What sports can do for a child

I began playing youth football when I was 8. I didn’t know what I was doing – few of us did. My main goal was to not get yelled at.

I began playing baseball at a much younger age. Football was nothing like it. Every night, rain or shine, we had practice from 5 to 7 p.m. I believe I hated every second of it.

But my parents never let me skip practice.

The ordeal was painful, mentally and physically, and perhaps cruel. For the first time in my life, I was expected to keep running even after I was in pain. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a mile – this route around three baseball fields at the Little League park – but I may as well have been running to the next county.

When how these death jogs went was still unfamiliar to me, I had to stop before the halfway point. As soon as I did, I heard my coach from across the complex yelling for me to keep going. I’d walk just so he’d shut up. Then I’d see other players on my team getting farther ahead. I’d look behind me to measure the distance of the heavier players no one expected to take less than all night. Once I could hear them panting, I knew it was time for me to start jogging again. I’ll never forget the first time I threw up on one of these runs.

It went on like this for years. The running got easier, but the aggravation that was taking me away from my family, comfort zone and childhood never ceased. I can’t remember ever actually liking football practice … even the friendly competitions that were reward for our team doing something well. It felt like my freedom was being violated

I CAN SAY THIS now without fear of retaliation from coaches or old-timers who seemed to like me playing more than I did. At this point in my life, my manhood – which is always what gets called into question by these people when a young boy or teenager states he doesn’t enjoy every second of playing football – speaks for itself. I graduated from college, have a good job, own a home and take care of my family. I’m doing everything the coaches said we were supposed to do when we grew up.

You know those stereotypes people put on small-town football guys? The ones that peg grown men as trying to live their dreams through their kids or someone else’s kids? Degrading, unfair statements about big fish in small ponds … things like that? They may or may not be true; I believe they are in some cases. But they all play into a world that made me who I am – and who I want my kids to be.

I hope my children sign up for something someday that requires practices they want to skip. I hope they have to run, feel pain, then get yelled at for not fighting through the pain. I hope when it rains, the coach checks for lightning when no one is looking and tells the team to keep practicing. I hope the weight of their shoulder pads feels like the weight of the world on their back … and all they can do is keep going.

I hope they have to run until they puke.

ALL OF THIS occurred to me this weekend when I realized that despite being completely exhausted, physically and mentally, following our family’s move into a new house, it appears I will not get a chance to recover. Ever. I’m still weeks away from hanging every photo, shelf and dog leash hanger. Who knows how many more boxes need unpacked but have not yet been because they aren’t essentials. Hollie still has to work whenever I don’t, so none of this can be done in the daylight hours because someone has to watch Kalob and Kalista has to do her homework, so she can’t, and Jakob is still too small. I’ll never get to bed before midnight. This is never going to end. It’s never going to be easy.

Some men might give up and start walking. Some might quit altogether because it’s too hard. Some may not be used to fighting through pain or discomfort because, let’s face it, no one’s ever told them they had to.

When I played football in high school, I was not that good. I was a defensive starter and made plays here and there, but I sincerely doubt opposing teams made game plans to avoid me. Beyond my parents, the only people who truly cared about my performance on game days were coaches and the guys trying to live their dreams through kids on the field. I never wanted to let these people down because they were supporting me.

My adult life is very much like playing football in high school. These exhausting, trying times remind me of practice. Walks with the kids across the fields surrounding our house are like game day – the reward for the grueling practice. But if I did not today possess the fortitude and resilience I learned as a child and young man playing football … if I did not learn young that one isn’t dying just because he or she is in pain … I might have never learned what it takes to achieve my goals. I never want to let Hollie and the children down because they are supporting me.

I can’t teach my children to run until they puke, just like my parents didn’t have the callousness to do it to me. Only the hardcore fundamentalist Baptists do crap like that to their kids. But I can tell them they have to go to practice every night because they are part of a team counting on their presence like they count on me today. I can tell them when they get to practice, it’s more than likely going to be uncomfortable – but they have to keep going.

I can tell them that is what life is like. I can tell them I love them and hope they do great things, but nothing in life that is worth doing is accomplished without fortitude and resilience.



