It’s A Big Universe – first published November, 2008, Goal Lines Magazine

“C’mon, we need to take a ride.”  That is what he said.  My manager’s face was unreadable.

“What’s going on?” I asked nervously.  Was I in trouble?  Was I getting fired?

“Get your things,” he replied.  “I’ll tell you in the car.”

He explained it was a family emergency and he was taking me to my parent’s house.

After a moment’s pause I asked flatly, “Is it my wife or son?”

“Your wife is okay.” He replied with a controlled voice, keeping his eyes on the road.

“I have to assume my son is dead.”

He did not reply.

Our son, Joshua Dustan, died of SIDS on January 16th, 1991.  He was three months, eight days old.  Kim and I were twenty-four years of age and married only two years, yet we suddenly owned our own cemetery plot and headstone.  I will not detail the darkness that followed, but would have you understand I wish no such pain on any person.  Everything was gone.  My dreams of teaching my boy to throw a ball, peddle a bike, split wood and build a good fire were irrevocably erased.  I would not stand at his graduation or wedding.  We would never have the chance to come to blows over some petty dispute, only to laugh about it years later.  His death could not be undone.

Before my son’s death, I lived in a box.  Everything I considered important was inside the box, and I simply dismissed things outside my box as having no consequence.  If something small inside my box got disturbed, I would be upset, but remained unaffected by ill news coming from outside my box.  After the wreckage of losing my son cleared, I found the lid to my box torn away and suddenly I realized I was only a small bit of an infinite universe.  The pain and suffering we were experiencing was a mere glimpse of the place many people spend entire lives.  Despite my loss, I counted my blessings for the first time in my life.

As I began writing this article, one of my daughter’s dearest friends, Molly McCool, was gravely ill.  Both Megan and Molly play for three-time OYSA State Champion, THUSC Neon, coached by Tom Atencio.  Molly admitted to the hospital before Neon’s semifinal game against Lake Oswego Dynasty.  Things were touch and go, and the McCool’s were looking through the doorway to a place they did not want to go.  Once home from defeating FC Portland in the championship final, my daughter went to her room and cried.  Not for the joy of winning, but in desperate worry for her friend.  Then my wife started to cry, so being the man, I tried really hard not cry, at least not when people were looking.  We knew what the McCool’s were facing.  Molly was airlifted to Doernbecher’s Children Hospital two days after Neon’s victory and the McCools found themselves in a real battle, facing a real loss – nothing they would walk away from as easily as a loss on the pitch.

Of course, after State Cup finished, the Oregonlive internet forums lit up with its usual petty bickering, insults and finger pointing.  The losers got robbed, the winners were cheaters, and all the parents, players and coaches were poor sports.  In other words, the usual banter by a handful of shortsighted prigs who enjoy hiding behind anonymous screen names.  While not getting the worst of it, Neon got a healthy dose of underserved bad press in the forums, and not for the first time.

After a long battle, Molly recovered and the McCools were able to close the door without actually stepping through and burying their own child.  It was a real win, stark, cold and painful.  There was no prize, bonus or trophy, only the knowledge they did not lose.  No matter how faded or distant the image of their win becomes, it will always be sharper and clearer than their greatest athletic contests.

Not long after State Cup, I happened across a tournament game between two teams I had little interest in, aside from the simple entertainment value of the contest.  My girl’s were done for the day, so I grabbed a seat in the bleachers amide a group of parents I did not know, and behaved as though I have not seen enough youth soccer for two lifetimes.  It was an even contest, with both teams getting good looks, but by judging the rising frustration in the crowd as the game progressed, the wrong team won.  The defeated coach threw a temper-tantrum and yelled at the players.  In turn, the parents began screaming at the coach, who, after unsuccessfully attempting to calm the mob, waded in and head-butted an angry father.  Several players began to cry.  It was like watching a pressure cooker filled with chili explode at the Sunday social.  What should have been good turned into a big mess!  What an embarrassing display of poor sportsmanship all over a consolation game that meant absolutely nothing.  The incident was a timely contrast falling honestly into my lap.

I would like to pose a question to the grown-ups involved in the post-game riot.  Actually, I would like to pose a question to every disgruntled adult involved in sports.  Actually, the question is for just about everyone.  If your kid is not getting enough playing time, this question is for you.  If your team lost, this question is for you.  If you feel the referee was biased or simply bad, the other parents were rude, the other team played dirty and you are steaming mad or frustrated about what ever it is you think is important enough to expend significant emotional energy on, this question is for you.  If you are wishing for some sort of karmic revenge for some perceived slight or injury, this question is for you.  If you believe sports are worth sacrificing your integrity and character over, this question is for you.

Would you trade places with the McCools?  Would you trade places with me?

Of course you wouldn’t.  And for that rare fool who believes it would be a fair and equitable trade, to win at all costs, all you will get out of me is a head-butt and a 5AM wakeup call.  You are behaving like a man blind to the power and beauty of the sea because he is angry about the sand in his shoes.  Take the lid off your box, and be thankful you have no real worries.

