It was just another Sunday in the life of the Sports Dad, a long drive to a musty gymnasium to sit on hard bleachers and cheer his child in a youth league game with a tabletop scoreboard and yawning referees and no end in sight.
Except this time Erick Brennan noticed something odd about his 13-year-old son’s Tristan’s basketball team.
There were no adults involved in their pregame warmups. There were no adults sitting on their bench. Brennan couldn’t find a familiar face with a clipboard or whistle. So he climbed down out of the bleachers of the Seal Beach gym to assess the situation and was immediately questioned by the nervous youngsters.
“Mister, mister, where’s our coach?’’
He paused, looked around, and made a Sports Dad decision.
“Well, um, I guess I’m your coach,’’ he said, and this owner of a special-effects company took a deep breath and began to coach.
He didn’t know the plays. He didn’t really know many of the players’ names. He let them pick their starting lineup.
Then just before they took the court, he noticed another oddity. One of the players was wearing one basketball shoe and one slipper.
“I forgot one of my shoes,’’ the child said.
“Tell you what, you can sit here and coach with me,’’ Brennan said.
Together the duo coached the team through the first half, but the child was looking increasingly antsy and forlorn. So at halftime, Brennan looked down at their feet, compared sizes, and made another Sports Dad decision.
“Hey, why don’t you just wear my shoes?’’ Brennan said.
The child happily laced them up and played the rest of the game in his coach’s sneakers as his team came back from a 12-point deficit to steal an improbable victory.
It was just another Sunday in the life of a Sports Dad, who celebrated this one by pacing up and down the sidelines in black socks.
“Isn’t that kind of what fathers do?’’ Brennan said.
It is, and this column is for them, a Fathers’ Day ode to all the Sports Dads who do it right.
In a youth sports world filled with the horror of LaVar Balls and the stigma of Daddy Ball, this column is for the unsung, unknown, unconditionally supportive pops who change their lives and lose their weekends to embrace and empower their children for little more than a season-ending slice of pizza.
You hear about all the fathers who scream at their child from behind the backstop. You never hear about the ones who sit quietly on a dugout bench while rearranging a lineup so that the most challenged child has a chance to spend part of the game in some place besides right field.
You read all about the fathers who scream at the umpires. You never hear about the ones who actually become the umpires when the regular umpires don’t show up. These dads don’t have protectors or masks, so they umpire from behind the pitching mound, where the initial gratitude of their fellow parents quickly turns to wrath at their impossible calls.
Sports Dads not only umpire, they pitch, they catch, they rake the field, they clean up the dugouts, they turn off the lights, they drive away with the equivalent of a sporting goods store in the trunk of their battered vans.
Oh yeah, and then they go to work.
Mike Amerio, the managing partner of an accounting firm who coached his three boys for 15 years in Sierra Madre, found it particularly challenging when he coached son Adam’s baseball teams during tax season.
Amerio would be so rushed to get to the practice field after work, he would change clothes in his car, pushing back the front seat and parking far away from prying eyes. Then he would rush back to the office afterward and work until midnight in his coaching gear.
“I have to admit, many big decisions for big businesses have been made when I’m wearing my cap and cleats,’’ he said with a smile. “If you want to be around your children during an important time in their life, that’s just what you do.’’
That’s just what Sports Dads do. You know them. You’ve seen them.
They’re the ones with sunburned ears. They’re the ones who show up for work Monday in complete exhaustion after spending the weekend at games. They’re always with their children. They’re never home. Their front yard has weeds, their gutters need painting, and their fashion sense is beyond explanation.
Nowhere is love for one’s child more evident than in a father who will agree to wear those hideous canary uniforms with short shorts and knee socks as a volunteer referee at a youth soccer games.
”I understood the purpose of the outfit, and I didn’t consider it silly, although I certainly may have looked silly wearing it,’’ said Frank Bigelow, a lawyer who coached youth sports for 25 years in the San Gabriel Valley.
Bigelow is being cited in this story because, of all the folks who coached my oldest daughter Tessa during years of youth soccer, he is the one she remembers most. It wasn’t because his teams won, it was because his teams had fun. He never yelled, never demeaned, never excluded. He patiently taught and treated each child as if they were his own, which he says now was the whole point.
“I only coached because I wanted to spend time with my three children,’’ Bigelow said. “My father died when I was 16. He missed things. I didn’t want to miss anything.’’
Here’s to the Sports Dads who don’t miss anything. They know when a kid is on the verge of tears. They know when to give a fist pump. They know how to do a celebratory dad dance. If a kid cries, they comfort him with the promise of postgame ice cream. If a kid needs motivation, they give him bubblegum. If a kid strikes out or misses a big shot, they give him the best kind of comfort, breaking the awkward silence or subtle groans with a resounding, “Nice try!’’
Our ears aren’t tuned into the comfort. We only hear the loud and nasty and get-a-life dads, those who live vicariously through their children, so much that a certain Chino Hills father has made an industry out of it.
Listen closer to the Sports Dads who don’t criticize, but cherish.
”I see some of these dads, I want to tell them, relax, enjoy it, it goes really fast, the actual game is not that important,’’ said Jim Young. a sale manager who coached his two daughters for about 10 years in the La Cañada Flintridge area. “I’m sitting in a Starbucks now and I see a bunch of uniformed kids and their parents come in and I think, man, I really miss that.’’
He is being mentioned in this story because he is the one coach most remembered by my youngest daughter Mary Clare, who still talks about how he mostly filled out a lineup and stood back and clapped, always giving the game over to the kids.
“I never had any grand illusions,’’ Young said. “I just wanted to hang out with my girls and do whatever I could to help them have fun.’’
Happy Father’s Day to all those Sports Dads who would happily give their children the shirts off their back.