The Player

Colin batting

He bounds in every morning, obsessed with the night before. The winners. The losers. Who moved into first place. Who moved into last.

What follows is a 6-year-old’s version of “SportsCenter.”

“Hey Doddy, guess wot? Hey Doddy, guess wot?” Within minutes he’s ripped through everything from how Steph Curry and the Warriors are doing to who’s up to fourth in the NHL’s Central Division. (Important note: his sportswriter father might not be able name all the teams in the Central Division, let alone know who is what place at any given moment).

He is, in just about every way, a 4-foot version of myself. Will Graves 2.0. Precocious. Energetic. A bit obnoxious (which you can get away with when you’re in first grade, not so much when you’re 41). A little sweeter than his old man (his mother’s influence thank God) but with a bite that will sometimes surprise you. (Note to any 6-year-old’s reading this, the phrase “Mommy Days stink” should never exit your lips, trust me).

He is, even more so than I was at his age, obsessed with sports. We didn’t push it on him. It just sort of happened. He figured out pretty early daddy went to the games and talked to the players. But as the preoccupations of his young childhood faded (see you later “Thomas & Friends,” don’t miss you a lick weird, bald-headed “Caillou,” are we really past the “Cars” phase already? Sigh.) a new one emerged.

Baseball. Football. Basketball. Hockey. Soccer (true story: he dropped an MLS reference on a buddy a couple of weeks ago). He loves analyzing the stats of his favorite players (and some random ones too). I’ve written a series of very basic children’s sports books and occasionally I’ll find him laying on his bed flipping from one page to the next. “Hey Doddy, guess who was a good team? The 2013 Miami Heat. Hey Doddy,  guess who won Super Bowl X-V-I-I?” He knows the answers, packing them somewhere in his brain between what he wants for dinner (usually tacos) and whether or not he has gym that day (translation: Doddy will let him wear sweat pants if he does).

It is fascinating to watch him jump around while watching NBA highlights, for him to constantly provide updates that happen to scroll across the bottom, to reflexively flip to one of the ESPNs in search of a game, ANY game (we’ve watched softball and cricket and Monster Truck racing together).

He is a fan. And there is a purity in his fandom that provides with me a daily reminder on why I love my job, absurd as it occasionally may be. He doesn’t care about salaries or free agency. He’s never known a Pittsburgh Pirates team with a losing record or the Pittsburgh Steelers as Super Bowl champions. His shirt drawer is filled with hoodies and T-shirts of his favorite teams and his favorite players. Guys I know. Guys I cover. Guys I like. Guys I don’t. Guys who don’t like me.

I often think about how much of my job to share with him. Then I think back to what I knew about the men I idolized when I was his age, lower-case gods who didn’t have to deal with the 24/7 news cycle or social media, developments that kept my opinion of them restricted largely to how they did on the field. It wasn’t colored by their Twitter feeds or their Facebook posts or some Vine that got sent to Deadspin or TMZ, things I am thankful for. Things I will try to shield him from, though reality is only one revelation from a blabbermouth 4th-grader on the bus away.

His interest has less to do with the players winning — though he has already become uncomfortably obsessed with results (example: when we turn on some random game, he automatically starts backing whichever team happens to be up) — than the actual GAMES they are playing. Games he can play. With his friends. With his father. With himself.

His joy is evident. His smile unmissable. The way he cocks back his right arm to throw a pretty damn good spiral for a kid his age. The intent look on his face every time he grabs a bat and eyes the ball on the tee. The sound of his voice doing play-by-play during the imaginary showdowns in his head, the ones that make me feel 12 again, when I threw myself onto the ground in our backyard  to score the clinching touchdown (to the puzzlement of my parents and the neighbors) or pulled up to hit the winning jumper at the buzzer over and over and over again.

Yet back then I never worried about the risks. You played with your buddies and you got knocked around. I have no doubt my first concussion came when I was maybe 8-9 and playing in the street, my head bouncing off the asphalt when another kid tried to two-hand touch me into oblivion. I remember seeing stars, breaking down in tears and riding my bike home in a daze. The next one almost certainly came during my one year playing organized football, when _ as a 58-pound left tackle in a 75-pound league _ I was bowled over on a running play and woke up looking at the moon. There was the time in high school when I was clotheslined (I can still see Chris W in midair, his right arm extended). I laid on the ground for several seconds (no tears, thankfully) and kept playing. Then there was the street hockey game where the ball popped up in front of my face and the opponent in front of me grabbed his stick like a bat, swung and missed the ball … but not the front of my goalie cage.