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Investing in memories you can hold

Tonight I bought a bunch of real dishes – a complete, matching set. Two of them, actually, to service my fleet of children and guests before they are scared away by my fleet of children.

Also purchased was a set of silverware that wasn’t in the restaurant supply section, bath towels that weren’t the $1.88 apiece variety and I shopped – yes, actually compared – various kitchen appliances.

Until about two years ago, I always considered purchases like these as frivolous and stupid. Why spend 50 dollars are solid forks, spoons and knives that don’t bend if they get caught in the silverware drawer when the restaurant supply store sells the flimsy stuff business owners expect people to steal and throw away for 50 cents apiece? What’s wrong with the mismatched set of hand-me-down plates incorporated with the obnoxiously blue dishes I bought on sale at Big Lots six years ago? And towels? Don’t even get me started on the racket these things are. You use them to dry yourself … why should I care if they have holes, bleach spots and are threadbare?

As mentioned in an earlier post, we move into a bigger, better house next week. And I’m suddenly domesticated. I suddenly want to have nice things to go with the oak kitchen table and chairs I bought and refinished. The kids will have their own bathroom … they need their own colored towels so Hollie and I can keep ours to ourselves. Suddenly, these “frivolous” things matter to me.

Part of this is the sense of home I aim to create. Sadly, when I was a single parent to Kalista, it never occurred to me the mismatched sets that kept breaking and being replaced by other cheap crap may be stifling my daughter’s sense of “home.” Nothing was constant – there was nothing she could hold 10 years later and think, “I remember eating off of this when I was 6.”

This occurred to me a week ago when I saw a set of Corelle plates in Walmart. As I picked one up on display, childhood memories came back … my family ate off of plates the same weight, shape and had the same high-pitched sound when you scraped them with your fingernail.

Some of the silverware we use today was high-quality stuff inherited from my late grandmother. It was around when I was 4 and we’d visit her in Ohio. To this day, I remember using it to eat Marty’s Mush and cereal from the individual boxes only she bought for home.

Towels have their own memories, I’ve grown to realize. They are a comfort on a cold day in winter. They embrace you after a shower following a long day at school or work. They swaddle your baby; they dry him years later after a youth football game. They are bedding for the family dog toward the end of their lives. You may not realize it, but towels are associated with some of the most soothing moments we will ever have. The pricey ones that last that long, anyway.

I owe a lot of this change of heart – this domestication – to Hollie. She doesn’t burst with femininity like a shiny debutante, but she’s helped me see the importance of things around the home that last. Our family is fortunate that my job affords us the means to buy these things, but I am fortunate that she has encouraged me to make such purchases.

No, this is not her “spending my money.” I’m onboard with this stuff; I agree with it. As long as it is good for the family and doesn’t affect my ability to purchase NFL Sunday Ticket this season, spend away. It is a good investment.

It is necessary for parents to be fiscally responsible, but it’s important they create rich experiences and memories for their children, among other things. Few things remind a child of childhood more effectively than a common household item they hold in their hands as a child and as an adult. 

Creating that experience for my children someday is worth every penny.    

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The middle of school

Kalista is a middle schooler today. She was not one yesterday.

Yesterday she was a little girl. She believed her stuffed animals have feelings, ate Ring Pops while wearing them and lived for anything that had to do with me. Today, all of that starts to end.

It is reasonable to assume today is the day she will start being as self-conscious as an adult, perhaps more. Someone will pick on her; someone will judge her. She will do whatever it takes to avoid the embarrassment again.

She will see students nearing high school who want to mask their own insecurities with false confidence portrayed through dominating behavior. Some of this dominating behavior will be directed at her; her submissiveness will make her a target. She will grow up instantly as she experiences the ugliness of post-elementary school.

All with which I am armed to offer is the “focus on school” line. It’s terribly ineffective. I’m aware of that, so I remind her she’s beautiful. I remind her she’s smart, likeable and capable of great things. I treat her with humility and hope I’ve taught her how to forgive others and herself.

But the main thing is “you’re there to learn,” academically and socially.

