"FIRED UP"! clap, clap. "FIRED UP!" clap, clap. The chant rang through our house every Saturday morning during the Pop Warner football season. The leader of the cheer was my dad. I'll never forget waking up to the wonderful smell of his Game Day pancakes. If you didn't know better, you'd swear he was the one who would be playing the game just three short hours from now.
Don't get me wrong. I, too, got excited on my Saturday football game days, but understand there was really no choice in the matter around our household. My old man was getting ready for the big game and his only son was the starting quarterback. The whole family was to do their part in the preparation. As I sat down to eat my Breakfast of Champions, I remember my mother painting my cleats with waterproof colors to match those of my uniform. My sisters were busy washing my jersey and polishing my helmet. The process was like a military maneuver and my dad was the General. I practically would not have to lift a finger on the morning of game days. From my socks to my shoulder pads every family member knew their responsibility while I rested and readied myself to play.
The ride to the field was always made in two cars. Dad and me would leave early, and Mom and my two sisters would follow behind later. This would give Dad a chance to discuss game strategy with me. There was always a question in my mind if I should listen to my dad or the coach. I usually did what Dad said and it seemed he was always right. There were even talks about the type of touchdown celebration should I get into the end zone. Once we arrived at the field, final instructions and a firm pat on the rear were given, and I was off to somehow live up to these expectations to play the game of my life.
During warm-ups, I would immediately locate my dad in the stands, which wasn't hard since he was usually still doing the cheer. Seeing him so fired up gave me inspiration. I knew the game was important to him and there was nothing more I wanted to do than to make him proud. On the field, I was almost oblivious to the surroundings other than dad. It was like we could read each other's mind. He was somehow playing the game through my body as I was playing it through his head. Being the QB, I was usually the team captain. Out at midfield before kickoff for the coin toss, I would look to Dad. Thumbs up meant heads, thumbs down meant tails. He used to say it was some kind of premonition that would come to him at the very last moment or something. I don't think he ever missed one call.
Never would I trade the feeling of throwing a touchdown pass and looking to the stands to see my dad with both arms raised high in the air yelling, "That's my boy! That's my boy!". Winning was important to Dad, but winning AND playing well was most important. A team win with me playing bad was unsatisfactory. A team loss with me playing good was acceptable. There is without question my dad was my biggest fan. The topic of conversation with our friends, our relatives, and his coworkers was always the big game on Saturday. He was so proud of me. I remember he used to tell people that I was going to play for Notre Dame one day. When I played well, he put me on a pedestal and dared anyone to knock me off. When I played not-so-good he was the first one to tell me. There was no comforting, no middle ground. You knew exactly how Dad felt but never once did I wish he wasn't so involved. He and I had a common ground: our love for the game of football.
When I look back I often wonder how a kid with average speed, average size, an average arm, and a little above average head on his shoulders could accomplish what I did on the field from Pop Warner through high school. I won every accolade from the "Hustle Award" to "Most Outstanding Athlete". My only explanation is through what's not measured enough of the time...a player's heart. It is now that I understand my desire and heart was not just motivation from within myself. My determination on the field was inspired by the passion of my dad off of the field. I am thankful he was there to instill the value of competing and winning. He showed me how to have enthusiasm for the game and confidence in my approach. He taught to me never ever quit and that there was no substitution for mental toughness. Dad actually believed we could control the outcome of the game through our own minds.
The only regret I may have is that it all had to end after high school. Sometimes I wonder if Dad was disappointed that my heart and brains couldn't carry me to the next level. What I hope he realizes is that every success I have had as a grown man can be attributed to one or more of the qualities he instilled in me during those Pop Warner days. If I were to have a son who is fortunate enough to play the game, I would do for him everything exactly the way my father did for me with one exception, of course...
....no one can cook Game Day pancakes like my dad!