Taking Off The Training Wheels – first published in Goal Lines Magazine April, 2008

Back in 1995 an author named Barbara Feinman Todd, whom I had never heard of, wrote a book titled “It Takes a Village”, that I never read.  Hillary Clinton pasted her name on the cover and made it an instant best seller, but was also thoroughly ridiculed for failing to acknowledge Feinman Todd’s efforts.  The book was quickly relegated to water-cooler mockery and shelved near Milli Vanilli’s debut album, “All or Nothing”, in the ‘Lacking Authenticity’ section of history.

Still, the concept ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is as old as man.  Aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, employers and coaches all provide depth and breadth to the growth of our children parents cannot hope to achieve alone.  Not only do these folks bring unique lessons and perspectives into the lives of our youth, they force the kids to cope with a wide variety of personalities in a very intimate setting not conveniently escaped.  Learning to cope with the world may be the greatest lesson of them all, as no one can hide behind their mother’s skirt forever.

In today’s America, coaches bring a unique set of lessons to the table.  Lessons parents shouldn’t teach, and lessons our litigious society has forbidden most schoolteachers to bring to the classroom.  Coaches demand!  They demand from the wealthy and they demand from the poor.  They demand from kids who are broken the same as they demand from kids who are whole.  The student either commits, or goes home.  This applies not just to athletic coaches, but all coaches that exist in places such as the fine arts, dance, music, voice, etc.  Coaches force their students to decide to work hard of their own free will, independent of their parents, or pack it up and quit.

There are good coaches and there are bad coaches and the difference between the two is often simply a matter of opinion.  I never played football and despised my high school’s football coach, but I do have to admit – he was a hell of a coach, winning a state championship my freshman year and league championship my senior year.  His players worked hard and respected his authority.  Wrestling was my sport, and besides my father, my high school coaches, Ron James and Rae Endicott, were easily the most influential men in my life.  They took a lazy, belligerent, smart-mouthed fourteen-year-old boy and destroyed him.  Every day.  For four months.  Halfway through my freshman season of sprains, pulled muscles and black eyes, Coach James and Coach Endicott took me aside and looked me in the eye without mercy, and told me… not asked… told me I needed to decide whether or not I wanted to be there.  It was a turning point in my life.  I was an awful wrestler.  I was half-ass.  I got pinned every time I stepped on the mat.  I could have quit and walked away and no one would have cared – a choice many of my teammates made.  Instead I committed 100%, and in return, my coaches committed to me.  I only won a single match that year, but achieved a far greater milestone.  My coaches forced me to make my first adult decision in their mission to change me from a boy to a man.

During those years my parents also gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life – they did not interfere with the relationship I had with my coaches.  They didn’t ring them on the telephone complaining about my many injuries.  They didn’t file a grievance with the athletic director when they thought I was cutting too much weight.  While they certainly did not enjoy watching me lose all the time, they never pulled my coach aside and whined.  As a freshman, I was so far down the depth-chart in my weight-class, I often spent an entire meet on the bench without a match.  No complaint from my folks.  Certainly, if either coach posed a real danger to me, say, supplying me with illegal drugs or alcohol, promoting sexual misconduct, intentionally making me the target of hazing, or withholding asthma medication, my parents would have stepped in and there would have been hell to pay.  In the absence of any serious threat, I was left alone to be my own advocate.  I could work hard, or I could quit.  It was entirely up to me.

I realize it was a different time back in the day when I was young.  Parents were generally far less invested in their child’s athletic careers than today.  The new generation of sports parent carries a load unheard until very late in the 20th Century.  Private clubs now dominate the youth landscape and they demand as much from Mom and Dad as they do from Junior.  We are used to meddling in the relationship between coach and athlete, and coaches understand they must manage the folks as well as the kids in order to make the system work.  This makes the day our sweet darlings enter high school all the more difficult.  We need to let go of our meddlesome tendencies and turn control over to the athletes themselves so they can start down the road to being an adult.  No easy task, for sure.  Many of us have been organizing teams, carpools and fundraisers since our tots were in kindergarten.  The titles of Soccer Mom and Sports Dad are not always easy to abdicate, but I am telling you, for the sake of your kid, you have to do it.  You have to begin turning control over to the athlete.  My eldest daughter turns sixteen this year and it scares the hell out of me she will be driving herself to school and practice alone, but I cannot let that fear prevent me from letting her take on adult responsibilities.  I have to step back and let go.

Wrestling in high school was easily the second most difficult achievement of my life, and it prepared me to survive my life’s hardest challenge, OSU’s grueling pharmacy program, far better than any class or teacher ever did.  Had I not been forced to make my own decisions and my own mistakes as an athlete, I likely would not be where I am today – and I am in a very good place.  In turn, as my parents did for me, I will try to do for my own.  I am just taking off yet one more set of training wheels.