BECAUSE I AM known to most of my friends as a sportswriter who is privy to the private confessions of famous athletes, it is always assumed that I will encourage my four sons to follow an athletic path into the national spotlight where fame and fortune will offset the loss of knee cartilage usually paid for such prominece. It is assumed that, I, having seen the glories of sports close up, would be appreciative of having my years of motherly nurturing repaid in full by being greeted, as the television cameras pan the faces of the heaving warriors on the sidelines, with the now immortal acknowledgement, "Hi, Mom."
Nothing coul be further from the truth.
Actually, my reluctance to commit my sons to a life of balancing athletic values against the more pedestrian concers of real life has evolved slowly. I was once a star-struck sports fan myself. At a time in my life when all the boys on my block wanted nothing more than to be a college football hero like Doak Walker, Bobby Layne and Choo Choo Justice, I harbored secret -- but obviously thwarted -- longings for myself. Football heroes had an aura of innocence to then then.
When I became an adult and had sons of my own, most young boys wanted to be pro stars like John Unitas, Jim Brown and Paul Hornung. I was still star-struck; there was always a football or a helmet under the Christmas tree every year. I though that performing an athletic feat to perfection, as the above-mentioned gentlemen did, was something special in the history of human endeavor.
Alas, after adulthood comes maturity. When I view the conditions existing in today's big-time sports world I find myself dead set against my sons' participating.
I believe in a wholesome work ethic, I don't believe in hiring agents and lawyers who take the stance that a field goal kicker should be paid double this year for last year's work. I believe in thrift and a Spartan life. I don't believe in self-indulgence, flashy cars, spiffy wardrobes and nervous globe-trotting.
Believe in life's limitless horizons gleaned through books, plays,, symphonies, ballets and church on Sunday. I don't believe that the sun rises with the kickoff and sets when time runs out. I believe that a person's worth is accumulated over a life-time of struggling to do good. I don't believe that a man's worth can be measured in unassisted tackles or touchdown passes.
I believe that humility is Woolite for the soul. I don't believe in the kind of narcissism that propels sports heroes to mount soapboxes for politics, preaching or product shilling.
I have raised my sons with care. And I like that their needs for self-satisfaction no longer can be met by the accomplishment of a first down. I admit to some subtle brainwashing. And, as of yet, they are unfettered by a need for so-called big-time sports.
Son No. 1 gave up football after two weeks in college. Not because I kept harping about his wearing a mouthguard; not because I had preached and prayed. And not because it was too rough a sport. No, he gave it up for rugby, a brawling sport played by beer-swigging, song-singing, macho types who are responsible for the organization of their teams, the scheduling of their games, the coaching and the placement of bumper stickers on undefiled chrome ("Ruggers Eat Their Dead," is but one example).
Rugby is a brutal game (I'm praying for his teeth to survive intact), but it still is a secret sport. Spectators, if any, gain a view of the field by hauling themselves onto the hoods of cars parked near the field. There are no cheerleaders, no stands, no band. When a contest ends, both teams meet at the beer keg on the sideline and discuss the quality of the game. Victories are secret pleasures; losses are not public failures. "That's what sports is all about," said one novice at a recent rugby game..
Son No. 2 went off to college with a bagful of footballs and a new pair of cleated shoes. After two weeks of profound silence, he called home, and, with joy in his voice, announced his new discorvery -- crew. He's into ERGs now, rowing for time against weights in indoor tanks. Nodody cheer for crew; the goals are personal and, when achieved, privately cherished.
I'm working on Son No. 3 now. He's a high school quarterback with five touchdown passes in his first game and five turnovers in his second. I gave him a poster for his room that said, "When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemondade," and I've begun to discuss the merits of cross country at the dinner table.
Son No. 4 has my principles over a barrel. He has just enrolled in his third year of youth hockey, and I've just bought his third pair of skates, his second outfit of shoulder pads, helment, stockings, elbow pads, shin guards, jersey, pants and hockey stock. Maybe I'm just wearing out, but I figure that the only way I can regain my investment is for him to sign an early pro contract and have the television cameras pan the Boston Bruins' bench and be greeted with a toothless smile from my youngest and the silent tribute. "Hi, Mom."