut for that old standby, budget reasons. Cary
was a freshman and had been at school six weeks. Like the other
swimmers, she freaked. She had been recruited by the school,
wooed by the school and had worked her butt off to get in. After
fund-raising, campuswide protests and total student
mobilization--including putting the teams up for sale on eBay
(top bid: $212,000)--the humiliated administration buckled and
brought the swimmers and divers back.
But we don't talk about it much. Cary is still too hurt.
Especially by the administration's now acting as though this
little revolt was a joyous bonding experience, a graduate course
in competitive cooperation and financial adventurism. One morning
in August I looked at the refrigerator door and saw a form letter
of congratulations to the swimmers for their successful campaign
from the school dean, the same dean who had said the team "would
never be back." Cary had taped it there. Across the page she had
written, BULLS---, in red ink.
The three girls in Hawaii are going to participate in something
called the Roughwater Swim, off Waikiki, a storied 2.4-mile race
through currents, surf and the odd sea animal. This sounds like
as much fun to me as a flogging. But this is not my race.
Swimmers are different.
"Be careful," I say to Cary, from 5,000 miles away. "O.K.?"
"I will, Dad." The girls have been climbing mountains and surfing
to stay in shape.
But Tropical Storm Jimena is sending out winds, and on the day of
the race the Pacific is a treacherous hostess. Of the 947
swimmers who start the race, 590 can't finish and 361 have to be
rescued, some by helicopter.
"This is the strongest current we've had in 34 years," Roughwater
committee president Ted Sheppard will tell The Honolulu
I was frantic with worry.
"They made us quit," Cary says to me by phone, in disgust, the
following day. "We went off in stages, and my group got the worst
current. We were passing people, and everyone was going backward,
but we were going backward slower than they were. I'd been
swimming for over two hours when they stopped me, and I was just
getting to the easy part."
In a pool Cary can swim a mile in about 18 minutes; 2.4 miles in
probably 50 minutes. In this race she still had more than half a
mile to go. But she would have made it. No question about it. My
worry all along was that she wouldn't stop. Even with a tidal
wave on the horizon.
Somehow I am now an assistant coach for Z's football team. Before
I took that three-day-a-week volunteer job, I watched one
practice from my car, reading newspapers. Then, two days later,
on a gorgeous afternoon, I watched while seated under a tree,
mesmerized by the smell, the light, the timeless machinations of
this hormonal coming-out party before me. "Hey, Mr. Telander,"
said one of the rec-center staff members pleasantly, startling me
in mid-reverie. That was all it took to sign me up.
My Key West team, Blossom's Grocery, is playing a night game at
Perry Court near the naval housing over by Garrison Bight. On my
team is Richie Powell, the younger, larger brother of former
major league player Boog Powell. Richie goes about 6'4", 280.
He's a sweet guy. Between innings he sits in the dugout and
smokes cigarettes and drinks beer. He has a catlike quickness,
even at his size (he was once a grand discus thrower) and in this
slo-pitch, limited-arc league, when you throw him a strike, he
will hit it out of the park. The ball just goes. Guys on both
teams always laugh at the sound of the concussion. The ball, when
Richie hits it in one of these night games, will leave the ring
of diamond light and disappear into the black sky before
reappearing in descent--almost an afterthought--awhile later,
far, far on the other side of the fence.
But the pitchers in the league are no longer pitching to Powell.
They intentionally walk him--with the bases empty, loaded, no
outs, two outs, anything in between. Powell has been walked four
straight times tonight, on pitches he can't reach even by jumping
across the plate and flailing at like a man trying to smack a
moth with a newspaper.
"I'm not going," he tells the ump after the final ball four. He
stands. He looks down. He hits the plate again and again with his
bat and then digs up dirt with his shoes and covers the plate so
that it is invisible.
"No," Powell says. "No more."
I watch from the dugout, fascinated. What a strange game this is,
I'm thinking, that lets you do this to a man.
Powell stares at the ump, unmoving.
The ump calls the game, and we go home.
