Thanksgiving Football Gerry Tales Style
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to compete. I can’t help myself. It’s a lot like leadership. You have to do it, or there’s a fair chance you’re not going to enjoy life much. I’m guessing it’s in the DNA, but it doesn’t much matter, because no matter the reason, you’re stuck with who you are. For about a year, during my neo-hippie phase, I pretended that winning wasn’t really that important, that I could live without betting my entire ego, id, and psyche on a game of pinochle or pickup basketball. It took me two years to get rid of the eyelid twitch and patch of psoriasis from that little experiment in contradicting the nature of things. We are who we are.
My reconciliation with my competitive nature happened when I figured out that I’m not going to win everything, every time, but I damn well better give whatever I’m competing in my best shot, or I’m not going to be happy. The more important revelation I had is that if you mix together a dose of intensity, a dash of obsessiveness, and two parts real life, you’re darn near guaranteed that something funny is going to happen. What I finally learned is that not taking yourself seriously is a requirement for avoiding ulcers, early heart attacks, and colitis. After we take our best shot at learning just who the heck we are, we get to watch the movie all over again as we pass this inherited casserole of idiosyncrasies on to our unsuspecting children.
Playing sports is probably the best way to avoid the anger management classes the courts will insist ultracompetitive people take after that inevitable road rage incident. It sure helped me. You play, and there are rules, and you follow them, or it will hurt you. I started playing sandlot sports by the time I was eight years old, and organized sports from age ten. We didn’t have travel teams, personal trainers, or specialized sports in the early 1960s. Heck, our parents came to some of the games, but they were way too busy working to see them all. And my teammates and I were a heckuva lot more interested if Marylou the redheaded cheerleader was there shaking those pompoms!
We lined up against the other team in a modified backyard wing-T formation for the First Annual Thanksgiving Day Backyard Football Game. My nephew Will hiked the ball to me, the thirty-eight-year-old dad. I spun and gave a gentle pitch to my five-year-old son Joe, who followed Will and his younger brother Liam into a sweep left, blocking my sisters, Sue and Maryanne, and our still-spry seventy-six-year-old dad. The play worked, and Joe sprang free. He was off to the races and ran quickly into the Frisbee-marked end zone. Except he didn’t stop there. He just kept running with the football, streaking around the garage at full speed and into the side door of the house. We all stood there a bit dumbfounded. I trotted after Joe and found him inside the door, clutching the football and sobbing. “Joe, what’s up?” I said. “That was a good run. Why the tears?” He wiped his eyes and nose with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “It was my first touchdown, Dad,” he said. “I’m just so happy.” Nearly twenty years later, the recollection still brings tears to my eyes. I saw in Joe’s five-year-old eyes all that I love about athletics, all that is pure about sports. A boy, a ball, a touchdown.