Interestingly enough, she’s not the only one who’s here to learn. I’ve grown to see some of the least successful persons I know believe they know everything. The most successful tend to be those who never stopped being a student of life in general. There is always an opportunity to learn something, no matter how long a person has been doing it.

Humility. Being humble. Those are the most important traits in this life. These are traits for which dead persons are remembered – not professional success or possessions.

All of this is far more advanced than I wish to experience. Tonight I watched Kalob, 13 days from being 19 months old, remind me of Kalista at that age. Where has time gone? Have I squandered my one and only chance to make my only daughter everything she can be? Will she resent me for applying with Kalob what I learned through her? Will she be jealous of him?

I don’t know. I don’t know anything. And that is the terrifying, beautiful part about being a parent. That is why being a parent is the greatest thing we will ever be. It is the greatest thing I will ever be. It’s the greatest thing anyone could ever be, no matter how successful or unsuccessful, sporadic or traditional one’s path to adulthood may be.

It is our service to others that determines our success as humans that actually matters.

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Changing things

Well, it’s been a while …

… since I’ve posted a blog

… since I’ve seen fall leaves

… since a dating site has hacked my blog

… since I’ve used that cliché. 

But here I am. A lot of stuff going on.

We are less than two weeks away, God willing, from moving into a new house – one in the country with five acres. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of that land, but something will come to mind. Always does. Definitely a huge garden. Probably some pretty grass. I would say “trees,” but this property already has pecan, fig and several I couldn’t identify the last time we were there. I don’t want to overdo it on the trees.

For now I look forward to simply mowing it – going up and down and back and forth on a riding lawnmower while no more than 10 cars drive by. I hope it’s not 95 degrees and sunny like it usually is. I’ll have to buy one of those straw hats old men wear.

Six years ago, we moved into the house we’ll be leaving. It is a brick home in a mill village surrounded by other alike-looking brick homes. Lifelong residents would put down neighborhoods like ours because since the five textile mills that once made this town run shut down for good. Mill homes like mine – built for the mill workers decades before – decreased steadily in value.

But I always thought they were cool. Some mornings and some nights, I’d sit on the front porch in the swing I’d painted with Kalista and imagine the neighborhood at its peak. I’d heard stories about the owners of the mill and big shots fining residents for not keeping their yards neat. For not keeping paint on the cement porch steps. For not sweeping their sidewalk.

I bet our neighborhood was something to see.

Some woman from Greenville paid to have new townhomes built just down the street from us. Shiny and new, she tried renting them out for $1,000 a month, but no one’s going to pay that much to live in a run-down mill village in a town where nothing’s going on anyway. Eventually, they became Section VIII housing, meaning the government will pay more than 80 percent of the rent to have a poor family live there – and that’s exactly what happened, in townhome after townhome. The endeavor was so successful, more townhomes were built; more poor persons moved in. The rest is history. We now live in a truly poor neighborhood and get to experience all of the crime statistics the government says come with low-income residents.

When Kalista and I moved in, we were surrounded by old persons. There was a sweet old woman next door whose kids came over on Sundays for dinner. There was an old couple across the street and countless more around them. They served as a barrier to the outside world for my daughter and me. But they have all died, for the most part … buried in the mill village cemetery behind our house.

My parents used to encourage me to move out of the neighborhood, citing Kalista’s inability to make decent friends in a neighborhood like ours. They seemed right most of the time – especially the time one of the little girls came over on a summer day and left a few hours later with arms full of Kalista’s toys she had convinced my daughter to give. Or the time she said some girls laughed at her from their driveway when she fell off her bike. But there was one little girl Kalista befriended who I think she’ll always remember.

“Daddy, remember when we used to … ”

My recent weeks have been full of these beginnings of sentences regarding memories Kalista has at the house. She’s excited to move, but she inherited my ability to be sentimental. My ability to find beauty in something everyone else says is ugly. She remembers things I have forgotten – things I did not even know at the time of their conception would even be a memory. She can disregard 1,000 bad experiences to allow one good one to dominate her collection of recollections.

“What are you going to miss most about this house?” I asked recently.

“My friends.”

I don’t know what I wanted out of that house when we moved in. I could never make it have a bigger yard or more bedrooms. I could never build a study or place to watch football. I could never make room for a swimming pool or basketball goal. I could never take our house in the mill village and bring back the sentiment of the 1950s.