In November of last year, my meniscus tears on a three-point shot
at the noon game at Barat College. A click, and there is that
funny pain. You know, you just know. One of the Bears' team
doctors, Gordon Nuber, scopes me before Thanksgiving. Fast, easy,
and the knee feels O.K. 36 hours later. But that's all it feels
today--O.K. It swells all the time, and I can't hoop with the old
gang. In the old days the sawbones used to say you don't need
cartilage. Sure. And to think I hate, and have always hated,
Z was offered jersey number 34 for the heavyweight league, but he
said no and took 33. "Thirty-four's Walter Payton's number," he
told me when I asked why. "He was too good."
Why did Lauren and Cary become accomplished swimmers? Z, too.
Even Robin, before she quit swimming for socializing. Because we
were down in Key West for Thanksgiving vacation, 17 years ago,
two of the kids not even born, and there was a tiny swimming pool
in the back deck of the house we'd rented on Elizabeth Street.
The pool was maybe 20 feet long by 10 feet wide, a nightlife
lounging tub, really, with hibiscus and bougainvillaea all about,
and Judy had just opened the double French doors to the deck, and
Cary walked over to the pool and tried to step, in her little
pink Velcro-strapped sneakers, onto the surface of the water. She
sank instantly, and I jumped in fully clad and pulled her out. My
heart was beating wildly. I had never felt this way.
Lauren and Cary took swimming lessons soon after at a community
pool in the suburb north of ours. They were facile in the water,
and the next thing I knew, they had racing suits and goggles and
were entered in some summer meets, and one thing led to another.
I remember Lauren winning a race, her front teeth still not all
the way in, and her smiling in wonderment and confusion. Why did
adults care so much? Why was her dad misty-eyed?
I remember later in that Thanksgiving trip sitting right next to
three-year-old Cary, now in her tiny suit and inflated arm bands,
and how she was crouched on the side of the pool, at the deeper
end, splashing water with one hand toward the shallow end. What
was she doing? She put her face very close to mine, as she did
"I want the blue water to go down there," she said.
Z and four of his buddies are cutting through the fence behind
our house to watch the Division III Lake Forest College football
team play a game on its home field. "Who are they playing?" asks
"Beloit," says Z.
"Who are they?"
"I don't know," says Z. "But they have cool jerseys."
"What would happen if I did this after a touchdown?" Z asks as he
holds his Wilson TDY football and does a damn good Ali shuffle.
"You would be yanked out of the game on the spot by the man known
as your father."
"What if I did this?"
He spins the ball like a top and draws imaginary six-shooters
from imaginary holsters and fires at the thing.
"You would have to explain to your friends why your dad put you
in the car, drove off, and you never played football again."
He smiles at me, comforted.
He gets the ball and rolls it like it is a single die and snaps
"And what if I did this?" he says.
"You would be cast into your room and, like Byron's prisoner of
Chillon, never see the light of day again. Much less a football."
He is delighted.
In our town's opening high school football game, against a highly
ranked team, our fullback scores a touchdown in overtime to draw
his team to within two. Make a two-point conversion and the game
Z and his seventh-grade pals are watching as the fullback stands
over his downed foe and taunts him, receiving an unsportsmanlike
conduct penalty. The ball is moved back 15 yards for the extra
point. Of course, our team can't convert a two-point play from 18
yards out, and the game ends 28-26.
I am worried that my son will not see the stupidity in the
fullback's outburst. But it seems he does.
"That was ill," says Z.
In my Peoria-area conference, the Mid-State Nine, the toughest
team was Pekin High. Pekin was good in football and most other
sports, and in both my freshman and senior years it won the
Illinois state basketball championship, crushing downstate and
Chicago teams en route. I usually had to guard Pekin's
heavy-bearded white forward, Fred Miller, when my Peoria
Richwoods team played the school. Miller was a muscular 6'4", and
he could dunk, and would. This was unheard of for white guys back
then, and Pekin was all white. But Pekin was different. Times
were different. The school's official nickname was the Chinks.
"You are ruining my life!" Robin yelled. And then the door
slammed. The hinges have been fixed, since we've been in this
house, four times. Once, I told her, or maybe it was her sister
who was then in that room, that when the door came off its hinges
the next time, it would stay like that. And it did, for more than
a month, propped against the jam like a plywood sheet in a lumber
yard. What her mother and I wanted Robin to do was go to a field
hockey day camp for three days, since she was going to try out
for that sport at her high school, and everybody who would make
the team was going. Robin has a very active social life, and this
camp, to which she had initially agreed to go, was now a
cast-iron anchor on her winged soul.
