Bonding through sports

Even though it’s been nearly 23 years, my dad and I have always remembered the date — how could we not? Aug. 24, 1991, was the day I beat him on the tennis court for the first time. It was also the day he turned 40. Happy birthday, dad, here’s another drop shot to chase down.

My dad and I have always been competitive, and we still are. (Behind me sit multiple fantasy baseball trophies, their heads beautifully bobbling away. Dad’s trophy — his ONE trophy — probably gets lonely.) It didn’t matter the game — ping-pong, Monopoly, poker, pool, basketball, croquet, whatever — we were both playing to win.

Those drop shots? They might not have been fair for a pair of 40-year-old knees, but they were payback from countless number of left-handed free throws he’d sink (and I’d miss) during games of H-O-R-S-E in our driveway.

Looking back, most of my childhood memories of dad and me were on the tennis court or the baseball diamond, in the front yard playing catch or of basketball games in the driveway. And I remember strange specifics: the way the leather dimples felt on my Baden basketball (the same brand used, at the time, by my Indiana Hoosiers) and how they became worn over years of dribbling in the heat and rain and snow; the sound of ping-pong balls rhythmically smacking against the old table in our garage; the way he’d always quote from “The Hustler” — “I don’t rattle, kid” — when I’d try shake his confidence at the pool table. I remember the joy of opening a new can of tennis balls on our way to the court; I’d crack open the aluminum seal and sniff the sweet, stale air from the canister.

We connected through sports, and we still do, albeit in different ways. But now I’m getting to experience a greater joy than beating him in tennis; I’m seeing what he saw 20 and 30 years ago with my own kids.

My daughter — and his granddaughter, unmistakably — has all of our competitiveness but none of our ego. And allow me to brag a little: Olivia is an incredible athlete. Two springs ago, running against mostly seventh- and eighth-graders, she was the only fourth-grader (or fifth-grader, for that matter) in our city to qualify for the CYO track meet in hurdles.

While she also plays volleyball and basketball, she stands out on the softball diamond. She gets that, no doubt, from my beautiful, devout wife. And the joy she exudes is incredible. She pitches occasionally — and inconsistently — and could walk 10 consecutive hitters, but if she strikes out the last one, she’ll skip back the dugout, beaming with pride.

A few weeks ago, her team played in the league championship game, and she provided a memory we’ll never forget — and a story I’ll never stop telling. Down by three in the last inning, she roped a three-run home run into center field to tie the game. I was coaching first base and after she crossed home plate, she jumped into my arms. After I put her down, with the crowd still going crazy, tears filled my eyes. Maybe it was the dust from the diamond.

But I’m hopeful that when she tells the story years from now, she’ll say, “I hit a three-run home run to tie the game, and I jumped into dad’s arms after I crossed home plate.”

These are the reasons we love sports. It wasn’t the crowd going crazy that made it so special. It was sharing a moment with my kid, because at that time, when she ran to me and we locked eyes, everything else became silent and it was just the two of us.

I had a similar moment last week with my 9-year-old, Grant — the rotten one — whom I’ve written about many, many times.

Now, there are several things Grant loves — animals (real and stuffed), snacks, his mom, Minecraft, comfortable clothes, the PBS cartoon “Wild Kratts” — but for a long time, sports were not on the list. And believe me, we tried. At about 3 years old, he played T-ball — if you consider turning somersaults in the outfield and throwing fits as “playing.” At 4, we tried soccer, but he wasn’t aggressive enough and would scoot along safely behind the pack of kids surrounding the ball. At 5, I coached his flag-football team, but it didn’t take.

Those sports didn’t fit his personality. But, like his father and grandfather, he’s taken to tennis. He doesn’t have to wait on the action and there are no teammates to get in his way. He’s taken lessons the past two summers, and while I’ve played with him a handful of times, the other night was special.

With dusk approaching, I took him to courts with lights. As a kid, I always loved playing at night because it felt magical, like our own U.S. Open.

He showed me a game he learned from his coaches. It’s called skeleton (and is perfect for Grant). If you hit the ball across the net and in bounds, you’re safe. The first time you hit it out, you lose your skin, then your blood, then your guts (making you a skeleton). We had a blast. He’d smile and laugh when I’d hit a shot into the net, and he’d hustle after balls, his skinny little legs moving as fast as they could. And he was so proud of himself when he hit a good shot.

That night, we played a few actual games — the first one to 10 wins — and I won one and let him win the other. He’s getting better, though. I’m sure I won’t be letting him win three years from now, when I turn 40. But I can’t wait to find out.

Before we got to the court, we stopped to get new tennis balls. As I drove, from the backseat I heard the crack of the canisters opening, and he’d follow with a big breath in. “I love the smell,” he said, “don’t you?” I do, I told him. I really do.

We both smiled in the rearview mirror.

Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.