It's the night before the big football game, and he tosses and turns, too anxious and too excited to sleep. Not my son, the college football player, but my husband, the football player's father. As usual, we are holed up at a motel on Route 1, close to the Princeton campus and well positioned to beat out traffic to the game the next day.
Early Saturday morning, hours before kickoff, our car creeps eerily into the stadium parking lot, a solitary vehicle meandering its way through blocks of empty grassy spaces until at last we spy the cars of other early birds, our comrades, fellow parents of players, who--impossible as it seems--have managed to get there before us.
Sniffing the air as they survey the scene, many of the fathers seem rattled, searching for omens, trying to remember precisely what it was they were wearing or where they were sitting on a day of victory, doing their level best not to jinx the game.
Some are sipping coffee and downing doughnuts, but others are just too jittery to eat (my husband wouldn't dream of nibbling so much as a pretzel until halftime--and then, only if we are ahead). The mothers (those realists) recognize in each other's eyes their own nagging doubts--no, not just doubts, but fears--and can't help noticing the ambulance parked strategically near the field.
"Hope you don't get any business today," one mom cracks to members of the rescue squad who, for now, at least, are lolling about eating chicken nuggets. It is a prayer that reverberates through the group.
Such die-hard, adoring fans these parents are, rising in the middle of the night to drive across country from faraway places (like Ohio) or flying in from Florida, California, Illinois. Like a flock of middle-age birds returning always to the same clump of trees, they land every weekend, hooting and whistling.
Bedecked with buttons, their scarves in the school colors all aflutter, they bear seat cushions, cameras, blankets and binoculars, and schlep along family members and friends.
(Last year, after attending three or four games in a row, my sister-in-law dared to inform my husband that she actually had something else to do the following Saturday. "I'll give you the schedule earlier next season," he responded coolly, not letting her off the hook so easily. "Next year you'll plan better.")
Straightaway we climb to our seats in the vast and vacant stadium. It's quiet, like an empty schoolyard. From our perch high above the 50-yard line, we await impatiently the arrival of the rest of the 23,000 fans.
Maybe an hour goes by before the stadium fills. Now the band begins to warm up the crowd, while the cheerleaders cloud the women's restroom with hair spray. Suddenly, the team bursts on the scene, flooding the field with orange and black. "Oh, look, there's Dougie," I chirp, starting to wave. "Don't distract him," my husband snaps indignantly (as if it were really possible for Doug to see or hear us. What could I have been thinking?).
The place explodes with rapturous cheers as the gloved and helmeted gladiators gallop across the grassy turf like young stallions. They may all look alike in their uniforms, but a mother recognizes her son well before the number on his back confirms it. Is it the hands on the hips, that certain swagger, that gives him away? Or the relentlessly skinny legs that stay that way no matter how much weight training he's had?
Oh, to be young and strong, with a heart beating wildly and the blood pumping furiously; to feel one's own power! Their energy soars through the air, wafting through the bleachers, lighting up the throngs of gleeful students, electrifying the alumni, igniting us all.
And it stays with us throughout the game, only to be released in the event of defeat, in the terrible gloom, the sudden silence, that then blankets the stadium. Their proud sons now quite bowed, the distraught parents slowly descend the stadium steps to offer their sympathy. (But if Doug is despondent, his father is inconsolable. It will be a very long drive home.)
But oh, on better days, how sweet, how glorious the victory. The wonder of it. Everywhere, the world is warmed with the incandescent grins of joyful, grateful boys, ecstatic fans and relieved coaches. The parents swoop down to the field, heaping praise upon their sons and smothering them with congratulatory hugs and kisses. Scores of little kids line up for autographs from their favorite players, who prance about like giant elk.
Only minutes ago Doug was a marauding tyrannosaur, but unmasked, he bears the pure and beatific smile of a choirboy. Well, not quite.
"When you sacked that quarterback, were you worried when it took him so long to get up?" I ask. "No, Mom, I was just hoping he would stay down longer," Doug confides. (And this from my kindhearted middle child, always the gentle giant.)
Never mind. Let him savor the moment, before reality intrudes. Let all of them remember how it feels to be a part of something bigger than yourself. They will probably carry the memory with them always, and it may uplift their spirits on some dark day down the road. There are few real highs in life, right? Surely this has got to be one of them. And really, what could be more satisfying?
Nothing--except, perhaps, being the parent of the football player.