"You don't care about me at all!" she hollered, having
reappeared. She went back into her room. She came out again.
"I will never treat my children the way you treat me!"
Judy and I have to leave town for part of the weekend, and when
we return the house looks different. "It was not a party," says
And those are not Busch Light cans in the evergreens.
Phone message: "Mr. Telander, this is Dr. Tom Wiedrich, getting
back to you."
Wiedrich is a hand specialist I visited a while back. He told me
then there wasn't much he could do for the damaged ring finger on
my left hand other than fuse it. But then I couldn't play the
guitar at all. And playing is something I enjoy, even if I don't
do it well. I tore the ligament on the inside of that finger when
the digit got stuck in a guy's jersey back in college, and over
the years the thing has bent more each time an errant ball or
body has hit it. Now it looks ludicrous and is swollen and hurts,
and I can barely play a C chord.
Dr. Wiedrich told me to call him in a year or so to talk about
the new artificial finger joints being developed. I'd take one of
those in a flash. How cool would that be? An artificial joint.
That's why I called.
Our heavyweight team's tailback, who was standing behind the
fullback in the I formation, has dropped to the ground,
face-first, gagging, as I was explaining a play to him. His
retching noises have me petrified. I'm thinking: grand mal
seizure, a burst aorta, poison. Two other dad coaches come over.
We kneel down. The boy spasms, making horrible sounds. Someone
needs to call the paramedics. Then the youth is silent, still
facedown. Dear God. Abruptly he rises to his knees. "Whew," he
says at last.
"Are you all right?" we all say again and again. "What's wrong?"
"My mouth guard was in a funny place."
Judy and I are watching the Colorado-Colorado State football game
on TV. The weather is growing bad at Invesco Field, and soon the
game is delayed because of lightning. I call Lauren on her
cellphone, certain that she is there.
"I'm like freezing," she says. "I'm wearing summer stuff. We were
tailgating. But now there's nowhere to go."
As we talk, the game is restarted. "The rivalry is pretty
intense, isn't it?" I ask. Yes, Lauren replies. The CSU
quarterback said some cocky stuff about the Buffs, she tells me.
How are Colorado students taking it?
"The guys around me are chanting that they want the quarterback
to be a quadriplegic."
"You don't have to follow me. I can go to bed by myself!" says Z
huffily. "I'm not four."
No, he's 12. He still has a high voice, and he doesn't smell. But
he'll go days without a shower if you don't ride him.
"Don't follow me!"
It's so hot here in South Bend, but it's the Fourth of July
weekend and our seventh-grade travel basketball team has to play
in a tournament at Notre Dame over the holiday. Whoopee. Myself,
I'd rather be on my deck with a beer or at the beach or a picnic
someplace. In a hot little gym on the second floor of the Joyce
Center we begin our second or third game. I've lost count. My
ability to care has been severely crimped. Suddenly my friend, a
former Division I baseball player, is screaming at the ref. A
onetime basketball referee himself, my pal is red-faced and
furious. Not only that, he is charging onto the floor. "You do
not have the right to tell me to shut up!" he is screaming. Mouth
spray is flying. His neck veins look like snakes.
The ref--a young, muscular black man--is coming toward my friend.
Oh, Jesus. "You cannot tell me to shut up!" shouts my friend. My
friend is himself a muscular, if paunchy, guy. Now the ref is
yelling and his neck, too, is ready to explode. "Sit down and
shut up!" he bellows.
I step onto the court and get between the two. Is this what
you're supposed to do? If I don't do it, who will? I put one hand
on each man's chest, like a contestant in one of those twisted
World's Strongest Man contests. Except I'm not very strong.
I can feel each man's heart pounding. I can feel each man
flexing, preparing. I can see the anger in their eyes, the
outrage, fear. I have no awareness of being at a boys' basketball
game. None whatsoever.
We're three games into the football season, and Z's twiglike arms
are covered with bruises. There is a scab on his jaw. Cuts on his
legs. But last week he caught a 65-yard pass and then made
receptions on three plays in a row. He nailed a kid on a punt
coverage. "He's a tough kid," says one of our volunteer dad
coaches, Jim Covert, a two-time Pro Bowl lineman for the Bears in
Yes, but he's a kid, a toothpick. I sometimes see him in the
chair in his room, drawing skateboards, singing to himself. He
has stuffed animals on his bed. I worry.
