There I stood, on a chilly October night, not as a participant, but rather a 40 year old man and father watching a high school JV football game. The game was close in the first half. I paced up and down the sideline, camera in hand. Close enough to take my pictures but far enough away to be “invisible” to any of the coaches or players. We scored again and then again, right before the first half ended. I was exciting that we were winning but even more excited that my son might now get a chance to play in the second half.
I have never actually saw my son play. I work nights and have only been fortunate enough to go to one other game before this, a game in which he didn’t play. As the second half began, my son’s team held a 3 touchdown lead. Being a former high school football coach myself, I realized that it might take a wider margin on the scoreboard for my son to get in the game. Two quick touchdowns by us in the third quarter, allowed #35 to march onto the field.
My son plays fullback but is by no means a big kid. Some would call him scrawny and they would get no argument or strange look from me for doing so. My son is a freshman in high school and this was his first year of football. A year of football that almost didn’t happen for him. He was unsure of whether he even wanted to play. Although a former football player myself, I have never pushed my kids to play, but rather told them, “Give it a chance and if you like it great. If not, you can try something else”. So he did. He attended every summer weight lifting session and participated in every non mandatory football activity, all without me saying a word. He was perfectly content in being second string. He thrived on the camaraderie and the relationships he was developing with his teammates. The JV team was undefeated and he loved being a part of something special, even if it meant he only watched from the sidelines, much like his Mom did for each game she went to, that I couldn’t.
As the lights glistened off the players helmets, #35 broke the huddle and took his position, three yards behind the quarterback. As he took his awkward three point stance, I just prayed he would go to the right spot, attempt to block the correct defensive player and most of all, not get hurt. As the center snapped the ball, the quarterback turned and handed the ball to my son. My eyes lit up. He gained seven yards on the play, popped back up and ran back to the huddle. Was that MY son? Seven plays later and three more rushing attempts by my son (one in which he ran for 15 yards, carrying three defenders with him), it was first down and ten on their opponents eleven yard line. My boy was 11 yards away from doing what most dream of, let alone boys who rarely get to play.
I quickly took position behind the end zone, using my camera as an excuse for getting so close to the actual play. The stadium lights seemed to only shine on the field and I stood there in almost complete darkness, watching in anticipation for what I prayed would happen. On first down #35 got the ball and rushed to the 7 yard line before collapsing underneath a heap of tacklers. He got up slowly and I feared he would be replaced but he stumbled back to the huddle for another play. I sensed what the coach was trying to do. He was attempting to reward a hard working kid, something I had done before as a coach, years ago. One which worked harder during the off season then even some who got all the accolades. A boy who cheered wholeheartedly from the sidelines only, for those who crossed the goal line, game after game.
Another fullback run came to my son on second down and only the strong grip by a defender on his leg, kept him from the promised land. Third down approached and a hand off to the running back, not the fullback, crushed my spirit. As the running back took the ball, he sprinted for the end zone. As tacklers converged on him, he hit the ground. My eyes quickly went to the official spotting the ball and I selfishly hoped he wouldn’t raise his arms, signaling touchdown. The officials arms never came up. I thought to myself, “One more chance!”. It was fourth down from the one yard line. I started to think that this could possibly be the only time my son would ever get the opportunity to score a touchdown. One more play, one more yard, one more chance in his lifetime.
As the offense broke the huddle, my son took a position behind the tight end. In football, this position would lead one to believe he was going to block for a play that involved the running back, running to the outside. The breath was taken out of me and my heart sunk. As the quarterback received the snap, sure enough, he turned to the running back that was running for the outside. At that moment, I started to realize that it wasn’t my son’s time to score. That hopefully, there would be another day, another chance for him to rush over the goal line. In that brief second of time I came to peace with the fact he wasn’t going to score and that I would give him praise after the game, as if he scored ten touchdowns and let him know how proud I was to watch him play. Then it happened. As the running back ran to the outside for a sure pitch, the quarterback handed the ball to my son, going away from the momentum and back to the inside. As my son crossed the goal line, I stood there in astonishment. As he simply handed the ball to the referee, his teammates converged on him and there was a roar from the crowd.
As I stood there, it seemed as if time had stopped. I watched in slow motion as he went running back to his sideline. This time, teammates cheering for him. I was alone. No one to hug or gloat to about the touchdown. No one to high five me or congratulate me for what my son just did. As the attention turned away from that part of the field, I stood there in the darkness, by myself. I stared into the area where he just scored. He was now on the sideline, enjoying the moment with his friends and there I still stood, replaying the moment over and over again, not ten yards away.
It was then, I realized that my son’s greatest moment had become mine. I tried to fight the tears that were now pouring down my face. I couldn’t. It wasn’t about the touchdown my son had just scored. It wasn’t about me being able to stick out my chest and tell my friends “Hey, that’s MY son!”. It was about him, not me. It was about a young man, who on his own, made a decision to do something positive. A boy who wasn’t as athletically talented as others, but made a choice to work just as hard. A choice that many kids these days, would never make on their own. A choice he made, that was rewarded, which so many few get the chance to happen for them.
His gift to me wasn’t those 6 points. What my son gave me that night, there in that dark end zone, was the realization that maybe I had done things right as a father. That maybe all those sincere hugs I gave him and the “I love yous” we shared every day, outweighed all those times I couldn’t be there for him because of work or other obligations that we as Dads have, providing for our families. Thank you son.