This rambling story will end up being about my youngest daughter and roller skating, so you can stop reading now if you like. Nobody will hold that against you.
But before we get to my Katie … we hear a lot about overbearing parents in sports. I was thinking about this the other day: I can go months, even years, without anyone bringing up, say, Roger Staubach in conversation. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and he hardly ever comes up. And, of course, it isn’t only Staubach. It’s also true for Whitey Ford or Alex English or Jari Kurri or Mel Blount or a hundred other great players.
But I’d say at least once on a month, someone will bring up the story of Todd Marinovich. He started eight games in his NFL career, threw more interceptions than touchdowns, was about as unmemorable a player as a first round quarterback can be. And yet, because his father, former USC football star Marv Marinovich, rather famously tried to raise him as the perfect quarterback (the story ALWAYS seems to include the detail that Todd never got to eat a Big Mac as a young man), people never seem to tire of his story. The story of Earl Woods … Mutt Mantle … Richard Williams … Gloria Thompson Connors … these and countless others are a vivid part of the sports landscape.
And that’s fine, but there’s actually a whole other trend in sports, probably a more prominent trend, that I’ve come to appreciate as a Dad. As part of the job, I get to talk to a lot of parents of really cool kids — academic All-Americans, role models in their communities, leaders on their teams or in their classes — and when I ask those parents the secret to raising such awesome overachievers they will almost always say: “Oh, I didn’t have much to do with it.”
I have always thought they were being modest. At least I did when my daughters were young. Then, we pretty much controlled every phase of their lives. We had a pretty strong influence in just about everything they did — when they ate, when they slept, what music they listened to, what TV shows they watched, how much TV they watched, what clothes they wore. We pretty much called all the shots. I think we knew that wouldn’t last. But knowing and KNOWING are two different things.
We used to live next door to this wonderful family with three sons. To tell you how wonderful a family they were … well, I’ll divert here and tell you one of my more embarrassing stories. One day my car was dead in the garage. Well, the battery had died. We had one of those side garages, you know, the kind where you pull into a long driveway, go behind the house and then make a 90-degree right turn to get into the garage. This little fact is important for the story. The garage faced the neighbors wood fence and backyard.
I decided, being brilliantly smart about these things, that the best way for me to handle this car mini-crisis was to singlehandedly push the car out of the garage so that I could pull my wife’s car next to it and jumpstart the battery. This made absolute sense to me in the moment. You know how in sitcoms they always have the absent-minded clown who does bizarrely illogical things all the time but seems to BELIEVE that they are sensible. It’s no fun to realize that you are actually that person in real life.
So, I started to push the car out of the garage, and the plot might have worked if the driveway had been perfectly level. Of course, best I can tell NO driveway is perfectly level. There was a tiny little drop-off at the end of the garage, probably no more than a half an inch high, barely even noticeable. I had not noticed it, for instance. But, a half inch was enough. The back wheels of the car fell off that little drop-off, and the car, at that point, would have held up one of those “Oh Oh!” signs that Wile E. Coyote used when he dropped off a cliff. And the car began to roll away from me.
I will never forget the feeling of watching that car slowly roll away from me. My mind had about a thousand questions going on at once. What now? Can I run around the car and stop it? Can I jump into the drivers seat and slam the breaks? Can I grab the front bumper and stop it from rolling, the way the Incredible Hulk might? Why don’t more movie theaters have assigned seats? What sort of announcer would the Phillies lovable old first baseman John Kruk be? And 994 more questions. It is in moments like these that I fully realize just what an idiot I am when it comes to almost everything. When people say that I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to sports or writing, I think: “Man, you should see me in the rest of my life.”
The car just rolled away and at that point I had no bright ideas how to stop it. And so I watched. There was probably a 20 or 25-foot bit of driveway, and then a small strip of grass, and then the neighbors wooden fence. The car gathered just a bit of speed in the driveway part (I had not realized that it was gently downhill there), rolled over the strip of grass and knocked down the wood fence. At that point it stopped in the backyard, and the car looked at me as if to say, “I’m not entirely sure how someone as dumb as you made enough money to own a car.”
You can only imagine the awkward explanation that followed this incident. But there were three fortunate things. One, the family next door was absolutely wonderful — they must have asked me a thousand times if I was OK (they did not seem to understand the “I wasn’t in the car at the time,” part of the story … and why would they?). Two, the family next door was already vaguely aware that I was a goofball and seemed to accept me for it. And three, the family next door was the sort to look at a busted fence not as some sort of tragedy but as an bonding opportunity to build a new fence with their three sons.
Anyway … just about every day, I would see those three sons outside playing some sport or other, usually with the mom or dad watching or participating. Sometimes, not often but sometimes, I would play. They would play basketball in the driveway, throw the baseball against this pitch-back, throw the football around. They did this every single day. It was so great to watch them all together, and it was clear how much they loved each other, and I had little doubt that those boys were going to grow up and be successful in whatever they did. Then last year, we were driving by our old house, and we saw the dad in the driveway, and we pulled over to talk with him.
“Have you been busy?” we asked.
“Well, obviously with everything that’s been going on with Dan …” he said.
We didn’t know what was going on with Dan, the youngest of the sons (the one we really got to watch grow up). Turns out, Dan Tapko had become one of the most highly recruited tight ends in America. He ended up signing with Oklahoma after visiting Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri, etc. He’s this great kid, smart, committed, just like his brothers Sam and Luke, and at some point his Dad, Mark, said (with great pride): “I didn’t have a lot to do with it.” Only I know he did. I know exactly how much he and Julie had to do with it.