Lauren and Cary were ecstatic. Their 200-yard medley relay team
had just set an Illinois high school record at the prelims of the
state meet in Winnetka on Friday. Lauren swam backstroke and Cary
swam breaststroke, and--guess what?--Dad was pretty excited too.
Now it is Saturday, finals day, and the race is on. The screaming
and splashing and echoing din are almost more than I can take.
Florence Mauro, the best swimmer on our team, a state champion in
the butterfly two years before, is churning through the water
against Mary DeScenza, the previous year's champ, from Rosary
High. DeScenza, whose team's nickname is the Beads, thrashes into
the narrow lead. We are losing ground (losing water?). Now it is
up to the freestylers, and they roar home in a photo finish. The
times flash on the scoreboard: Rosary: 1:46.37; our team:
1:46.44. Both times break the state relay record we set less than
24 hours earlier.
But the Beads have won. By .07 of a second. The interval between
your two hand slaps when you attempt to bang both hands down
simultaneously on a table. My daughters are destroyed. How many
thousands of hours have they swum for this? Then, too, what's
wrong with second place? Right.
Three of the girls on our medley team will go on to swim in
Division I--Mauro will get a full ride to Arizona State--but the
damage is done. It helps only marginally when two years later
DeScenza swims the United States' fastest 100-meter fly at the
world championships in Japan.
"I'll never get over it," Lauren said the other night while home
from college. "Not really."
"The news isn't good," says Dr. Wiedrich. "The artificial joints
have mostly failed. There's just too much stress on them. It's
unfortunate. Check back in a year or so."
I thank him. I know for certain that I am too old for a sports
injury to be cool or a status symbol or anything other than a
dent in the armor that is failing, failing, failing. Before
Cary calls. She is studying in her dorm room, and her roomies can
be heard in the background. They are all swimmers. Nicole is
icing her shoulder, as she does every day. Liz has a damaged
thumb and has to tape her hand into a ball to swim. Kristin hurt
her wrist while body surfing in Hawaii and is still rehabbing.
Cary is just tired.
"We did 20 100's on a minute-thirty," she says of a segment of
their late practice. "And I swam 1:03's."
I know this makes her proud. She's not injured, is she?
"No, I just can't raise my arms."
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday they swim for two hours and lift
weights for an hour. On Tuesday and Thursday they lift for an
hour at 6 a.m., then swim for an hour, then swim for two more
hours in the afternoon. On Saturday they lift from 8:15 to 9:30
a.m., then swim for two hours.
What time do you get up for the 6 a.m. practices? I ask.
"Five-forty," she says. When do you sleep? I ask.
"Oh, you know, twice a day. Like two naps."
Not long ago I asked Cary and Lauren's Arizona State pal Florence
how quickly she could fall asleep, at any time of night or day.
"Oh, 30 seconds, tops," she said. "Probably less."
The players have this habit of being distracted. I am terrified
for all of them, with their skinny necks and fuzzless faces,
being led from childhood into this violent vortex--is there any
need at all for prepubescent kids to play tackle football?--and
yet I think they should at least pay attention when I talk.
Just two days ago, after our gung ho, young and impassioned head
coach had orchestrated a tackling drill, about which he
rhapsodized in a way that reminded me of the ways I had heard NFL
linebackers such as Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus rhapsodize
about collisions, I noticed two of our guys crying silently. One
was the biggest kid on the team, larger than me, and I am 6'1",
200. Why were they crying? The tackling, their grand collisions
resounding with noise and hoopla, had hurt. I wanted to protect
them, these boys I barely knew. But how?
Today I am running a skeleton passing drill. Our fullback isn't
"Hey!" I yell. I walk toward him, his expression all but obscured
by helmet, face mask, cheek pads, mouth guard. He isn't big. I
look at his pale arms. They look odd. That's because, I notice,
he has used a green ink marker and lined them from biceps to
wrist with a spiderweb of thick green veins.
I start to say something. But I can't help it: I buckle in
Robin seems content with no sports in her life at the moment.
There are times when I think she does nothing but brush her hair
and look in the mirror. Then she tells me, as she rushes past one
day, that she has gotten an after-school job working with
children at a fitness center.
