Many boys grow up without their father’s approval. No matter how hard they try or how many awards they win or good decisions they make, some boys never hear “I’m proud of you son.” Sadly enough, one of the most common forms of disapproval is evident in athletics. You may have seen it before when a coach yelled at his little-leaguer son because he struck out. Or at a football game when the “Superstar Father” left the bleachers after his second-generation quarterback overthrew a receiver. Or after an MVP basketball victory when all the praise he received was, “Why didn’t you hit that three-point shot before the half?” If you think these examples are far fetched, think again. It happens every day. These little boys grow into men who, in turn, treat their sons the exact same way. Can this cycle ever stop? Will it stop with you?
It was a cold night in late November. A perfect night for high school football. The harvest moon drowned out the stars as it hung high above the stadium lights. I was a senior and team captain as a middle linebacker. We were a good football team with a 12-1 record so far in the season. This particular game was the semi-final round of the 1999 Alabama 5-A State Championship Playoffs.
We trekked from Eufaula to Mobile via Greyhound to meet our cross-state nemesis, Williamson High School. If we won this game we would play Etowah High School in the State Championship game in December.
Jamarcus Russell, a mere freshman at the time, played quarterback for Williamson. Russell later played college football for LSU and then became the first pick in the NFL draft in 2007, going to the Oakland Raiders. Another kid by the name of Carnell Williams, also known as “Cadillac” Williams, played running back for Etowah. He later played for Auburn University, and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. These teams were two big hurdles to cross before we could claim the State Championship trophy.
That November night the chilling air stung our noses and burned our lungs as we ran during pre-game warm-ups. The stadium engulfed the one hundred or so faithful fans that followed us to our battle. The opposing legion roared with ten thousand strong. My parents sat dead center on the fifty-yard line about halfway up in the section closest to the field.
Our team was the closest any Eufaula team had come to winning the State Championship in nearly twenty years. But first we had to cross this Goliath-sized wall in Mobile to move on to the finals in Birmingham. Playing in the championship game in Birmingham was something my dad did as a senior in high school. Hoping to make it that far was a dream of mine. I wanted to do something my dad had done, but better.
The game commenced and we burst out of the gates fighting. It was a fight to the finish with both teams leaving everything they had on the field. We scored first. 7-0. Then they reciprocated. 7-7. Then we pulled ahead with another touchdown. 14-7. They scored again but we blocked the extra point. 14-13. They took their first lead of the night with a little over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. A failed two-point conversion made the score 14-19. With under a minute left in the game we fumbled. They ran the clock down and then took a safety with nineteen seconds left on the clock. 16-19. With three seconds left to score we fought, bit, scratched, tore, grabbed, and ripped to break through the end zone one last time but time ran out.
I tackled a lot of guys that night but I missed some as well. I made some good calls and made some bad ones too. One play that haunts me was my chance to sack Jamarcus Russell. I closed in on him as we both neared the sideline. He cut left and I cut left. He shook right and I shook right. I was about to sack a future NFL quarterback but just before I placed my helmet on his shoulder pads I tripped. I fell and lunged for his legs and we both rolled out of bounds, however, not before the ball spiraled out of his hand and into the receiver’s for the first down.
I was humiliated. I had my chance and blew it. I completely screwed up. The embarrassing part was that we rolled out of bounds into my team’s sideline. I knew where my parents sat and hid my face from their seats. I could hear the disappointment in the sighs of the crowd. I couldn’t bear the thought of what my dad was thinking.
The clock struck zero signaling that our chances of making it to the finals were over. We were numb. No tears, just disappointment. Not enough energy to cry. Time slowed to a crawl and the cheers of our opponent echoed in our helmets. I remained silent. My head throbbed. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. No cheerleaders, no coaches, not my fellow linebacker whom I had played next to for six years, and especially not my dad. I feared how the conversation would go. I didn’t want to hear, “Good game” because I knew it wasn’t true. I didn’t want to hear, “You’ll get ‘em next time” because there was not going to be a “next time.” I didn’t want to stomach, “You should’ve made this tackle or that tackle.” I wasn’t ready to face the reality of falling short in my father’s footsteps.
With my helmet in one hand and my shoulder pads in the other, I walked alone across the field to the clubhouse. I looked up into the stands where my parents once sat. Empty. Every seat was empty. I guessed they’d decided to leave early. Could it have been my missed tackles? Was it the score that drove them away? Was it something worse, something as bad as shame? I didn’t blame them; I was disappointed too.
It is funny how the air can be cold, your body hot and your emotions frozen as a familiar sound falls on your ringing ears. It was a whistle. A familiar whistle. Amidst thousands of cheers, a marching band, air horns, fireworks and sirens, I recognized that whistle. It came from the sideline. My head jerked and zeroed in on the source.
There he stood dressed in his game attire: red hat, red shirt with my number embroidered on his left breast pocket, khakis and a red tiger-pawed stadium cushion. It was my dad’s whistle. Why did he come to the sideline? What would he say? What could be so important to call my attention away from my self-pity? What news couldn’t wait until I got home? Why was it so important to remind me of the disappointment I had become?
Our eyes met; both red from heartache. I stared at him awaiting the verdict. He didn’t say, “Good game,” or “You should have done better.” No expression fell on his face. Then he said something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. He extended his muscular arm, raised his thumb in a thumbs-up gesture, and said, “I love you, son.”
He loves me? Even though I screwed up? Even though I blew it? Even though the weight of the game rested on my shoulders and I messed up? He loves me? That’s exactly right. He loves me! All of those negative scenarios left my head. I didn’t have a father whose love was contingent on my successes of failures. I had a father who loved me because I am his child and he is my dad. My dad approved of me because I am his son, not because I do or do not adorn a State Championship ring. So, thank you Dad. Thank you for showing me the perfect picture of my heavenly father’s love. My heavenly father loves me despite my successes or failures. He loves me because I am his child and he is my Father.