So I shouldn’t be so sad about leaving this house for a place in a smaller town, surrounded by farmland, more room and knotty pine walls inside. I should be glad I’ve got so much grass to mow on a lazy Sunday. I should be glad we have a fireplace and room for a huge table and chairs in the kitchen, around which Kalista’s new siblings and stepmother can sit. I should be glad the kids can ride their bikes everywhere without fear of sex offenders or gangsters spoiling the essence or innocence of perfect days.

I am glad. I am sad. I am sentimental. I am attached.

But this is life and things change. I know that; I try to teach that to Kalista. I try and I fail.

I will miss our house in the mill village.


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A back and forth journey

If parents are lucky, they will die with their children adoring them.

A not-uncommon path to this conclusion may include adoration, less adoration, abandonment, slight adoration, less adoration, adoration II, moderate adoration and so forth, in a rich variety of sequences.

My daughter is in the first of these less adoration stages. She is 10 and I find myself looking at photographs of her with me when she was 2, 3, 4 … back when I was not just one pillar beneath the foundation of her very being, I was everything holding it up.

Then school came. Stupid school. It’s unfortunate to have been correct when I would have rather been wrong, but I called it: the day I walked her into kindergarten for the first time marked the gradual, steady descent from my spot at the top of her life’s totem pole. I’ve been needed less and less as she’s become more and more independent.

Let me call this one, too: next up is abandonment. She will hate me soon and I’ll wait for her to enter adulthood … when the frontal lobe of her brain will finish developing and she’ll view me as the person who loves her the way I always have.

All of this is exactly why Kalob came into my life at a wonderful time. I get to come home from work every day and receive celebrity treatment. Yes, the older children are happy to see me, but they love other people, too. After they greet me and share brief conversations about their day I had to initiate, I’ll see Kalob in his booster seat – covered with his dinner and a smile.

He squirms. Not to escape the chair, but to see me. I can’t get to him fast enough.

In this life, I am fortunate to have been loved and even adored. Some people do not receive this. But I’m lucky enough to have been loved and adored exclusively by my children at one time or another. I don’t feel unselfish for noticing the feeling that comes from being their only one, or at least pretending like I am. That is truly special … even if it does not last forever.

Tonight while Hollie helped Kalista and Jakob pack to move into our new house, I sat on the couch with Kalob, sharing a bag of chips. It began with me giving him smaller pieces and ended with him digging them out of the bag himself like a miniature version of an old fat man. Then we read. Then I gave him his bedtime milk and he fell asleep in my arms. Then I laid him in his bed.

He rested his head on my shoulder practically the entire time. The hair on the back of his head is starting to curl. He has a dimple on his temple. I love the way he laughs.  

I have four more years of this. Then Kalob goes to school. Then, if all goes according to plan, Kalista will be on the doorstep of “adoration II.” Then I get her back as Kalob goes out.

I hope to die with the adoration of each.



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Everyone’s place

“This really, really sucks,” I thought to myself.

Sunday was Mother’s Day. In traditional fashion that only happens once per year, my dad and I joined forces to make our favorite mothers “do nothing” on this day.  The children were under strict order to help by not requiring anything from Hollie or their grandmother.

I had no problem cooking. My dad had no problem cleaning. It was the serving of food – something Hollie normally does for these Sunday dinners at my parents’ house – that killed me.

There are so many kids.

They were literally everywhere when it came time to eat. Like roaches scurrying when the light is turned on, they began squirming into the house from the outside through openings I didn’t even know existed.

“I want a pork chop.”

“Can I have chicken?”

“That’s too much corn.”

Shut up. All of you. Stand in a line, take the plate I give you and be happy with it. And go. Outside. Now.

No, I didn’t say this to them. I intentionally appeared happy to be working the line at a soup kitchen by myself so Hollie or my mom wouldn’t jump up and say, “Here – let me do that.” But beneath the surface, all of these ugly emotions and smart aleck responses were festering.

How do they deal with all of these people?