I never went to the doctor. I never told my parents. I didn’t even really think about it once the headaches went away. It was part of the game.

I’ve heard that phrase over and over again in my professional life from athletes (not just football players) coming back from injury, concussions or otherwise. It’s a cliche I try to keep out of my copy, but one I have some sense of fealty to because, hell, I always figured it was.

But it’s one thing when it’s your head, your health, your pain. It’s another when it’s your child’s. I am not a helicopter parent (the morning routine in our house after my wife leaves every morning could best be described as polite anarchy) but I ask our kids “Are you OK?” so much it comes off as a nervous tic (and maybe it is).

Our son’s second Little League season awaits. He has more than a token interest in basketball (our Nerf games in his room are suitably epic) and his affinity for football (at least throwing it and catching it) is growing by the day. My wife and I have talked about what to do when he asks to play Big Boy Tackle Football.

Thankfully for now we don’t have to worry about giving him a serious answer. For now, simple games of catch _ the ones that end with a “Gronk Spike” _ are enough. Maybe by the time he’s big enough (at 48 pounds he’s still more Pop Tart material than Pop Warner material) the medical community will have some sort of consensus on how to deal with head injuries.

The science is evolving, but hardly fast enough to provide anything resembling consenus. Some doctors feel concussions are complex but treatable and apparently some of the guys they take care of agree:

AB concussion

Treatable, maybe, but treatable is far different than avoidable.

And that’s the part where the journalist in me and the dad in me can’t seem to agree on well, a lot of things.

The NFL acknowledged there was a 58 percent increase in reported concussions this season even as the league has tried to take steps to eradicate the kind of play that leads to them in the first place.

You know, plays like this (which Deadspin perfectly described as an “assassination attempt“) against Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown (and the reason the two-time All-Pro is in the above picture in the first place) in playoffs a few weeks ago:

 

The league ended up suspending Burfict for the first three games of next season, not so much for this one individual shot as much as his rapidly growing resume of hyper-aggressive plays make it appear he’s playing “whack a mole” with someone else’s life.

These hits _ for decades legal (google: Jack Tatum, Sammy White and Super Bowl XI if you need proof) _ are now either “a part of the game” or “criminal” depending on which side of the Ohio/Pennsylvania border you happen to live on. An hour before Burfict drilled Brown, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was neither fined or flagged for this:

shazier

The sportswriter #HotTake (note: I am decidedly anti-hot take) is that there is a war on football. Not exactly. Ray Rice knocked his fiance out, and people still watched. The drumbeat of former players concerned about the long-term health effects of treating their bodies (and particularly their heads) like well-muscled but hardly invincible pinballs for years is growing louder. And still 62.9 million people clicked to the final minutes of the AFC Championship game.

There is no war, at least not one you can see at the professional level. The ratings have rarely been better. The money never more astronomical. The stardom of the league’s bold-faced names never more widespread.

The real battle, the one whose ripple effects won’t be felt maybe for decades, is happening at dinner tables across the U.S. between parents of their own little 6-year-old Antonio Brown wannabes, the ones who watch the games on TV, follow their heroes on Twitter, hear the roars, see the commercials and the highlights and dream of pulling a jersey over their own heads one day, running out of the tunnel and “Dabbing” to his heart’s content.

Cam

For now I can keep my son satisfied with a Nerf ball and our own imaginary 2-minute drills, the one where we have to go from our mailbox to the neighbor’s before the clock hits zero to win the game.

Yet those days are dwindling. He’s going to start asking more frequently, more seriously, if he can put on pads and play for real.

And I will try to reconcile the writer who makes a living chronicling a league and a sport celebrated in no small part for its brutality with the parent who isn’t sure he wants to send his small but rapidly growing firstborn into harm’s way.

