The brisk October wind tickled the back of my neck as Dad and I strolled inside a small pizza restaurant located in downtown Sandusky, Ohio. A lone bartender nodded his head, sprayed Coke into a glass, and handed it to one of his few patrons. Dad and I followed a young hostess through a narrow front room full of neon signs and sports banners and into a larger room in the back. We reached our table and set our coats across the backs of wobbly stools. The hostess left, promising that our server would soon return with two Miller High Lifes.
I relaxed in my seat and listened to the room. Pool balls collided, an old jukebox sang a new tune, and—when I listened closely enough—the whispers of long ago football greatness wafted from the black and white memories framed and hung along the wall. Dad and I had been here before, maybe 15 years earlier. I was 27 now and much had changed, I thought, as I watched Dad drift through his own memories. His eyes, once vibrant, carried the soft sight of his slight sadness. Each breath seemed slower, more labored than it should. The once mighty NFL running back appeared to me defeated.
“Still a star,” I said in mocking reference to why we were sharing pizza in Sandusky. Earlier, the Great American Rivalry Series had honored him for his star play in the Fremont Ross vs. Sandusky High football rivalry from 1969-1971. Dad had received a plaque and acknowledgment on the field in a small ceremony just before kickoff.
“Still a smartass,” Dad said.
I tapped my High Life against his and beer bubbled to the top of the yellow-tinted bottle. I took my first sip, the beer a cool nightcap after a warm evening spent watching a football game with my father under Friday night’s brightest lights.
We sat together for maybe 90 minutes. Our words zigzagged but settled on football.
“I loved the game, Kelly. It didn’t matter to me if I was practicing in the hottest two-a-day in August or playing on a night like tonight, you know, when the air smells like fall and the grass feels cool, almost wet. Man!” Dad shook his head, then continued. “Even when I was on the operating table or getting my knees shot up so I could play—those were hard days, but I never wanted them to end.”
Silence stoked the bond between us until Dad spoke.
“And I don’t think I blinked and missed it or anything like that. It was a grind getting to the NFL. And I lived it all. I felt everything. Look at me, I still do.” Dad raised his hands to reveal 10 swollen fingers, all broken during his career and all now pointing in unnatural directions. “I guess I wonder if I appreciated it enough. Or did I take some moments for granted? Hell, I just miss the game.”
Dad died 13 months later. And although we spoke every week, this is one of our last heartfelt conversations. I know that Dad was right that night, not just about football but about life, too. Sometimes it isn’t until something (or someone) is lost that we finally think to ask ourselves, “Did I truly appreciate what I had or could I have appreciated it just a little more?”
Photo (Flickr CC) by Robbie Grubbs
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