Joseph Monninger has published 17 books, among them ETERNAL ON THE WATER --- a timeless story of true love's power --- and THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, slated for release in October of this year. In the tear-jerker below, Joe conveys the way multiple generations have connected through sports, and how his experiences as a father help him to better understand his own dad.
Photo: Joe and his son across the field
Seven years into his sports career, and several thousand car trips later, my son scored a goal for his eighth grade soccer team. I watched the ball knock off a defender, saw my son’s eyes go sharp, saw the goal loom open, and saw his leg cock. His arms went out for balance, and his left leg planted.
We had been down this road before. He had launched a dozen or more shots on goal for his Thetford team, but not one had found its way into the net. But against Rivendell, on an October afternoon so beautiful it nearly hurt, my son snapped his foot into the black and white soccer ball and sent it hard and high into the opponent’s net. No one else might have kicked it; no confusion about scoring muddled the moment. The ball went in cleanly and I felt such pride I could barely clap.
He got a hug from his teammate and another slapped him on the back, and he ran up the field, his hair a little shaggy, his stride smooth and efficient, his body as faultless as it will be in this lifetime. How beautiful he looked. How beautiful all the boys looked as they trotted back to position, unaware of their youth and so absurdly confident in their health that you could not help but admire them. The game did not hang in the balance, and my son’s goal was the seventh or eighth for the Thetford team, but on that exquisite October afternoon one great good thing had gone right for my son and I was grateful for the chance to see it.
As the game wound down --- Thetford has a dominant team this year and Rivendell was no match --- I felt an odd sense of dislocation. 30 years before, on similar autumn afternoons, I played quarterback for a state championship team in New Jersey. I was older than my son is now, a high school senior while my son is only a middle schooler, but my parents, in like fashion, stood on the sidelines to watch me play. And though I often pretended annoyance or embarrassment at their presence --- true adolescent that I was --- I counted on them being there. Through hundreds of little league games, through countless junior high games and summer American Legion games, I waited to see my dad’s old Buick pull up, waited to see my mom set up her lawn chair. And though I rarely acknowledged their existence, I knew exactly where they sat at every game. Afterward I rode home in the cavernous back seat wearing baseball hose, or shoulder pads, the taste of my mouth guard like chalk in my mouth, the green shine of grass stains slick on my pants.
Memories of my father and mother have returned strongly to me as I’ve stood on the sidelines these past weeks. Maybe it’s the cool autumn weather that has brought them back. They have both been dead many years, but, strangely, in my pacing of the sideline, I have a sense of them not merely as parents, but as adults, aging, their lives somehow carried on and reflected in me. I am glad that things went right on a high school football field all those years ago, and am satisfied that they must have had some good moments as they watched. Observing my son now, I realize they must have experienced a certain pleasure at seeing the abandon I felt in playing games. My son has made me appreciate my parents in a way I hadn’t understood before. To see his effortless stride, his lovely posture, to see him in autumn with the leaves turned and golden, the grass stiff with cold, is a joy I will have with me and will see in him whenever I meet him. Inside the man I hope he becomes will be the boy who ran across the soccer field in Rivendell.
I remember one moment with my dad that might have carried with it these same feelings. My team, undefeated, had a traditional rival we played every Thanksgiving. At nine o’clock the night before the game, kids from the school came and cheered and threw paper and confetti all over the yards of the starting team. It sounds impossibly quaint now, something out of Archie & Veronica, but the kids came and honked and made a big fuss. My dad, who happened to love a Japanese maple he planted on the hill in front of our house, was relieved the next morning when he discovered the kids had not damaged it. I helped him clean the yard, raking things into the large blanket he spread, and we stood on either side of the maple and groomed it. I expected him to be annoyed, but he showed no signs of irritation. The maple was safe, after all, and the day had dawned sharp and clear. But as we carried papers and leaves to the street to burn, he told me to remember this moment. He said it was rare in life for anyone to praise you, and to have a group of friends and supporters come by to wish you well --- that was something, even if it was only a high school game. I stayed with him as we burned the leaves and paper, the smell as rich and potent as church candles. Then, as always, he drove me to the game.
We won the game that day and I played well. My mom received a corsage from the local boosters, marking her as the mother of a graduating senior. Day in and day out she had washed my uniforms, driven me to games, waited dinner while I showered. The town boosters gave her the flowers; they understood the work she had put into my small career. I am not sure I as much as thanked her for such selfless devotion. But now, as a parent, I can perhaps let my boyish self off the hook a little. Thanks to my son, I understand my mother in a way I hadn’t understood her before. She hadn’t expected thanks. She had supported me because that’s what parents do. We all have our times on the sidelines.
That’s what I remembered as my son and I climbed in the truck for the ride home. I’m proud of you, I told my boy. I wanted him to know I was proud of him for being on the field at all, for the vitality that coursed in his blood, for the way he ran on a green field sometime in October of his 13th year. I’m his dad and I wouldn’t have missed his game for the world.
Joseph Monninger is a professor at Plymouth State University and a frequent contributor to the Valley News. His web address is firstname.lastname@example.org.