Last week I drove to the Lemon Bay High softball field to talk with rising junior Bailey Grossenbacher and her father for our player of the year story — spoiler alert.
As I walked up I hung back a bit and watched them interact in what is likely a very natural setting for them.
Bailey’s father, Mark, was set up behind the net maybe 10 feet from the plate tossing balls to her as she sent them to specific places in the outfield. Every so often he would check in on her fatigue level or give her some pointers.
In a very short period of time you could see the bond they had over the sport.
Once we began talking a little while later, Mark spoke about the memories they’ve shared on long car rides to and from travel tournaments and how a tense traffic jam can be calmed by realizing they have more time together to chat about softball.
That got me thinking about my own experiences with my dad and the lessons he taught me through sports.
My dad, Patrick, isn’t much of an athlete nowadays — no offense pops — but he sometimes likes to gloat about the time he was a 180-pound, lightning fast running back for Wauwatosa East High School just north of Milwaukee, Wisc.
Hard for me to believe.
When my sister was young — I don’t remember if I had come along yet — he played adult softball before shattering his ankle sliding into third base.
He’s always been a sports guy, just a little more humble than I am when remembering his playing days — though he still likes to try and preserve his dominance against me from time to time on the basketball court.
When I was younger I played a lot of sports as I’ve written about. I played T-ball for the Mudcats in Safety Harbor and then transitioned to BMX racing and football in my younger days before the injuries ensued.
BMX was where we bonded the most due to our long trips up to Spartanburg, S.C. for nationals. That and loading up the bike and driving to the track three nights a week for races. No matter when we left, we were almost always late. Usually because I made him stop for food.
But he was always there to cheer me on, whether he was waiting for me along the fence at the finish line or working the final turn so he could yell at me as I passed. He learned about gear ratios and chain sizes to give me the best chance at success and did what he could to make sure I had the skill and equipment that I needed. His sacrifice has been a constant theme throughout my life even now at age 25, but he refuses to see it as such.
To him it’s just being a dad.
In football it was the same thing and this was the point where the life lessons began to pour in. In T-ball it was just fun to see me whiff on swings and do cartwheels in the outfield. In BMX it was a fun hobby we shared.
However, in football, he had some expertise and I was old enough to be held accountable for things.
That meant never missing a practice no matter how “hurt” I was or how nervous or lazy I was.
Football also facilitated one of the more life-changing events for both of us.
My first year, I was tasked with dropping 20 pounds in two months to make weight for my age group — I wasn’t a thin child.
He packed me celery for lunch, which I threw away to get pizza in the cafeteria like any 7th grader would and made me ride my bike around the block and on the trail by our house, often wearing a sweat shirt or trash bag.
The deal was that if I made weight, he would quit smoking, which was no empty promise and a very difficult task for him.
The morning of the first game, I reached my mark and got to destroy his final pack of cigarettes, which was very gratifying, something I still vividly remember as a huge win for both of us. (Too bad I went 0-11 that year).
The things he taught me both directly and indirectly through sports have transferred throughout my many hobbies and jobs.
Sports provided a medium to bond even more than a typical father and son might and many local duos have enjoyed that same connection.
Across our area we’ve seen father-athlete pairs — the Yiengsts with Port Charlotte softball, Charlotte baseball coach Lavelle Cudjo and his son, the Marcum tandem with Port Charlotte football, the Callans with Venice baseball and plenty more.
With no slight intended to the devoted support from our sports moms, many fathers provide valuable lessons through sports and we are forever grateful for it.
On this day of thanks to the new-balance-wearing, lame-joke-telling dads; from the casual parent-fan to the sometimes overbearing parent-”coach”, happy Father’s Day to all and thank you for your support and sacrifice for myself and our young athletes.