Another week goes by. I tell her that her long hair looks nice,
so thick and lustrous.
"I'm cutting it off," she tells me. "For kids with cancer. It has
to be at least a foot long. It's called Locks of Love."
Then she is gone.
The sweep has been a long time developing, and Z is closing fast
from his safety position. The other team's flanker, number 32,
peels back full tilt, out of Z's vision, and launches himself
headfirst into Z, his helmet under Z's jaw, and both boys are
flying through the air, feet off the ground, and I know that Z is
unconscious before he hits the grass. I sprint onto the field,
and the trainer is already there, a female with a blonde
ponytail, and she is kneeling beside Z as he lies flat on his
back. His eyes are closed, and he is not moving. I look at his
little boy's face through his big man's armor, and I feel as if I
am looking at all my sins, all my stupidity, all my ignorance.
I hold Z's limp hand. Finally his left foot is moving. He is
moaning. The trainer asks me to hold Z's helmet steady as she
checks his legs, his arms. Earlier in this game Z had been part
of a big pileup on a kickoff, and his lip had been bloodied and
he had been slow to get up. The trainer had given him the
concussion test. What grade are you in? "Sixth," he had replied.
"I mean, seventh." He laughed. She didn't.
What were the three words I asked you to remember? "Textbook,
car, water-bottle," he said. He was right. Even I had forgotten
them. But there are no concussion tests now. None needed. There
is a ragged cut on Z's jawline where the main force of the blow
was focused. How could a father allow this?
Finally, Z is alert. Minutes have gone by. He is helped to his
feet. We get him to the bench, and his teammates applaud, as do
the few people in the stands. I want to vomit. But I can't.
It was five years ago when Lauren was a passenger in a full car
that crashed. It was driven by a boy her age, and I was terrified
and nauseous when I found out. It was a bad crash, and alcohol
was involved. There was a news item about it in the local paper:
"'When I pulled up to the accident scene, my first thought was
how many kids were dead,' said Lake Bluff Police Sgt. David
Belmonte. 'The fact that nobody was killed is unbelievable.'"
But no one was even injured. The risks we take when we become
parents are perhaps indefensible, maybe inexplicable, certainly
unbelievable. But we take them all the same. And we pray for
luck. We pray for luck never to run out.
Cary calls from school. She is doing well in her art history
classes, and she says she can simply look at slides now and tell
which French painter did the work and what period it was from.
"And I found a catalogue where they sell swimsuits with a Matisse
on them, and I'm getting one!"
It's his bedtime, and I tell Z to quit messing around, turn out
the light, put down the Nerf ball he is toying with and go to
sleep. He is in his oldest sister's room, in Lauren's bed, where
he likes to sleep while she is at school. It's bigger than his
bed, which he is outgrowing, and it is different.
"Come in and lie down beside me," he says.
"No. Go to sleep. You have school tomorrow."
"Come in and lie down."
"I can't. You have to go to sleep, and I have a lot of work to
"No you don't," he says.
"Yes, I do."'
"No you don't."
He is right. And so I go in and close the door and lie down
beside him in the dark. I put a pillow under my head and he lies
beside me and we both look up at the ceiling. Lauren has stuck
hundreds of fluorescent ministars up there, and there are
constellations, and I can see Orion's belt and the Big Dipper,
and "I [Love] you" in the mix. We stare in silence, and Z, tucked
under his blankets, puts his head on my arm.
"Tell me a story, Dad," my son says to me.
And I would. I would tell him stories forever, if I could just
get my voice.
THERE WERE MY DAUGHTERS, TALL AND TOUGH AND PRETTY, WITH THEIR
SPORTS BUDDIES. I GREW UP WHEN GIRLS WERE CHEERLEADERS.
I LOOK AT MY SON'S LITTLE MAN'S FACE THROUGH HIS BIG MAN'S ARMOR,
AND I FEEL AS IF I AM LOOKING AT ALL MY SINS, ALL MY STUPIDITY,
ALL MY IGNORANCE.
I KNOW THAT I AM TOO OLD FOR A SPORTS INJURY TO BE A STATUS
SYMBOL OR ANYTHING OTHER THAN A DENT IN THE ARMOR THAT IS
FAILING, FAILING, FAILING.