We were tiny terrors. Rugrats in pads. The Pine Valley Midgets were my father’s invention. We were a not-ready-for-prime time football team made up of neighborhood players not old enough to be playing Hurley Elementary School football who more or less managed anyway to play elementary school football. My father’s zeal to coach football would not be denied by silly age requirements meant to deny us gridiron glory. We played scrimmage games against the real Hurley football team made up of talented Local Gods of Football Lore we could only admire from our own lowly positions on planet earth. People like Jeff Parnell and Mike Ivey and Keith Dixon and Scott Link.
I remember vividly watching Scott Link drag most of the opposing team’s players about ten yards down field during a game before boredom overcame him and he went to the ground so another play could begin. Now he is rumored to be a State Farm agent in Asheville, North Carolina where I am sure he performs his duties with a similar amount of heroic vigor.
Our team of midgets was led by Robert Hales at quarterback, short in stature but long in grit and ability. When a sport called for athletic grace and the ability to take a beating and ask for more, you needed Robert Hales. Since he would be mostly running for his life that season-on-the-brink of playing real football, these were qualities that came in handy.
I don’t see how my father could have come up with more than 11 neighborhood children to play his pirate brand of football, so I’m pretty sure we played Iron man football going both ways on offense and defense. I seriously doubt we ever played a full game against the big boys. Most likely they ran a series of plays and mercifully did not kill any of us. They had probably been warned severely by their coach not to break any of our bones, which they could have done without much concentrated effort. This was, of course, back in the glory days of lawlessness when no one had to sign a waiver to do anything, and you could pretty much get away with all manner of crazy ideas involving kids and violent sports if you had the pluck to try them.
Playing (more or less organized) elementary school football a year before you are actually eligible to play real elementary school football gives you a competitive advantage when age requirements finally allow you to join the third graders who can play. No doubt this is what my father had in mind, seasoning us in preparation for a real season of football with scoreboards and referees. This strategy paid off in spades as we later produced many years of winning elementary school football with my father as head coach.
This is all to say that even though I had no particular talent at left defensive end for those elementary school years, the stage was set for fathers in my family wanting athletic grace and a competitive drive from their sons. Wanting to see them play hard and well. Hoping for victory. Feeling their pain in defeat. Striving for more.
Flash forward many years and you find my sons, Andrew and Avery trying to measure up. I adopted two completely different strategies with them. I outscored my older son Andrew mercilessly and often on basketball and tennis courts in the hopes that he would toughen up and play better. I let myself lose constantly and without remorse to my younger son Avery just hoping to keep him in the game.
Andrew didn’t particularly appreciate my approach to competitive sports. I soon found I could not drag him onto the basketball or tennis court without threats that ruined the fun. He played listlessly, feeling he had no chance. I wondered what was wrong with me.
I thought back. My dad was no Great Santini, but I do recall having many backyard basketball shooting competitions with him in which he would taunt me at the free throw line on the large square concrete pad he had poured to make a basketball court. His was a mental game. He would suggest that I might miss a shot, and that was all it took. I always thought this was cruel and unnecessary. So, there was a father-son competitive problem going back one generation I needed to tamp down.
When it was time for Avery to play, I was a kinder gentler competitor all the way around. Just being on the court was a victory. Not the most naturally coordinated child, he was happy to sit at home and play video games or watch cartoons. Getting him going was hard. He needed a win. Almost every time. I was happy to oblige. It was hard to lose at times, but I managed. I tamped down my competitive fire and focused on his self-esteem. “You’re not very good at basketball, are you daddy?” he asked during one of his many miraculous come-from-behind victories. I smiled. “No. I just hope if I keep practicing I’ll be as good as you one day,” I told him.
Avery played one season of basketball for the Carolina Beach Recreation League in Wilmington, North Carolina. We primed him for six months before his first season in team basketball with every method we could imagine. He got private tutoring by a semi-professional basketball player who still played professionally in Europe for teams like Lithuania and Luxembourg. During the European off-season, he taught Avery to shoot the ball. Endless free throws clanged off rims until they started going in. He hit three free throws in a row once, and my crazy cheers resounded in the gym. I bragged about it for a week to everyone I knew. He attended a basketball camp run by another semi-pro ball player who ran him ragged. He learned layups and passing and sprinting.
The season came with high hopes, but we found the team game was hard for a child with autism and no experience in team sports. Learning where to stand on defense was difficult. If told to stand in a spot to play zone defense, he stood rigidly in that spot and never moved the entire game. Like a scarecrow but without the flexibility and defense prowess of a scarecrow. On the other hand, he was not quick enough to play man-to-man defense. He gave great effort, though. Once, he was guarding a player as the kid crossed half court. Another boy, built like a small oak, set a pick. Avery ran headlong into him and went down in a heap. He was embarrassed and upset and ran to the bathroom to gather himself. I chased after him. He cried and said he would never play basketball again. It was a small triumph to get him back on the bench for the end of the game.
The season progressed in small steps. He got rebounds. Made better passes. Played better defense. Almost made a handful of the shots he took, the ball rolling around the rim a few times but never quite going in. We cheered like mad when he did a small thing right. Other parents who had seen his struggles and progress cheered for him too. His team won the championship. We bought pizza for the team. They sat together chatting about the season, smiling and chomping down slice after slice. Avery got a Most Improved Player trophy. We all could have cried. We all did cry. My heart was full. Life was good. We knew we were leaving for New York City soon. What kind of basketball would the mean streets of New York bring? We shuddered to think.
It turns out you can play street ball in New York City without being dunked on. We try to hit the court when its empty or if only middle school kids are playing. If the kids are half as tall as we are, game on! One notable side effect of his growing confidence in his game as a result of the tutoring, the summer camps and his championship season: Having spent the last 14 years losing intentionally, I now can’t win against him no matter how hard I try. Avery is broader and two inches taller than me at 5 feet 11 inches and 200 pounds. He’s quicker. His shots go in the hoop. Mine bang against the backboard like loose bricks tossed idly against a dumpster. Our one-on-one games on the court that sits about 50 feet from our living room window are lopsided and short. He reaches over me and grabs every rebound. Dribbles past me. Shoots over my head. Steals the ball. Blocks my shots and taunts me about it with relish.
I’ve never been more happy to be beaten like a dog in my life.