The writer in me believes the dangers of football (or any contact sport) are self-evident, just like smoking. Watch a game for 10 minutes and you know what you’re getting into.  Firefighters will go to every elementary school in the country this year, hand out plastic red helmets and teach kids to “Stop, Drop and Roll” to avoid smoke in case of fire. How anyone thought inhaling a slightly filtered version of that same smoke into their lungs intentionally was a good idea, I’ll never understand.

While I sympathize with players and families dealing with CTE, I can’t ever remember a time when one NFL player _ or any player for that matter _ say he was forced to play against his will.

I freely admit that viewpoint is cynical with hints of hypocrisy and hindsight elitism. And yet I can’t shake it. And I understand that there’s no guarantee he’ll suffer any sort of long-term effects from playing football as opposed to anything else.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if his dreams are allowed to come at the expense of my wife and I’s unspoken terror.

A coach I once covered likened every play to a car accident. When I asked him why he felt it necessary to have one running back carry the ball on 19 straight plays (or “19 straight car accidents” as I called it) he flushed and said he was simply trying to get the game over as quickly as possible.

Look, there’s a Senior Golf Tour. Gyms across the country are filled with guys playing basketball into their 60s and beyond. The same goes for tennis and soccer (and even hockey) and on and on and on.

Not in football, which is typically relegated to once a year Turkey Bowls. Why? Because it hurts like hell. Because it’s dangerous. Because the risks of what can happen when the ball is snapped are clear and hardly worth the pain when there aren’t millions of dollars on the line.

Yet my son doesn’t know that. He just wants to watch the game. He wants to know the score. He wants to pretend to be the guys his father spends so much time writing about. He wants to join them on the field.

And each day that goes by brings us closer to the day when his mother and I will have to give him a real answer.

Right now, we have no idea what it’s going to be. And we’re not the only ones.

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Grace

 

Grace

Most Sundays, I still want to cry. Most Sundays, I still do. Sometimes a little. Sometimes more than a little.

I’d love to tell you this has come from sort of internal epiphany, that I’ve reached some level of enlightenment on whatever kind of spiritual quest I’m on, one that I haven’t defined and one that — if I’m being honest — I kind of don’t want to.

It started, as most things do for me these days, with a challenge from my wife. For years she heard me talk about this somewhat seemingly random college phase where I was saved, joined a church, a ministry and even served as a youth group leader. I led prayer groups, sang in the band and went door to door in dormitories with a Bible in hand.

No, really.

As I’ve written about before my intentions at the time were mixed. I was motivated as much by social awkwardness as anything else. And just as suddenly _ at about the same time I joined the student newspaper and found my professional calling (and as a True Believer in the power of the written word, a spiritual one too) _ the urge vanished.

I’ve spent the better part of two decades locking that period in a box save for occasionally bringing it up, mainly to get some perverse sense of enjoyment out of the surprised look on the face of those I tell, people who know me only the cynical, perpetually foul-mouthed smart ass persona that I have carefully (well, maybe not so carefully) cultivated.

Every year the pangs of reconnecting — or maybe connecting on a truly sincere level for the first time — came around Christmas. And every year I’d talk about it, the holidays would pass and I would do nothing, the urge vanishing as quickly as M&Ms in the hands of my two children.

Then last winter my wife told me to put my faith where my fingers were. We took online tests to see what we believe _her a Catholic disaffected by the way the church handled (or didn’t as it turns out) serial child abuse, me a nondenominational wanderer _ what we don’t and where we might find a compromise.

I wanted to shop around. She didn’t. There are a handful of churches in our neighborhood but we opted for a Methodist church a little up the road.

We shuffled into a pew about halfway up the aisle. The kids polite but anxious. My wife calm. Me wondering battling the doubts that have prevented me from putting one foot in front of the other _ really, one knee next to the other in prayer _ for years.

I can’t tell you what Lynn, the church’s remarkably talented pianist, played. All I know is the emotional wave that accompanied it staggered me. The tears came slowly then all at once.

This is the part where we talk about Jesus and religion and big Gods and little ones. I know how that tends to go over. Hell, when I’m interviewing an athlete and he starts talking about his faith, my instinctive reaction is to roll my eyes, hit pause or walk away. Who cares what God thinks about your game? Tell me more about that play in the third quarter that I’m going to forget by Tuesday.

