My Favorite Sports Fan

To my father — who never watched sports — life was was all about participation

My father wasn't a sports fan when we were growing up. Yeah, he took us to a baseball game and a couple of football games, but his heart wasn't in it.

He didn't have a favorite team and he never joined us on the couch to watch the playoffs or the Super Bowl. The Sunday New York Times sports section was the only section he left untouched. During the 1969 World Series, when every inch of New York was afire with Mets' fever, I suggested that we try to get the impossible-to-get tickets to Game 5. "Who's playing?" he asked.

It’s not that he hated sports. In fact, he loved hiking, swimming, tennis and bocci, and believed that participation in all athletics (except golf) built character. My five siblings and I were encouraged, no, strongly advised, to pick a sport, any sport (except golf) and work at it.

I chose football and, later, soccer and pursued both passionately. On game day, he observed my developing skills from the sidelines, in his business suit and fedora, his arms crossed. Afterward, he told me what skills to work on, then caught a cab back to his midtown advertising agency. Watching his kids compete was as close as he ever got to actual sports viewing during those years.

As I grew up, I came to realize that his issue with watching sports was that it required hanging out, and he wasn’t a guy who hung out. Hanging out was too close to sloth, and he didn’t believe in sloth. If he was going to sit in front of a TV, the viewing had to be informative, educational. PBS. “60 Minutes.” A documentary. He was physiologically incapable of sitting in the den with us, chilling out and watching a game.

He believed there was poetry in throwing a perfect pass, but he didn’t believe there was poetry in watching the perfect pass. He wasn’t nourished by human interest sports stories, tales of athletes who overcome the odds to achieve greatness. To him, life was all about participation.

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A trip to a convention in sunny Palm Springs brought this disgusted appraisal, “It’s all golf courses and people laying around in their trunks.” His interactions with us were mostly formal. He scheduled lunches, or a "talk" in his office behind closed doors. I met with him for an hour on Saturdays, in his office, where we reviewed and discussed my stamp collection. This was a stamp collection that he encouraged, no, strongly advised me to start. I couldn’t figure out why he pushed this crushingly boring hobby on me. It took me years to realize that he needed topics like politics, art, theatre and stamps to get to intimacy.

After 45 years on Madison Avenue, he retired and moved to Connecticut with my mother. As the years landed on him, getting to the museums and theater in New York became more difficult. Hikes on the beach became impossible. And into that swath of free time finally grew an appreciation for sports viewing, specifically professional football, the sport I had enjoyed watching for years.

He developed a deep loyalty to the New England Patriots and actually became sports conversant. He strongly felt that Tom Brady was invincible and was outraged when Adam Vinatieri left for the Colts. Aaron Hernandez was a “bum” and oft injured Ron Gronkowski was “a luckless bastard.”

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Suddenly, he found watching sports enriching. He even went so far as to buy a pair of loungers from which he and my mother rooted loudly. Football gave my father and I something easy to talk about on the phone, something free of the complications that are a part of every father/son relationship.

But, living in California, I only got to watch one game with him during his sports viewing years. It was on December 1, 2013. We were in his hospital room. We saw the Patriots barely beat the Texans. “I hope they don’t play like that in the Super Bowl,” he said.

Neither my father nor the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl. After he passed away, six days after that game, I realized that this was the first and last time I'd ever just hung out with him. There was no meaningful conversation. No stamps being given historical context. No topic dissected. No life plan analyzed. Nothing formal. It was just me and my beloved NFL convert watching the game. Together.

Tags: family

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