On the exceedingly quiet ride down Interstate 79, my mind drifts back and forth from best-case scenario to the worst. A mixture of fear, dread and sadness are mixed in with the faint glow of optimism. I remind myself of what I don’t know while understanding that this trip could end with, perhaps, the most difficult moment of my 37 years. Then, and I hate to admit it, I thought about football.
I used to hate football. You probably didn’t expect to read that if you’re familiar with any of my work, but it’s true. As a kid on the playground, I didn’t understand why the daily touch football game was such a big deal. Did they not see the inattentive kid on top of the snow mound? I was far more interested in becoming the king of that mountain than converting a crucial third down.
At home, it wasn’t any better. My dad worked multiple jobs when I was young and Sundays were his only day to rest. He would take up the TV all day watching football until my mom would nag him into some chore. I loved that inevitable chore. It meant that the big TV was mine again and my adventures with Mario, Luigi and Link could continue for a few hours. It was my weekend, too. My idea of relaxing had nothing to do with my dad screaming at the TV loud enough to let the entire neighborhood know that Bubby Brister sucks. Usually, I would bide my time in my bedroom while periodically checking in to make sure my mom’s growing rage was on schedule.
Super Bowl Sunday was like psychological torture. We went to church every Sunday, but the real penance didn’t start until the Super Bowl pregame show started. Chips were in the bowl, pizza was on the table and even my mom was emotionally invested in this game. There was no escaping football.
The first Super Bowl I remember was Super Bowl XXIV. The San Francisco 49ers, representing the NFC, came in as a heavy favorite to win their second consecutive Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos, representing the AFC, were happy to oblige. Before kickoff, I asked my dad who he wanted to win. He said that the AFC had not won a Super Bowl since I was an infant, so he pulls for the AFC teams every season. With that, I was introduced to the first football team that I would ever support: The AFC.
Unfortunately, fate was not on the side of my newly-beloved AFC that night. San Francisco 55. Denver 10. My dad made sure the entire neighborhood knew that John Elway sucks. Football was still a waste of time.
My hatred of football remained until September of the following year. I had ridden my routine of avoiding football in my room until my mom kicked my dad off of the TV through the 1990 season. We watched that Super Bowl, but I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other when Scott Norwood went wide right on his infamous 47-yard field goal attempt. I did start to notice that my friends cared. The daily touch football game at recess had grown in size. Classmates were wearing NFL team jerseys and sweatshirts to school. The inattentive kid on the top of the snow mound was now dropping easy third-down conversions on the blacktop. It was time for me to get off of the snow mound as well.
That season, I decided to stick it out on the couch instead of my bedroom with the goal of learning enough about football to hold conversations with my friends. Touchdowns, Field Goals, first downs, and flags. I had a vague idea of what those were, but I was going to learn. I asked my dad every question a novice would think to ask. I’m certain he hated watching games with me in those early days, but I soon began to grasp the game. The exhilaration that comes from the big conversion balanced out by the deflation that comes with the untimely turnover. Football packed amazing feats of strength and athleticism with violence. No wonder everyone had left me on the snow mound. Football was amazing.
It wasn’t long until my mom was yelling at both of us for sitting in front of the TV all day every Sunday. I countered her plan by inviting my friends over to watch the game. Yelling at my dad to run the vacuum during a crucial 4th quarter drive was much easier than yelling at a room full of 9-year-old kids in Pittsburgh Steelers gear clamoring to see greatness from their heroes.
Eventually, she learned to enjoy football Sundays. She would prepare large post-game meals and invite my friends to stay for them. The schedule was prominently displayed on the refrigerator and weekends were planned around the games.
We grew to develop patterns when it came to watching the game. Everyone would sit in the same seats every week. Dumb superstitions began to take over the house during games. If the Steelers won, I wouldn’t wash the shirt I was wearing that day. I would hang it up in a special part of my closet away from my clean clothes in hopes that I would be putting it back in the same spot next week. in 1995, the Steelers started the season 3-4. I happened to be drinking iced tea when they evened their record. They ended up going to the Super Bowl that year only to continue the unprecedented AFC losing streak. I drank iced tea every game for the rest of that season. As a matter of fact, I still drink iced tea during games. I don’t drink it at any other time.
Super Bowls became major events. I would have so many of my friends over that we would have to show the game in two separate rooms. It would be a day of Madden tournaments and trying to steal my dad’s beer. Everyone pulled for the AFC.