I lived with a Muslim for several months in college. He was in his early 30s, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia getting his masters in engineering. He washed his hands and feet five times a day, prayed toward the east and had a wife and family who would call once or twice a week. He would talk to them on speaker phone. I have no idea what his wife was saying, but I can remember the sound of the chaos that comes from having small children filling in the background as she spoke, a noise that doesn’t sound that unlike my house on a random Tuesday morning.

This was the mid-90s, before the Towers came crashing, before Watch Lists and Ted Cruz. I found him fascinating but I didn’t fear him. The respect was mutual. Muhammad gave me a Koran. I let him look at my Bible. We would talk about the differences (and more shockingly, the similarities) between the two books.

He was a good guy. A decent guy. I repaid that decency by neglecting to pay the phone bill, at one point taking his share and using it to buy concert tickets. (Did I mention I was  am kind of a tool?)

We didn’t keep in touch after that semester. Yet whenever I watch the news or read stories or Facebook screeds about Muslims or Islam, I think about Muhammad. I wonder how his life is. I wonder if his house still sounds like that.

The inherent skeptic in me makes it hard for me to imagine a God (feel free to use whatever name you prefer) who would exclude large swaths of people, of a God that would choose one ethnicity over another. Of a God that would encourage slaughter in the name of faith, something that your 10th grade history teacher tells you has happened just as much in Jesus’ name as in Allah’s.

And while all that is true, there’s a deeper level of conflict here. I hate labels. It’s one of the reasons I’m impossible to shop for. One of my biggest fears is looking back at a picture 20 years from now and seeing the logo of some clothing company (save for Nike, who I will ride or die with forever) and feeling so … dated. So … old. So … wrong.

My mistake for years has been wanting the same thing out of my religion. My mistake was thinking that my faith and God’s word are both static. They’re not. They’re living. They’re evolving. They’re morphing.

AND THEY ARE THERE. ALWAYS THERE. WAITING. PATIENTLY.

And maybe that’s what caused the tears to fall that first Sunday back. Maybe it was the comfort of the organ, the familiar smell of the pews’ upholstery. I have no idea if God was talking to me. I don’t trust myself enough to think I can divine whatever message he (or She, because let’s be real here, we have no idea) might be sending.

But I know that I felt … something. The best way I can describe it is silent grace, some sort of reassurance things can be different, that I can be different.

One weekend turned into three turned into us becoming members by the end of the spring, fueled as much by my wife’s level of commitment and determination and our kids’ level of comfort as the tears on my cheeks.

I’d love to tell you I’ve thrown myself into the Bible. I haven’t. The best I can do is immediately texting myself verses that stand out, like Matthew Chapters 5-7, which basically is Jesus asking his disciples what they are setting as the foundation of their lives? How will they weather the storms that will come? And … this is important for egomaniacs like myself … the dangers of getting so focused on what you are getting that you never realize what you have been given.

And I have been given far more than most, something that’s impossible to judge by my Twitter feed, which is a mixture of sarcasm, shoutouts to Journalism Purists (we still exist) and taking the piss out of anybody who gets a little too full of themselves (something that in the grand scheme just makes me look petty, which is probably the truth).

It’s funny how so much of what the New Testament and what Jesus talks about can be boiled down to this: Don’t be a jackass.

That is a sentiment that is universal. One I can get behind. One I can believe in.

It’s funny how the hesitancy I felt going back to church that first time has been replaced by an expectancy. After much dragging of my feet, I joined the choir. I’m the youngest member (save for the music director’s daughter) by at least a decade. My best buddy in there is an 81-year-old man named Ralph whose assuredness in his gentle faith is as staggering as it is compassionate.

I didn’t join to be the star. To be the new guy. (And while I could point out I made the Tri-County chorus in 1991 …. ss anybody who has karaoked with me knows, I make up for in enthusiasm what I lack in talent). I did it be a part of something. Not to stand out but to blend in. To feel part of something larger than myself. And in those moments when we stand as one, the grace I’ve been chasing for so many years appears before me. I tentatively drink it in, baby steps in a journey I hope never ends.

I am pound sign blessed, whether I want to admit it or not. Heck, I hope we all are.