Father's Way

The author has learned what plenty of athletes' sons have also discovered: It's not always easy following in your dad's footsteps
June 22, 2015

CARVING OUT YOUR own identity in the same field of endeavor as a celebrated father is not easy. If you succeed or even surpass his storied achievements, you tend to be looked upon with a skeptical eye as the beneficiary of some very accommodating DNA. Congratulations, you won the genetic sweepstakes! Lucky you! Now go get Dad something special for Father's Day this Sunday to show your appreciation!

Because of a favorable circumstance of birth, there is the implication that it was smoother sledding for you, that you had a leg up. But even if you had some advantage, there is a downside to taking over the family business. As a son who followed in the footsteps of a supremely talented sportswriter, Mark Kram, whose lyrical prose graced the pages of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED during the 1960s and '70s, I share something with the plethora of sons who have inherited the legacy of athletic prowess from their fathers.

The progeny of pro athletes are ubiquitous across sports. The NBA Finals teams feature three sons of former players in the league: Golden State guards Stephen Curry (Dell) and Klay Thompson (Mychal), and injured Cleveland forward Kevin Love (Stan)—who is also the nephew of Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love. (Cavs superstar LeBron James appears to have a talented son, too: Word is that 10-year old LeBron Jr.—"Bronny"—is already being recruited by colleges.) In the Major League Baseball draft earlier this month, no fewer than 34 of the 1,215 players selected were the offspring of former major leaguers, including Mariano Rivera III, Cam Gibson (Kirk), Conor Biggio (Craig), Kody Clemens (Roger) and Tate Matheny (Mike).

Though bloodlines alone are not predictors of athletic success, it is easy to see why teams take a longer look at the children of former players. Some have been as good as or better than their fathers, such as Barry Bonds (Bobby), Kobe Bryant (Joe), Ken Griffey Jr. and Peyton and Eli Manning (Archie). Along with any physical attributes that may have been passed down to them, they had professional instruction from a young age. Just growing up within proximity of pro sports is invaluable.

Still, more than a few aspiring players never escaped the shadows cast by their famed fathers. Pete Rose is the all-time hit leader in major league baseball. Pete Jr. plugged away in the bush leagues for 21 seasons. The Reds called him up in September 1997, but Pete Jr. batted just .143 in 13 at bats—and that was the entirety of his big league career. After his colorful father's downfall, Pete Jr. became a popular stop for journalists. Whenever Pete Jr. played, the subtext seemed to be: Poor Petey. Still chasing his father after all these years.

I empathize with Pete Jr. and not only because my father had his own public downfall when SI fired him for an ethical breach in 1977. When I was with the Detroit Free Press in the '80s, someone in an alternative weekly wrote that the Free Press had hired "the wrong Mark Kram. They should have hired his father." It wounded me deeply. Whatever feelings of inadequacy I had were only underscored by those cruel words. It was as if I had been exposed: Give it up. You are not good enough. Because Dad and I also shared the same name, I pushed myself even harder.

I do not know if Stephen Curry and the others were encouraged to follow their fathers. I was not. I got into sportswriting because it gave me and my father common ground—something to strengthen my bond with him. But he never got involved with my work and never seemed to have an opinion about it. I wondered if he had ever read a word I had written. But the approval I was seeking from him came when I received boxes of his papers upon his death 13 years ago this month. At the bottom of one box I found a file of 60 stories I had written. He had been paying attention.

Mark Kram Jr. won the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for his book Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, and is the editor of the new book Great Men Die Twice: The Collected Works of Mark Kram. This is his first piece for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

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