Dreams of the Father
“It is a wise man who knows his own son.”
- William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
It was one of the first things imprinted in Charlie’s mind as a child, an integral part of the foundation of his memory and a guidepost for the path to be followed…followed, not blazed. The picture that hung above the desk in his father’s study showed a handsome young man with long, wild dark brown hair, holding a football in one hand and a helmet in the other. The larger-than-considered-normal for residential use photo dominated the room and brought it closer to the realm of a shrine than a workplace environment.
Charlie was allowed to play in that room when his Dad wasn’t working, pushing a toy truck on the rug along the circular logo of his parents’ college, or spinning himself around on the desk chair until he was dizzy. He was often with his parents when they watched football on TV, which was more often than not every fall weekend, and keying on his father’s passion for the game, he understood the players were the elite, chosen people of this world. When his Dad’s old college team was on the screen, it wasn’t like church; it was church.
As Charlie grew older, he would study the man in the football uniform in the picture whenever he was in his Dad’s office. He was impressed by the vibrant colors and equipment, moved by the young man’s look of fierce determination, and proud that it was his Dad. He could see himself in that uniform, holding that football, unaware that the fruits of the seeds don’t always grow as intended.
Rick’s high school friends dubbed a new phrase for him as he dominated all aspects of the teenage years, from the field of play and the classroom to the dance floor of the gym and all other elements of the world of romance. “All everything” became “You can’t think of anything he isn’t”. He had the body and brain to be anything. He chose football.
All-state linebacker, visits from a number of nationally recognized coaches, and offers from thirteen schools, Rick was destined for fame and fortune. He was an All-Conference selection at linebacker and a fixture on many NFL draft boards. With a 6’4” 250 lb. frame, it seemed impossible that a few ounces of material could sink it all.
The 15-yard penalty for the illegal chop block was little compensation for the devastating knee injury, the worst the orthopedic surgeon had ever seen. A year of rehab and perhaps an over-optimistic prognosis made him a late-round pick, but the knee blew out again and shredded the reconstructed ligaments in the first preseason game. It was over.
“I don’t have a problem with it, Susan. Soccer is probably a good activity for little boys. And he’s too young for football right now anyway.”
“You don’t have a problem with it, Rick? Like there could be something wrong with a little boy playing soccer on a team with his friends?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that, well you know, it’s…soccer. It’s a great sport for girls, but I always looked at it like boys’ soccer is for guys who can’t do anything else…you know, not big enough, can’t jump, can’t hit a curve ball. And have you ever seen the stands at a varsity soccer game? There are barely enough people there to account for one parent per player. Susan, Charlie’s strong, athletic, and he can run like a freaking gazelle. He may not be big enough to be a linebacker, but he could be a great defensive back…or maybe a wide receiver. Of course, we could always bulk him up. Nope, he’s destined for Friday night lights.”
“Have you ever watched a soccer game?”
“The players are very talented.”
“Sure, I suppose they have some ability to play the game.”
“And do you know what else soccer is for him?”
Charlie was a man amongst boys at those early stages- taller, more skilled, and faster than any other kid, not just on his team, but in the entire league. It was flag football until the 7th Grade and then full pads and contact with the Junior Tigers program until high school. He didn’t need his Dad to be one of the coaches to get the extra attention, but Rick was there every night pushing him to try harder, to do better. Charlie always needed to do better if he wanted to play on Sundays.
“Rick, I think you and the other coaches take this all a little too seriously. It’s like you're trying to whip these little guys into men out there. Call me naïve, but isn’t this just supposed to be fun at this stage, an activity for children?”
“Susan, he’ll be on the high school team in a year, and they aren’t going to be babysitting these boys. The kids will be working their butts off to get some playing time and to win some games. Coach Larson isn’t going to be taking it easy on any of them.”
Their backyard looked like a cross between the TV set of American Ninja Warrior and a Marine Corps obstacle course- tires to quick-step through, a 20’ climbing pole, platforms at ascending levels for standing jumps, a horizontal bar for pull-ups, a slab of concrete under a canopy for jump rope and free weights. Inspirational messages were everywhere- “Hard Work Pays Off”, “Don’t Ever Give Up”, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going”, and so on.
Charlie didn’t mind the workouts. Rick’s drills weren’t abusive, but they were disciplined and challenging, and Charlie felt good at the end of every session. The pain in his arms and legs, sweat seeping into his eyes, gave him a sense of accomplishment, and he was pleasing his Dad.
Sometimes we do things in repetition without quite grasping the purpose. Habit, routine, and direction from outside forces take command, and the action is repeated over and over again without a particular purpose in mind. Charlie liked the regimen; he was just a little uneasy about the ultimate goal.
