This post is dedicated to all dads of sporting girls who wonder whether their involvement matters. Girls crave connection with their dads, and although my dad didn’t have the capacity to relate in healthy ways, it didn’t change the profound impact his attention had on me.
Our yard was big. And private.
The tall, wood fence was lined with trees. We weren’t trying to keep others out as much as it seemed we wanted to keep something secret in.
I remember the knotted ground: the stubborn roots of our little aspen grove that demanded attention from our lawn mower and surprised us when we ran barefoot in the grass. There was the brick chimney stack that served as a rebound wall for tennis ball games. It was in the shadow of that chimney I learned to play football.
I wanted to be on his team, because only team members got to share his secret. His back would face our opponents, my siblings, and for those few minutes I was important and special. He laid out our secret plan on an outstretched palm that fascinated me. I watched him trace an imaginary pattern and he explained how to translate his palm-plan to my yard-running. His favorite play, and mine, was the button-hook. I was to head straight at the opponents and turn just before I got to them.
“The ball will be there, before you turn around,” he’d remind me. I loved that play: the predictable surprise. Too much else in my world with him was unpredictable surprise and maddening disappointment.
Not the button-hook.
He delivered those passes with pinpoint accuracy, like a previous high school quarterback should have. I wanted nothing more than to catch the ball. Every. Time. It seemed like life or death for me. I knew the urgency of facilitating this fragile connection. I had the responsibility of finishing the play and I wanted to do that more than anything.
It was a treat when he agreed to play football with us and it was one of the few times I saw glimpses of something that most obviously looked like joy. I could release that in him. I could catch, he would smile. His playmaking hand would be gentle with a pat on my back and the connection would be complete.
Then there were the times I dropped the ball.
“Oh,” he’d jest, “I hit you in the wrong place. Next time I’ll try not to hit you in your hands.”
He wasn’t mean, but I was crushed nonetheless. All I wanted was for him to be proud of me and for him to validate my value.
Thank God I just got better at catching, throwing, and shooting. I was blessed with athleticism and, looking back at all the ways that formed who I am, I think it was my saving grace. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t gotten good at sports. If I couldn’t strive for that connection, the one talking point that felt comfortable with my dad. We wouldn’t have had anything else to say to one another and I can hardly imagine what I would have done to get his attention then.
I needed my dad’s football-throwing hands: to hold, to hug, to clap. I certainly could have used more of him, but I am grateful for what he could give.
My dad’s hands created shadow football plays, spanked me once, shook with withdrawal while drawing basketball plays on a coach white board, flipped off soccer referees, waved away parents trying to escort him out of a gym or off a field, and slapped his knee in frustration for the times I didn’t catch the ball that was thrown…right to my hands.
Copyright 2019 Meagan Frank