[Editor's note: This really has nothing ... and still something .... to do with UT football. With Father's Day looming and finally getting to experience the day and its significance first-hand, I thought I'd recount a story about my little boy. It's long, and it's personal. It probably drones on too much too often, but it was something I needed to write. I hope you guys enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing...]
I experienced how a baseball game is really supposed to feel for the first time on May 27 when I walked into Turner Field to watch the Braves play the Washington Nationals. Though I'd seen thousands of games on television and witnessed probably a hundred more live, I don't think I'd ever truly enjoyed one for what it's meant to be.
For years, I dreamed of going through the gates with my little boy sitting atop my shoulders, watching him see everything for the first time; taking in the sights, the smells, the sensory-soaking scenes of something so grand as a major league ball park. I dreamed he'd be immersed in sports the way I am, enjoying the entire experience: the lights, the colors, the pageantry, the players, the game.
Sometimes, real life embarrasses dreams.
Jackson, draped in his oversized official Atlanta Braves jersey and Mickey Mouse Braves baseball cap, couldn't stop yelling through his smile. That plastered grin on his face was only dwarfed by those of myself and my wife as we made our way through the tunnel into the open to our seats, the immaculate field sprawled before us. An excited "Woooooooah" in toddler talk showered me from atop my shoulders, and my 21-month-old miracle started kicking me excitedly in the chest as the players warmed up and the music blared.
As my wife Jen took her seat, the Little Man and I raced [well, as much as a guy my size can 'race' after carrying a 25-pound toddler on his shoulders for half an hour] to the Fan Central section to get Jackson's "First Braves Game" certificate, a little square piece of paper he refused to let go of for nearly an hour. We finally took our seats, and he placed the glove on his right hand -- potentially a lefty like his da-da -- as the piped-in pregame music started and the Braves took the field.
Now, the following experience is one of those times where modern technology should be lauded. Moments like what happened next will never be forgotten by Jen and me. But even though I can replay every second of it in my mind, I'm so thankful I had the presence of mind to pull out my phone and capture what was happening on video. It is special to be able to re-live it over and over and show it to all our family and friends, because words simply don't do it justice.
As if Jackson's reactions to the stadium, field and players weren't enough, he started dancing as Brandon Beachy warmed up and the game prepared to start. He began singing, shouting and raising his arms in the air, saying "Woo! Woo!" over and over. He jumped up and down, chanting "GO BWAVES! GO BWAVES!" Then, he looked over to me and stopped long enough to tap me -- busy filming -- on the shoulder:
"What?" I replied, by this point, admittedly misty-eyed.
"Baht-baw! Baht-baw!" he said, excitedly, pointing to the baseball players on the field.
It was about here where I just thought back at all the times when I was sure this moment would never come, and I welcomed the tears that stung my eyes ...
This is as good a point as any to tell you something quickly about myself: My wife will tell you I'm not the most sentimental, reflective person. Rarely do I go for the meaningful gifts when a practical one can be bought. I never sought cards for occasions until I married her, and my past disregard for the $5 pieces of cardboard that all say the same thing still gets me in trouble when I forget. There are moments of our courtship and milestones in our family's lives that she can recount with vivid detail that I've totally forgotten, much to her chagrin.
But when it comes to sports, for some reason, I'm nostalgic.
My greatest memories of sporting events come in snapshots through my mind rather than statistics, scores or seasons. Quite often, I can get wrong the score or year a game took place, but if you wanted to know about personal moments from the experience -- things most folks don't care about -- my brain is full of them.
It was in this moment when Jackson babbled his word for "baseball" where all the memories came rushing back in a flurry -- the first Braves game with my dad in 1982 when I was nearly 3 years old, a far-away memory with fuzzy edges. My recognizance of that game pretty much consists of Brett Butler making a catch just below our outfield seats, my dad saying, "That's Dale Murphy coming to bat" and my youthful eyes seeing a now-politically-incorrect Chief Noc-a-Homa emerge from his teepee beyond the Fulton County Stadium outfield wall.
These are the things I remember; not the 3-0 loss I just looked up.
I remembered the countless Tennessee Volunteers football games that began for me in 1990 and hopefully will be another rite of passage I get to share with my little boy in the next few years. My thoughts took me to Braves tickets I purchased for my dad and me five years ago for Father's Day, tickets that, from purchase date to game, saw my dad get diagnosed with cancer, have surgery, start chemo and still make the trip to the game. I still have those pictures from that game, and we both look emotionally wiped out from the events of the months leading up to our trip. But we went, and we had a good time in spite of the sadness.
I remembered all these times -- the good and the bad -- and realized it was my time to share those with my little boy. I can't speak for my father, but every game stands out as something I'll always remember in a rich life full of fond memories. Now, it's my responsibility to provide those same opportunities for my son.
Realistically, Jackson probably won't remember this one. I'll never forget it.
For years, I stayed away from the pee wee and little league ballparks near my house. South Lincoln Recreational Complex was a second home for me growing up, a place where I spent at least three summer nights a week playing baseball, watching it, hanging out with my friends. I still remember the smells of grilled hamburgers and corn dogs, the taste of an ice cold "suicide" -- Coke mixed with Grapico -- and getting mustard stains on my hands from playing "cup ball" behind the scorer's box with a waded-up piece of aluminum foil that once housed a hot dog.