Too often, I take for granted these simple actions by the mothers in my life. When I arrived at my parents’ house earlier in the day, my mom – despite the day being one for her – was on the deck staining by hand the edges of the deckboards my dad and I had missed the day before. Hollie is usually the one who is last to fill her plate and eat on Sundays because she makes sure all of the children – our three and my parents’ three – get their food first. Then she makes sure all of the adults have tea. Then she gets the baby started on his food. Then one of the older children wants more potatoes. Then the baby throws his cup on the floor, so she has to pick it up. Usually, by the time she starts eating, everyone else is done.

Although I tried to make her and my mother first to eat this Sunday, Hollie still came back inside where I struggled to feed the baby and waited until he was done to begin eating her own dinner. Her food had to have been ice cold by that time. I’d grilled steaks and fried chicken wings for her and pork chops for the kids so those vultures would leave her stuff alone. But the vultures were her first priority. I was her first priority. Everyone and everything other than herself was her first priority.

My mother, meanwhile, continued to referee squabbles, answer questions from the children that never should have been asked and respond to general silliness instead of eating her food. It seemed her role as a mother hadn’t ceased for Mother’s Day.

“How can they be enjoying this?” I wondered, frustrated.

A few hours later, after the cake had been eaten, tables cleared and kitchen cleaned, Hollie thanked me for the day. It was not an obligatory statement, either. I could tell she had actually enjoyed everything.

I realized then a mother’s job never stops, despite everyone’s efforts to give them a break or make them take it easy. That does not mean, however, Mother’s Day is lost. It means they have embraced this role as a mother and have no interest in clocking out.

Even on Mother’s Day.

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Sentimentalism is a badge one earns

I cry during movies.

There. I admitted it.

Not the “tears rolling down my face, choking on every breath” sobbing one may think I mean … well, the “choking on every breath” part is correct when the tone of a movie brings it on.

And it’s only getting worse as I age.

MY FIANCE LOVES to give me a hard time about this. She comes from a “rough and tumble” family in the South. Men are “men” and women cry and do dishes. Both vote for Donald Trump … that sort of mindset. She has always labeled me as “sensitive” and told me I wear my heart on my sleeve because I do. I get very angry while watching football, become all “hyped up” when victims are victimized and cry when something makes me sad or – believe it or not – overly happy.

I can picture her in my mind, right now, laughing at me from her recliner as we watch a movie and interrogating rhetorically, “are you crying?”

Yes, I am crying, I’ll think but not say. I can’t help it.

TO BE HONEST, also, I don’t care what anyone thinks about this. I work every day to support my family so she can stay home and take care of the kids, I change oil myself and would not be caught dead trusting another person to mow our lawn. I also hunt, love power tools and would enjoy having a truck, but it’s just not practical for all of these kids we have to tote around. Clearly, I am not a sissy. However, I do cry and am not afraid to admit it because, frankly, there is no denying it.

So tonight, as I found myself crying, once again, this time as I watched “Cinderella” (not the animated version, but the new one by Disney) with my daughter, I remembered crying is just what I do.

But why? Why tonight, over a movie I knew would end EXACTLY how it did?

Because – and here’s the crux of this post – I’ve had an experience in life that reminds me EXACTLY of this movie. “Cinderella,” according to this latest version from Disney, was raised by her father following the death of her mother. Cinderella carried with her for the rest of her life lessons taught to her, directly and indirectly, by her mother and father and blossomed into someone truly beautiful. That is EXACTLY what I want for my own daughter.

I DID CRY when she finally met the prince and presented her true self to him at the end of the movie, even though I knew that would ultimately happen. It made me think of her parents, who were both likely looking down from Heaven proud of what she’d become – a woman of ideals and perseverance in the face of insurmountable adversity. If I were dead, that’s what I’d want to see of my children.

But had I never had a daughter or spent time with her as a single father or experienced the blessing that is being a parent in general, I never would have watched this movie at all or certainly cried over it. Life gave me the blessing that is the chance to be a father … and for that, I find story lines similar to “Cinderella” something beautiful.

As life goes on and presents me with more unique, challenging and rewarding experiences, I find myself striking a chord with more movies, books and others’ experiences … and if these make me cry, so be it.

I am okay with that.

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