This is a short tale about my father, who, during my formative years, I would only ever address by the name of Coach. I never called him Dad, or Pops or the old man. It was always just, “Coach.” This is because he had successfully coached every sport known to man. Football, basketball, track, wrestling: didn’t matter; at one point or another he had led every kind of team to great achievements and thus would always and forever be known as “Coach.” Unfortunately for him, when it came to athletics, his son would always be known as “The Flea.”
I must have been about eight-years-old when this incident occurred. It was a rare warm Spring day in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and I had decided to try out for little league. My parents had dutifully gone out and bought me my first baseball glove and a ball, and I was tossing it back and forth with my little brother on the street next to my house. It wasn’t long before Coach came into view as he drove home from wrestling practice and saw what we were doing. He parked the car in the garage, then walked up to take my brother’s place as my throwing partner.
It’s a beautiful mental picture. The sun was just starting to show the first signs of shrugging off the day to allow evening to take its turn on stage. All around me, the light took on that golden-pinkish hue usually reserved for movie poster stills featuring Robert Redford. My dad, who was always in top physical condition, picked the ball up from the ground and kneaded it between his palms like he was squeezing juice from an overripe orange. I held my glove up in eager anticipation of showing Coach just what kind of athlete his son would someday grow up to be.
And that’s exactly what I did with his first pitch.
Let’s just say the ball sailed in with a lot more velocity than I had anticipated. It clipped the end of my new glove, bounced off my arm and smacked me square in the beak. I dropped like my spine had been cut; and, with both hands clutched to my face, I rolled around on the pavement screaming hysterically. Once I realized that my eyes were still in their sockets and operational, I opened them painfully and spied my palms which were now covered in blood from my profusely bleeding nose. This revelation then caused me to go into another extended round of incoherent babbling. Coach led me back into the house where my mom, thankfully a registered nurse, could tend to my wounds. All I kept saying were accusatory words of, “Coach did that on purpose!” and, “He whipped it at me!” My parents exchanged a look that I’ve only come to understand once I was blessed with two little ones of my own.
Turns out, my mom wasn’t the only thing my dad understood. He made his living by judging athletic potential, and he clearly spotted how little I possessed. I never knew if he was disappointed by that because he never said anything about it. That’s not to say I didn’t try sports. I played football and ran track throughout high school. Well, to be honest, I participated in track. I ran the mile and my personal bar for success was two-fold: don’t get lapped by any boys and don’t get beat by any girls. I wasn’t always successful at both. At the time, I felt like I put as much effort into practice as the others; but, for whatever reason, I just never found the winner’s circle. I simply don’t have the tools. My dad always came to my events; and he was encouraging, I guess.
But, he never played catch with me again.
Instead, he did something even better. He got me books. I had a set of encyclopedias in my bedroom that became my constant companions. While most of my friends were out playing hockey, this was Upper Michigan after all, I would skim through those lettered volumes perusing random entries until I had them practically memorized. I read The Lord of the Rings series seven times while in junior high. I never caught a touchdown pass or made the winning shot at the buzzer; however, I did discover that the written world was full of wondrous ideas and that language held an awesome power all its own. My father had recognized early on that my talents were to be found in my head, not in my hands; so he gave me the tools and the time to pursue them. I eventually became an English teacher and now try to share my love of literature with my students. For that, I have a man known as Coach to thank; and for all the grueling hours of fruitless practice he didn’t force me to go through, I will always be grateful.