Then again, I also know that in many ways he was right too … or at least I know what he means. As our daughters get older, I am beginning to realize that there are things about your children that surprise you. Yes, there are many things that don’t surprise you. It doesn’t surprise me that at least 17 times every day I have to tell our daughters to “calm down.” It doesn’t surprise me that they are polite, that they love junk food, that they are constantly complimenting strangers, that they love to read, that they argue over the most extraordinarily pointless things like which one has to practice the piano first.
But there are other things … stuff that doesn’t quite fit. And I see these things more and more every day. I was — and in many ways am — a terribly unconfident person. I never liked standing out in a crowd. I would not raise my hand in classrooms. I would not wander over to a group unless invited. Even now, I find myself having to brace myself when approaching an interview subject or calling one … Frank Deford, I believe, once talked about how many people go into this crazy profession not because they are outgoing but for exactly the opposite reason, because they’re shy and the job gives them a professional excuse to talk to people. I feel that.
Our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, has many of my tendencies. She’s very social, but in large rooms she will go timid. She will hide behind me sometimes. She loses her confidence easily. I know this feeling. I understand it. I try to help her work through it.
But our youngest daughter, Katie, has none of this. None of it. She is bold and hyper-competitive and seems to realize at all times that she is as good as anyone else in the room. She is 6 years old, and so I have no idea how long it will last. But she has already learned this … things that, in many ways, I’ve never learned. I have seen this is many ways already, and I am surprised every time I see it. The roller skating incident, though, was the most surprising of all.
The elementary school near our house has a roller skating night every so often, and Katie had wanted to go for a long time. She is in kindergarten now, so she finally got to go this year. It’s probably worth mentioning here that Katie cannot roller skate. This was her first time. So she went out there and like all first-time roller skaters, worked her away slowly around the perimeter wall. Every so often she would try to brave the elements and go 3 or 4 feet away from the wall. She would inevitably fall or at least stumble back into the wall. It was, I regret to admit, quite entertaining.
Then, the music stopped, and the lights turns on, and the guy over the speaker asked everyone to clear the floor because it was time for the limbo … where the best skaters would try to limbo under the wooden pole, the winner would get some kind of prize, you know the drill. So the older kids — suddenly there were the high school aged kids — lined up to limbo.
And Katie would not leave the floor.
My wife Margo, who was trying to help Katie with her skating, said: “OK, we need to get off the floor now.” Katie refused. She said: “I want to limbo.” Margo told her that the limbo was for older kids. She refused to believe it. She said that it was everybody. Margo told her that the limbo was the best skaters. She refused to believe it. She said that the guy had not mentioned any skill requirements. Margo told her, “Honey, you can’t even stand up.” Katie refused to believe that too.
So, she stayed out there for the limbo. If I could list the 100 things I would have been least likely to do when I was 6 years old or 10 or 18, staying out for the limbo when I couldn’t skate would have been 99 of them. To be honest, it wouldn’t even have been on the list because “least likely” suggests there’s a slight chance I would actually do it. And there would have been NO chance, exactly 0.0000% chance. Someone could have offered me jewels, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, a lifetime baseball pass and the electric Lego set I craved my whole childhood … and I still would not have done it. I would not do it now either.
But Katie insisted on doing it. And, technically, she WAS right. It was open to everybody. There were no other little kids out there, true, but they could have stayed. Katie stayed out there. She made it under the first time (with obvious help from Margo) and Margo told her: “OK, you did it, let’s go,” and she again said, “No. I want to limbo.” So she stayed out there for a second time, and this time she fell down and was knocked out of the competition.
And here’s the kicker to the whole thing: When she got knocked out, she was not sad. She was not happy either. She was … MAD. She was convinced that she was going to win the thing. She’s 6 years old, and she can’t skate, and she was 100% certain — not 75%, not 93% but 100% — that she was going to win the limbo. And when it ended, after getting beyond the anger she felt at herself for falling, she was certain that with practice she would win the next one.
Watching her out there was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had as a parent. I was proud and embarrassed, nervous and uncertain. I did not teach her this. I could not teach her this. If someone had told me then, “Wow, your daughter has such amazing confidence,” I would have to say — as so many parents have said to me — “I had nothing to do with it.
I desperately hope she keeps that confidence, that verve, that fearlessness. I believe that stuff can change the world. That is the confidence I see in so many people I admire, people who are doing things, fixing things, achieving things. Thing is, I don’t know if she will keep that verve because, frankly, I don’t know where it came from in the first place. There’s only so much as parents you know. Every year, that becomes more apparent.
And I think that’s one of the many wonders and challenges of parenthood. Even in the most extreme cases, there’s only the parent much you can do. Marv Marinovich raised a son good enough to be a quarterback, but one who obviously felt the walls closing in around him. Earl Woods raised a son ready to conquer the golf world, but perhaps one not quite able to handle the life that goes with it. Mutt Mantle raised a most remarkable baseball player but one who struggled terribly with living. At some point, I guess, all you can really do is expose them to the world, push their curiosity, teach them to say please and thank you, help them with the school project they only just remembered, and try to help them navigate their way through the rights and wrongs and massive gray areas in between.
“Daddy,” Katie told me, “next time I’m going to win the limbo.”
“You might,” I told her as we walked out of the rink. “You just might.”