I met hundreds of people – athletes, coaches, activities directors, parents – in my 20-plus years as a sportswriter for four different daily newspapers. There are many I would be happy to run into on the street, and with whom I could easily strike up a conversation even if we’d last talked to each other three presidential administrations ago. There are some with whom no amount of social distancing is too great for me.
An example of the latter would be the mother of a girls basketball player at one of the local high schools. Her daughter was a decent player – she usually either was the first person or one of the first girls off the bench – and the coach gave her ample playing time. But there were more talented players on the roster, including a young lady who went on to become an NCAA Division I athlete. She was, without question, the best player whenever she was on the court. It wasn’t uncommon to see multiple members of the local media wanting a moment of her time after nearly every game.
That didn’t sit too well with the mom of the girl who came off the bench. She cornered me more than once and informed me that the star player wasn’t all that special, including after one game when she started griping, told the star player she’d played a nice game as she walked past, then resumed complaining in the same breath. It was a TEAM game, she told me. HER daughter worked hard and also contributed to the team’s success. Maybe I was mistaken, but I thought I picked up a very strong implication that she believed her daughter deserved even more playing time – team chemistry, conference title and potential deep postseason run be damned.
I’d dealt with difficult parents before, but those encounters with this woman really bugged me. They happened a few months after my son, Nolan, was diagnosed with Autism and lost what little speech he’d had. On the outside, I was patient with this woman whenever she’d start in about her daughter. On the inside, besides making sure all the expletives that were flying 100 miles per hour from my brain stopped at my mouth, I thought about Nolan and what his future would entail. In those moments, I sure didn’t see a future that included high school athletics. I wanted to tell this woman, “Lady, at least your daughter is getting to play. I’d give anything – and I mean anything – for my son to be in that position. To play in a big game. To play in any game.”
Nolan finished what I would consider his first real season this past week as a member of his high school’s Adapted Sports League soccer team. After participating in an abbreviated season last winter that consisted of only practices and one scrimmage against another school, it was nice to see Nolan and his teammates enjoy a sense of normalcy this fall with six regular-season games and a postseason tournament. They did a pretty good job, too, beating their archrival last Tuesday in the tournament semifinals before losing in the championship game this past Thursday.
This is the point in the post where I would like to tell you – and, maybe you would like to read because you’ve been following our family’s exploits and think Nolan is an awesome young man, which he is – that my son did something spectacular last week, such as scoring a goal at a crucial time or stealing the ball from an opposing player who was bearing down on the goal. Truth is, nothing like that happened. Nolan played five minutes in the regular-season finale two weeks ago, and he and I watched both postseason games from the bench. In basketball terminology, that would be a DNP – CD (“Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision”).
Now, this is the point of the post where you might expect to read that ol’ Kirk is bitter and had transformed into the kind of parent Ms. Crabbypants had been. Maybe I’m angry because damn it, my son worked just as hard as everyone else on the team and deserved to play in every game! Maybe I let the coach know in no uncertain terms he doesn’t recognize how talented Nolan is and isn’t even qualified to run a lemonade stand.
Or maybe I’m just grateful for the fact Nolan improved over the course of the seven-week season. That he built on what I would consider a successful ASL wiffleball season this past spring. And that he had an opportunity to be a part of the team.
I think that smile is proof he had fun. Photo by Krista Gold.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. There isn’t a parent anywhere who doesn’t dream of their son or daughter being the reason their team wins the big game, or just getting the chance to play in it. Deep down, I was hoping either one or both tournament games last week would be blowouts – in Nolan’s team’s favor, of course – so that he would get a few minutes of playing time. But both games were close from start to finish, and the best players had to be on the floor. I needed to be on the floor with Nolan whenever he played, and he requires a great deal of assistance. If he passed the ball anywhere close to a teammate during the games in which he did play, it was a little victory.
I’m all about the triumphs that might seem insignificant to most people. And Nolan, who I had to coax to even participate in his team’s first intrasquad scrimmage last winter, had plenty of those this season.
He learned to stop the ball with his foot, with prompting and repetition, the first week of practice. Granted, he didn’t do it every time, but he knows how to do it.
His dribbling improved. A few balls got kicked across the gymnasium during practices, but he got a little better at controlling the ball.
He had a few rocky practices that required us to excuse ourselves to the area outside the gymnasium so he could calm down, which sometimes took several minutes, but we always went back in and stayed until the end.
I was his partner for drills, but there were a few instances when he interacted with his teammates. One of the best players on the team asked to warm up with him before a game. The goalkeeper asked him to take shots at the goal before another game so she could prepare. She also would occasionally grab his hand so he could be a part of team huddle breaks.
He typically played 10 minutes of a 40-minute game during the regular season, but he played 15 minutes – and kept his shinguards on the entire time, which is amazing in its own right – during one of his team’s victories. His coach was willing to keep him in another five minutes too, but he was ready to be done.
He kicked the ball toward the goal in a couple of games. Granted, he only did it after I’d yelled “Shoot!” several times, and it moved at a sloth’s pace and the opposing goalkeeper stopped it with ease. But I’d like to think he will score a goal before his playing days are over.
Not every kid can be his or her team’s star player. Not every kid gets to play in every game, or even gets to play at all. Athletics should be about trying to improve. It should be about finding ways to work through difficult situations. It should be about playing a role, whatever that role may be, so that the team can be successful. And it should be about having fun.
I’d like to think Nolan did all of the above, and that’s what matters to me. That’s what should matter to any parent.