The little league field in Lincoln County, Tenn., is named for my Papaw, who coached there for more than 30 years. My dad coached and played there, too. If we weren't home when I was growing up, chances were, we were there in the summer or at New Market Middle School's gym -- where my dad coached basketball -- in the winter. The ball park was the home of my youth.
But ball parks mean little boys, families, laughter and the games fathers share with their sons. For nearly six years as we tried unsuccessfully to have a child, I simply couldn't go to the place that had brought me so much joy because of so much sadness. So, we stayed away.
Through one miscarriage and month after frustrating, heart-breaking month, I waited. I dreamed of holding my little boy, taking him to games, teaching him how to play ... only to wake up to the same pain I went to sleep with the night before. Though I stayed away from the youth ball parks, I still attended Braves and Vols games with family and friends. Yes, there were plenty of good times, but each time they were there -- fathers with sons; laughing, spending time, enjoying each other. I had those moments with my own father, moments I'll always cherish, but there was a void.
It was one that just couldn't be filled with anything besides a child of my own.
I'm not sure how many readers are Jason Aldean fans. He's a favorite of ours, and throughout our struggles, "Laughed Until We Cried" was a song my wife nor I could stand to listen to when it came on the radio. For those unfamiliar with the song, there's a verse about a father rocking his baby to sleep and reminiscing on all the years he and his wife struggled to have a baby. When she told him she was finally pregnant, they danced around the kitchen, laughing and crying.
Our moment when we realized Jen was pregnant with Jackson was similar. It was a Monday morning, and we'd told ourselves the night before that if things hadn't happened by the next day, she'd take a pregnancy test. We'd prayed about in the altar that Sunday at church, but to say our hopes were up would be lying because we'd had so many fruitless months. Literally two months before, our fertility specialist informed us that if we were not pregnant in the next three cycles, we'd have to move on to in vitro fertilization or to another clinic. He and the nurses also tried to tell us in the nicest way imaginable that they expected the only way for us to get pregnant was through in vitro. Neither of us was ready for that step yet, so we just kept on with the regular routine.
That morning, Jen got up earlier than me, as usual. [I struggled to sleep, as always, on those nights before we decided she'd take a test.] So, she got up and ... well, you know the drill. She came back and laid in bed beside me. After a few minutes, she went back in the bathroom.
Me, voice rising in volume, still half-asleep: "What? WHAT?"
Jen, already with happy tears in her voice: "I'm pregnant!"
We laughed, we cried, we danced, or something resembling it. We ran over to tell her parents. We drove up to tell mine. We took off work. We went to the doctor. We went out to eat. We enjoyed hanging out with each other and being happy. And, eight months later, we were blessed with Jackson.
All of a sudden, everything seemed possible. Happiness seemed probable again. Life -- the life we wished, hoped and prayed for -- had finally begun.
To say Jackson is a blessing is short-selling him. To say he's our miracle would be the truth, but it also wouldn't do him justice. Like most parents, I believe my little boy is perfect. He's beautiful. He's smart. He's my entire life. There has never been a time when hanging out with him has gotten old. There is never a time when his smile doesn't put words in my heart that I would do an injustice to if I tried to sing.
I've got all these big dreams for him ... that he'll be this great athlete I never was, that he'll grow up loving the Vols and Braves the way his daddy does, that he'll want to do all the things I want to do except he'll do them better. But none of that really matters as much as him being happy. I'll love him just as much if he decides he wants to play a guitar or drive a tractor instead of fling a football or hit a baseball. Sure, I'll lobby for him to do the things I'm interested in, but if he pushes back, that will be that. I love to fish. My dad won't go to save his life. It happens.
But I get to live my life with my little boy now. How cool is that?
It's a responsibility I still can't wrap my tiny brain around, and it's not always easy. There are times when he wants to be with his Mama or his grandparents more than he wants to be with me. It's part of growing up, but as someone who waited so long for something, those moments crush me more than I sometimes like to admit. Still, the joyous times have far outweighed the frustrating ones. The years hold so much untapped happiness ahead.
This Sunday, I'll celebrate my second Father's Day as a Daddy. It will be special, and hopefully, I'll have some time to sit back and soak in all we've come through and the gift God has given us.
With family and church obligations, days set aside to honor fathers and mothers can get so hectic that you sometimes don't get to reflect on why you're celebrating in the first place. If that happens, it's no big deal. I don't need a day set aside for me. My rewards come in those little moments like Jackson crawling into my lap at night to play a game on my phone. They come from him crying and refusing to go to sleep until I go lay down beside him. They come in him dragging a book into the living room and plopping it in my lap for me to read, and from him pointing to a Power T and saying "Go Vols!" They come in him smiling, leaning his little head against mine and "giving me love." It comes from him wanting me to experience joy in the same things he does, not realizing yet just how happy it makes me to see him happy.
The little moments become the most significant memories.
As the Braves took the field that night at Turner Field, I looked over at Jen, who was trying to catch some of Jackson's excitement with the camera. I had my phone running video. I caught her eye, and she gave me that smile, the one that says, "Just look how blessed we are." And how thankful...
It was just my wife and I, getting to be with our son, enjoying his enjoyment of the game. We were thrilled that he was thrilled. Later that night was the first time I left a sporting event my team lost with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.
None of it mattered. Happy Father's Day to me. Every day.