Loving football doesn't always begin with playing catch
Written by: Craig Hayes
I grew up in a small town called Point Lookout on the south shore of Long Island that was just built for summer: the beach on one side of town, the bay on the other, with a beautiful playground and set of ballfields on the side. Days were filled with swimming, body surfing, fishing and crabbing, and baseball games later in the afternoon, with Jones Inlet serving as the backdrop to the outfield.
This time of year, towards the end of August, like all American kids and probably most kids the world over, a huge depression would set in as the nights got a little cooler, the days a bit shorter, and the back to school commercials started popping up on television. Summer was about to end, another school year would begin, and it would be another nine plus months before the Point would revert to the summertime paradise that we all loved.
The one thing that staved off this depresion for me was football season. And no matter how old I get, I'm forty three now, the end of August and with that summer tells me not that fun time is over, but that Christmas is coming early with the start of football season. Besides, when you work in New York City and commute while wearing a suit in 90 degree weather, and you weigh in the 250 range, most of the summer pretty much sucks anyway.
LIke most men, my love for football was largely due to my Dad, but how he planted the seeds for my favorite sport was not your typical Rockwell portrait. Not every father/son sports tale is the type that Billy Crystal tells during Ken Burns movies. I have absolutely no memory of my dad ever throwing me a football, or any ball for that matter, and despite the fact that I have been obsessed with sports since I was old enough to understand what they were, the only games he ever brought me to were the Bar League touch football games where I would cheer on the bartenders and bouncers from my Dad's favorite hangout, AJ's.
My Dad wasn't an athlete, and truth be told he wasn't much of a Dad either. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict and a compulsive gambler. Those traits aren't exactly condusive to a productive marriage, so my parents divorced when I was only six years old. But while my Dad wasn't exactly Steven Keaton from Family Ties, he wasn't all bad, and he definitely had his moments. And despite what television or memoirs by Irish American authors would have you believe not every alcoholic beats his kids and comes home screaming at his family until the cops drag him away. He could best could be described as a functioning alcoholic: educated, creative, talented in his field of work and he always made plenty of money.
Unfortunately most of that money went to his never never ending "Norm Petersen" like tab at AJ's, his bookie and his coke dealer, which is the reason my Mom worked up to three jobs at a time to keep our house, and I and my three siblings started contributing to the house bills once we were old enough to work.
But like I said, he had his moments. And maybe it was because it gave him an excuse to hang out at the bar or, I would like to think, because he enjoyed our time together, when I was about eight years old we began to have our own little Sunday ritual. Sundays meant watching those touch football games then over to AJ's to watch the NFL. AJ's wasn't the greatest sports bar, few were back in the pre-Directv 1970's, so that meant the Jets and Giants. Maybe it was their lousy records at the time but despite this indoctrination I still became a Seahawks fan. One night of Cossel's halftime highlights of Zorn to Largent, and I was a fan for life.
I would sit at the bar, which to me was the coolest thing ever (Dad's best friend was the owner, how convenient). I would have my bacon cheeseburger and a bunch of cokes. Another perk from knowing the boss, the bartenders would let me use the soda gun. With all of the gadgets today modern day kids can't relate but trust me, in 1978, shooting soda into a glass was a hell of a lot of fun.
My dad would sit beside me having his screwdrivers, never anything else, occasionally some food, but as I would learn later in life during my own brief dalliance with cocaine, it doesn't exactly lend itself to having large meals. (Side note, thank god that awful drug prevents you from engaging in two of life's greatest pleasures, eating and sleeping, or I would have had my own problem with the drug.)
Math always came easy to me, and I devoured statistics and numbers from the Sporting News and local sports pages. So of course my Dad introduced me to the concept of betting lines via the classic little yellow parlay tickets that if you followed the trail long enough, eventually led to the wire rooms and bookies in Brooklyn.
While my classmates were memorizing times tables and starting fractions, I was comparing home and away records while trying to decide whether or not to lay the three points with Earl Campbell's Oilers against Pittsburgh (probably not a good idea, the Steel Curtain owned him.)
My Dad would let me pick a four or five game ticket and put up the ten dollars for my little parlay bet, and I even won a couple of times. I still remember getting the stub back with my winners circled, a tight wad of twenties wrapped in a rubber band.
Only later in life did I learn that my Dad, who loved football but didn't really know football, would put a couple of hundred on each of the games I picked with the local bookie. On one hand I'm flattered that he had so much faith in my knowledge, but on the other hand it would have been nice if he put that money in a college fund. I may not still be paying Sallie F#kin Mae $800 a month if he had.
Obviously this isn't a blueprint for raising a son, from the gambling to the environment (I was the go-to kid for new curse words), and the simple fact that but for the grace of God my Dad didn't wrap his mustang around a telephone pole as he drove me home after six hours of vodka and OJs.
We kept this routine up until I was in high school, when I went from loving to watch the game to actually playing it. I became a good player on a very good high school team and made a couple of JUCO teams until my ACL snapped and I went back to solely being a spectator of sport. But those years of playing, the coaches I learned from, the teammates I played with and the memories that were created are without question among the greatest moments of my life.
Looking back, it was those days sitting on a barstool with my Dad that started my own love affair with the greatest game there is. And it is the reason why late August means to me that the best five months of the year are on the way. My own ritual of drafting my fantasy teams, saving up my bankroll for a few of my little parlays (still love them, on-line now and more convenient but I miss the tickets), and spending Sundays locked into the Sunday Ticket, waiting for my beloved Seahawks to get that elusive title.
The drinking caught up to my Dad and he passed away in 1989 when I was only nineteen years old. When I think about the limited time we had together, I have very few memories of what you would call "quality time" with my Dad. We didn't go fishing, didn't take vacations together, and despite the fact that I was obsessed with sports, he never took me to a ball game that didn't involve the losers buying the first round afterwards. For better or worse, the bulk of the times I remember with him was in that bar, watching the game that he loved then, and that I love now. Although it wasn't the ideal way to bond with your father, there were two things about it that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.
One, it was the spark for the love of a game that has become such a huge part of my life. A game that has brought me friendship, camaraderie, taught me the value of hard work and sacrifice, and the emotional highs and lows of not just playing but being a fan. Sorrow and loss are part of any sport that you love, but without those feelings you can never appreciate the incredible experience of pure elation, like when I when I flew 3,000 miles in 2006 to watch my team destroy the Carolina Panthers and reach their first Super Bowl. That's a feeling that only this game can give you.
The second, and even more important aspect of our Sundays was that it was "our thing." Not my brothers, not my sisters, but "ours." We would talk about the game, share my french fries, he would ask about school, I would meet his quirky (nice word for drunken) friends, and he would show off the stats that I would be able to cite from memory. A different childhood of course, but it does not make those memories any less special.
If I am lucky enough to have my own son one day, I will share my Sundays with my son. We will watch football, I'll teach him about the game, he'll have a soda or a burger, and it will be "our thing." But when we do it, it will be on my couch and the only thing I will be having too much of is nachos and wings.