Three years ago, when my then-6-year-old son told me he wanted to play soccer, I felt overwhelmed. I had assumed this day was coming. All of his friends were involved in sports and so were their fathers. I was usually the odd man out. Unlike a lot of men, I’ve just never been all that interested in playing or watching sports. There are multiple reasons for this. I don’t have good hand-eye coordination, for example. I’m also short and stocky and not really built for speed.
But I think the main reason is because my father left when I was young. Most boys at school talked about their fathers and how they had showed them this or that with the ball. I remember listening to them recount those moments and feeling left out. Sports always reminded me of what I didn’t have — a father to play ball with.
But I understand how important sports are to most men, and I can honestly say that because I don’t get sports, I’ve had a difficult time making male friends. This is particularly complicated when you consider that I work for a Division I athletics program. I’m the guy who tells the athletes to do their homework. I fell into the work, naturally.
Long story short, my relationship with sports is complicated, so when my son, Tristan, asked if he could play soccer, I had to push my own feelings aside and acknowledge that I didn’t want him to feel like an outsider — like I often did. I wanted him to fit in. I think a lot of parents find themselves in this tug-of-war between what they don’t enjoy (or perhaps fear) and what their children are interested in. Sometimes it’s as simple as your child watching YouTube videos that drive you crazy. Sometimes it looks more like a musical instrument that is all-out annoying. And sometimes it’s more complicated, like working through something with your son that reminds you so much of your troubled upbringing.
I’ve heard this from many parents who were raised without parents. They struggle to go particular places or do particular things with their children because it’s just too painful, but ultimately that is what breaking the cycle really looks like.
I signed Tristan up for soccer, all the while secretly hoping he would hate it and never play again.
I was wrong.
Not only did he love playing soccer, he also wanted me to play with him. That first summer, Tristan and I spent a lot of time on a grassy patch of grass next to our apartment, kicking a ball around. I didn’t know anything about playing soccer other than I couldn’t use my hands. Luckily, though, neither did he.
In so many ways it felt like we were learning together, and for the first time, I didn’t think about my absent father when playing sports. I just thought about my son. I thought about the two of us being together, learning something new.
I made it a point to attend all of his practices and games for two reasons: 1) I wanted to be supportive, and 2) I wanted to try to learn a few things so I could be more engaged when playing with Tristan.
One evening, Tristan and I were at a park down the street from our home. We were passing the ball back and forth. Tristan was short and stocky with a buzzed head. He looked a lot like I did at his age. I noticed that before he kicked, he always stopped the ball, took two steps back, and then ran forward to kick it. I told him not to — that instead, he should run at the ball and kick it mid-stride. This wasn’t something I knew from playing soccer for years or anything; it just seemed obvious to me.
We worked on it for an hour or so until he got it, and once he did, he looked up at me like I was a genius, like I must know everything about soccer. He looked at me like I always wanted to look at my own father, and I think anyone who was raised without an active parent in their lives knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Sometimes it feels like there is this shadow of a parent in your past that you wish would have just been filled by a real person. But the crazy thing is, in that moment with my son, I filled that void for him, and it felt like I was giving him something I had always longed for as a child.
During his next game, he used the kicking strategy we had worked on to score his first goal. I swelled with pride. The first thing Tristan did after scoring that first goal was look at me and smile as he ran across the field, and it felt like he was saying, “See, Dad? We did it!”
Tristan is now 9. He has played three seasons of soccer and spent one season playing basketball. I’ve had to learn how to dribble. And I’ve had to learn how to take a shot. Most Sundays we are in the front yard, playing basketball. Just the two of us, laughing and shooting and having the time of our lives. In those moments, I get the opportunity to have those father-son moments I always longed for as a child.
It feels like a second chance.
I doubt that Tristan knows any of this. I’ve never told him how much I hated sports growing up. And I know that it’s just a matter of time before he will be much better than me at playing ball, soccer, and basketball. But right now, he seems to think I am the greatest player ever. He never says it. He looks up to me as I stumble around our driveway. And in so many ways, I look up to him for giving me the opportunity to feel a connection I never had.