Soccer, football…soccer, football. The two had a bit of a match going on in Charlie’s head. He loved playing soccer, and he loved his teammates, but he knew ever since those days of pushing that little truck around under the umbrella of his Dad’s picture that football was his destiny. Up until high school, he was able to do both. Now they would both be high school fall sports. Time to choose.
“Charlie, if you like soccer, play soccer. Your dad can’t make you play football.”
“He’s not going to make me play football, Joey. I just know that’s what he wants me to do. I want to please him, you can understand that.”
“Charlie, whatever you do should please him.”
That hit Charlie. Would his Dad support him, be proud of him, whatever path he chose? He could only hope so. He did know that running around in short pants kicking a ball would break Dad’s heart.
“We need you, Charlie. You are a scoring machine. We could have a great team.”
“I’ll miss it. I’ll miss you guys.”
Moms have a way of knowing things that others cannot perceive, a special extra sense, especially for the thoughts and feelings of their boys.
“Charlie, do you want to play football?”
“What? Of course, I do, Mom.”
Moms also have a special way of saying things. One word, the tone in which his name was spoken, and Charlie knew immediately. She saw the problem, understood the conflict, and no matter what, she would support him, be a stalwart defender in his corner. She’d be the flak jacket he’d need should he walk into his Dad’s office carrying a soccer ball to announce his decision.
“It’s ok, Mom, sure I like soccer, but I like football too.”
“Charlie, I love your Dad too. I know he’d be disappointed, but you have to do what you want to do. It’s your life, Charlie. He’d understand it.”
“It will be ok, Mom. Thanks.”
“Rick, I’m not sure Charlie’s heart is in football. I think he might rather play soccer.”
The subject had been floating around the periphery of their relationship for some time. Now it was crunch time. Susan felt Rick was pushing too hard; Rick thought he was providing support and encouragement. Susan thought football was too dangerous; Rick saw a college scholarship and a professional career.
The first day of practice arrived, and Charlie, football in hand, left the house with his Dad.
“It’ll be fine, Mom.”
Rick’s name was inscribed on the “Wall of Fame” at the entrance to the gym at Lincoln High School. His feats on the high school and college gridirons were well known throughout the town, so his son’s arrival at his first football practice drew the immediate attention of all the coaches. Charlie’s own exploits with the Junior Tigers only wettened their appetites.
“The kid is gifted, Rick, that’s for sure.”
“Speed, size, great hands, he’d be a great wide receiver. But you guys don’t throw much, so maybe corner or safety. I know you don’t like playing guys on both offense and defense, Coach, but you might want to make an exception here.”
Rick was at that first practice. Rick was at every practice. He had Coach Larson’s ear ever since those flag football days, and even if he didn’t want Rick’s input, Coach Larson got it.
Charlie wasn’t the first, but he was certainly the best freshman to ever suit up for a Lincoln High varsity football game. Nothing in the high school experience matches the excitement of those Friday night games- the cool crisp air, the bright lights, the packed stadium, little kids tossing a football around behind the stands, the band, the cheerleaders, the feeling of community, as the players separated into groups for their pregame warmup. Rick was already in the stands employing an unusual twist to the popular game-prep technique of visualization. He knew all the routes, and he was imagining Charlie running an “Out-n-Go”, pulling in the long pass, and streaking into the end zone. He could see it, feel it, damn near be it.
“Jesus Christ, Susan, our quarterback can’t throw for shit. Charlie was wide open.”
“Watch your language, Rick! And his parents could be sitting close by.”
Rick was right. The Lincoln QB couldn’t throw for shit, but Charlie could play defense like Dion Sanders. It was an out route, Charlie timed it perfectly, cut in front of the receiver, snatched the ball out of the air, and raced 65 yards for a touchdown. Rick was with him every step of the way.
Due to his quarterback’s obvious limitations, and because of Charlie’s rare abilities, Coach Larson soon moved his talented freshman receiver to running back where he’d have the ball in his hands all night long. Charlie did not disappoint. He could run inside. He could run outside. Their quarterback was able to get a short pass to him and then watch him run wild. And in a league not known for its passing game, Charlie had seven interceptions that first season, including two pick-sixes. The kid was a stud.
Rick saw his past and the future that wasn’t in every one of Charlie’s spectacular plays. He knew the game, the feel of the helmet, the pads, the hard hits on a ball carrier, the thrill of the cheering crowd. He wasn’t watching Charlie; he was Charlie. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; once in a while, the apple never even falls off the tree.
The letters started coming during his sophomore year. By the time Charlie was a Junior, he was getting visits from coaches across the country, not just from the recruiting coordinators, but from the schools’ head coaches. Everyone wanted Charlie.