In 1998, the Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers to end the NFC’s dominance over the AFC. They did so on the backs of their two aging quarterbacks: John Elway and Bubby Brister. Though it seemed like a poetic ending to that chapter of football, it did kill my dad’s long-standing theory that they both sucked.
As much as I enjoyed having my friends over to watch football, my favorite games to watch were when the Steelers played on Monday Night Football. It would only be the family and my mom was asleep shortly after kickoff. My younger brother was still in the phase where he hid in the bedroom waiting for us to relinquish the TV so he could play video games. No distractions. No responsibilities. It was just my dad, myself, my stinky shirt and my glass of iced tea.
After I left for college, I would make sure to visit my parents every Sunday for the game. Some of my friends continued to make the trek with me but were eventually wrapped up in their own lives. I’ve continued the tradition. If I am available, I will still watch the game at my parents’ house every Sunday. With the archaic NFL broadcast rules in Erie, driving down to Meadville is the only way I can be sure to see the game every week.
I have no idea what people would discuss with their coworkers if it wasn’t for sports. In those dead times, those conversations provide a great outlet for smack talking and stress relief. That’s what I was doing that Tuesday. I was lamenting the failures of my disappointing fantasy team when I was paged over the intercom. I rolled my eyes certain it was this one past client that called because he thought we were friends. I was always nice to the guy even though he prevented me from actual work when he would call.
It was a friend of my dad’s. Confident that I was lining up a new client, I settled in with a pen and notebook.
“Your parents didn’t want to upset you. They didn’t want you to leave work. I figured you needed to know. Your father had a heart attack and was taken to Meadville Medical Center.”
Other things were said, but I didn’t process the words. I heard enough to know when it was my turn to respond. I informed the superiors of the situation and did my best to keep it together for what seemed like the longest walk to the car of my life. I called my wife and texted the Idiotville team to let them know I wasn’t going to be able to record (which resulted in the fantastic Millennial Takeover Edition) before I completely lost my composure.
“I’m not ready for this,” plays on a constant loop in my head like anyone is ever ready for potential tragedy. I always try to be positive and confident, but I found myself in my 37th year feeling like a scared child. Knowing that I was in no condition to make the drive myself, my wife left work to take me to Meadville.
On the exceedingly quiet ride down Interstate 79, my mind ping pongs from believing that this was a misunderstanding to wondering if I will ever be able to talk to my dad again. I thought about his love of golf and the devastation he would feel if he couldn’t play anymore. I wondered how I would tell my son. My niece was due in two weeks. Would she know her grandfather? If so, which version of him would she know? Then, and I hate to admit it, I thought about football.
I realized my love of football didn’t start because of peer pressure. I didn’t invite my friends over to their house for camaraderie. I didn’t continue to watch games down there as an adult for free food and bad broadcasting deals. Football has always been about spending time with my dad. As a child, I saw my dad carving out a small part of his busy schedule for football and I wanted to share that with him. As an adult, it gives us a few hours to spend time together. Football has always been our thing. An excuse to forget our fears, insecurities, ambitions, and failures for a few hours to care way too much about something that doesn’t matter.
I know that our tradition is temporary. There may come a day where I have to move to another part of the country. Perhaps my parents will become snowbirds and spend the winters in South Florida. Someday, myself or immediate family members will pass away. I know that I will never be ready for it.
I will always fear the unspeakable tragedy falling upon my family, but I am happy to say that it didn’t occur on that day. My dad did have a heart attack, but it was minor. After a four-night stay at the hospital and a brand-new stent, my dad was released with no restrictions. He even called in a tee time from his hospital bed. We returned to that hospital a few weeks later where he was able to hold his newborn granddaughter for the first time.
A few weeks later, I took the familiar trip down Interstate 79 to watch the Steelers play the Chargers on Sunday Night Football. It would be the first start for rookie QB Devlin Hodges and all of the prognosticators predicted disaster for the visiting Steelers. We had faith in the young quarterback, but I knew my dad would let the neighborhood know if he sucked.
I usually don’t watch night games with my dad anymore, but I would gladly sacrifice sleep for this opportunity. Night games were always my favorite. No distractions. No responsibilities. It was just my dad, myself, my stinky shirt and my glass of iced tea.