I want more than anything to give my son, Nolan, what he needs. I want him to be happy and enjoy life. And sometimes, I want to put him in situations that might not bring as much joy as car rides, music, or eating do.
There’s an element of Judge Smails telling his grandson, Spaulding, that he’s playing golf and he’s going to like it. But the intent behind having Nolan play two adapted sports – soccer in the fall, wiffleball in the spring – at the high school he attends is to keep him active, help him interact with his peers, and for the two of us to do something together. Nolan and I are a team within the team. I stretch with him. He’s my partner for drills. We’re on the field together during games. Think of me as his Matt Foley (“Here’s you, here’s dad! There’s you, there’s dad!”). Nolan has Autism, is nonverbal, and has many sensory needs, so it’s a necessary arrangement if he’s going to play.
I’m very glad I was a part of Nolan’s sophomore wiffleball season, which ended last Tuesday with his team losing in the tournament semifinals to the eventual champion. I’m being sincere when I say I think Nolan did a good job overall, but there were days when I wondered if he shared that sentiment.
Yeah, he had his share of challenging days his freshman year, but the intensity of those bad days at times this season went to “11.” There were angry outbursts and tears at a couple of practices that required a timeout. The wrestling matches we had during a few games probably turned into an entertaining undercard for anyone who happened to glance at us standing in right field. And there was the game when, despite my urging and efforts to get him to hustle to second base, he decided to walk. And then he peed on it when he got there.
This spring in general has been a little rougher than normal, and I’m not exactly sure why. I can’t lie – I had a few moments when I doubted Nolan was enjoying himself. I also had moments when I doubted that playing wiffleball was having any kind of an impact on him.
But then again, maybe it was.
I was in the kitchen one morning a few weeks ago when I thought I heard the voice of a play-by-play announcer. Nolan doesn’t know how to turn on the television, and it was too early in the day for any type of professional ballgame, so I wondered what the heck was going on. I found him with his iPad, watching the highlights of the previous evening’s Major League Baseball games on the Apple TV+ app. It wasn’t a one-time event either; he began watching it multiple times a day over the next couple weeks.
Before you ask, no, I had no hand in this. I hadn’t snatched Nolan’s iPad while he slept, searched for anything baseball related, found something and, with an evil laugh, left it on his screen so that it would be the first thing he saw when he turned it on (“You WILL love the Great American Pastime, kiddo!”). I don’t know how, but he found the MLB highlights on his own, just like he found some British television series I’d never heard of, and in one instance, another series that made CSI look like Sesame Street and has since thankfully disappeared.
(For full disclosure, Nolan has barely watched any MLB highlights since the calendar flipped to May. He first rediscovered Whitney Bjerken, a teenage gymnast I think he’s sweet on, on the YouTube Kids app, and he’s since moved on to Olympics highlights, which he was into several months ago. Tomorrow he could decide that Blippi is cool again (oh, please, no!), or maybe we’ll get reacquainted with the many Pixar shorts that my wife, Cindy, found for him years ago. We just never know).
Still, Nolan found baseball online, even if it likely was accidentally, and he willingly watched it. That makes me both proud and happy.
Sports should be something over which a father and son bond. Nolan was only three days old when he was exposed to his first Green Bay Packers game on TV. He’s always wanted to keep moving, but he was watching with me in 2011 when the Milwaukee Brewers won their National League divisional playoff series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Past attempts to pique Nolan’s interest in baseball haven’t gone so well. He was disinterested in participating in a baseball league for special-needs kids sponsored by the YMCA. He sobbed when fireworks went off at the first Brewers game we went to in 2012. He was sick when we went to our next one in 2014. There is a local team for college-aged players that plays in a summer wooden bat league, and we’ve taken him to a couple games over the past few years. But he’s spent more time wanting to walk around and visit the concession stand than watching the game.
Something happened, though, between that time and his first day of wiffleball practice last year. Even when things aren’t going well, I’ve picked up little hints that there are moments when I can see Nolan is enjoying himself.
I’ve seen during the first moments of practice or during pregame warmups when I throw him the ball and we start playing catch. I’ve seen it when he hits off the batting tee, which he came to enjoy more and more this spring. I saw it two weekends ago when he played catch with me even though he would have preferred a car ride. I think we both had a sense of satisfaction last Monday when we returned to the bench after getting his second base hit of the season and eventually scoring his only run of the season.
Nolan is eligible to play adapted sports until he ages out of school at 21. My hope is that he’ll be able to play both soccer and wiffleball two more years through 2024, or what would be his senior year. Circumstances could change, and that might not come to fruition. I’ll be very grateful for the experience of the past two years if that is indeed the case.
But I’d like to believe that even though there are times he objects, deep down he’s okay with doing something I’m encouraging him to do. And that he really enjoys the time he spends with me doing it.