“I told you, Susan. Our boy can write his own ticket.”
Charlie’s stock went up after every game, and Rick’s sense of pride soared. In the grocery store, the barbershop, at the gas station, or in a parking lot, Rick sang the praises of his son’s exploits the previous weekend. He knew all of Charlie’s stats without writing them down, and he could do a mental replay of every play that his son was involved in. It was his second shot at stardom.
Meals could no longer be served on the dining room table as it was covered with college recruitment letters and Rick’s notes on the various programs and coaches. Dad, advisor, agent, and secretary, Rick played all the roles. He was already beginning to regret the day they (“they”, not Charlie) would have to decide on a school. He was in the moment both at the games and at that dining room table.
“Unbelievable game, Charlie. Your punt return was awesome.”
“Thanks, Joey. How’s your team doing?”
“We suck, but that’s ok. It’s fun. But we sure could have used you.”
Fun, the word Charlie recalled from so long ago. He missed those guys. They weren’t as “cool” or as popular as the football players, but they lined up a little better with his own personality. He sometimes felt he didn’t quite fit in with the macho mentality that many of his teammates tried to exhibit. He couldn’t quite act as cool and tough as he was supposed to.
Susan sensed it.
“Charlie, I ran into Joey’s mom at the grocery store the other day. She says our soccer team isn’t very good, but Joey loves it.”
“Charlie, there’s one more year left.”
“What do you mean? One more year left for what?”
“If you wanted to play soccer with Joey and your other friends.”
“Are you serious? Everyone would think I was nuts, especially Dad. I’ve played football for three years. I can’t switch now.”
“I understand. You’ve gone a long way down that road. But if you’re on the wrong road, Charlie, the sooner you get off, the better. It’s never too late.”
“It’s too late, Mom.”
“Rick, I’m sure this will sound crazy, but I think you should talk to Charlie about football this fall.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I think he might like to play soccer.”
She might as well have said Charlie would like to take a quick trip to the moon that afternoon.
“What?! Yeah, that is crazy. Why would you even say that?”
“He misses it. He’s always missed it. I think he’s played football to please you, Rick. But I think he’d have more fun playing soccer.”
“Fun? The kid is seventeen, Susan.”
Rick pointed to the stacks of papers on the dining room table.
“Look at these offers. Ohio State wants him. Notre Dame wants him. Southern Cal wants him. Everyone wants him. No, this is too important. His future is football.”
A visibly perturbed Rick left the room as Susan continued to stare at the paperwork on the table.
Friday night lights, Rick was in his element. He didn’t need to feel the excitement; he was the excitement. It was Senior Night and with the team cruising at seven wins and no losses, it was an overflow crowd. Rick and Susan stood with the other parents along the 50-yard line at halftime waiting to be introduced. The crowd went wild when their names were called and Charlie handed a rose to his Mom. As they walked to midfield, Rick sucked in the applause. He was back in his glory, back on the field, shredding blockers and sacking a quarterback. He wasn’t remembering, he was there.
The game continued. It was their toughest opponent of the season, and it was a back-and-forth struggle for the Tigers. Rick was into every play.
It wasn’t a particularly hard hit, but the collision was in all the wrong places. When the play was over, the players got up and headed for their respective huddles, all save one. Charlie remained lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving.
A parent’s heart dies at such moments. After the initial moments of shock, hoping and praying their son would rise to his feet, Rick and Susan raced out onto the field. They watched in horror as the paramedics worked on their boy, stabilized him, and put him into the ambulance.
The hospital waiting room, the hallways, and the elevators were crowded with players, coaches, and parents. Half the school was downstairs in the lobby or out in the parking lot. Considering the number of people present, the silence was staggering.
Rick couldn’t move. He sat in that same chair for hours, while Susan made frequent trips to the small chapel on the first floor. A palpable cloud of worry, hope, prayer, and tears hovered over the building.
Rick and Susan were called to a small room. One of the team of doctors entered.
“Your son is going to survive. He’s in serious but stable condition.”
These were the words Rick and Susan wanted to hear, but there was no joy in the doctor’s voice, only sadness in his eyes.
“But he suffered a fracture vertebrae. He will be paralyzed from the waist down.”
Their home had the feel of a funeral home the next day. There were many things Susan could have said, but she didn’t. At one point, as she walked through the house, she saw Rick sitting at the dining room table staring at all those offers. He swept them all off the table with one hand, pounded the table with the other, and cried.
Susan could only lower her head and walk away. She was again searching her mind, heart, and soul for the right words to say to Charlie on their next visit. She would be strong for her son.