“Did you see the game?”
“Do you know the score?”
“Can you believe that play?”
These are common dude-to-dude icebreakers when two guys are sitting next to each other at a bar, getting to know one another at an office party, or mingling at a wedding reception. For most men, talking about sports is an easy way to instantly find non-controversial middle ground and start a conversation. Because what guy doesn’t follow sports?
That would be me.
My lack of interest isn’t unfounded. Neither of my parents were sports fans. We didn’t own a television — a philosophical decision — so we couldn’t watch the Super Bowl, even if we were suddenly overwhelmed with the burning desire to do so. Mom and Dad never even took me to a professional sporting event when I was growing up. Not that I was complaining. I was more interested in reading, playing with LEGOs, and curating offbeat collections, such as World War I-era lead soldiers, seashells from beaches we visited around the globe, and lesser-known comic books (did anyone else read “Groo the Wanderer”?). In jock parlance, I was a nerd.
It didn’t help that I had little to negative interest in competing in any sport, though my mother encouraged me to get involved for the health benefits. I tried, but I failed — often in spectacular fashion. There were dalliances with soccer, basketball, the shot put and discus, but I was less than adequate at all of them.
Somewhat ironically, I ended up marrying a woman who excelled at sports throughout her life — some of her track and field records still hang on the walls of her alma mater. She is a passionate follower of the Olympics and the World Cup, so I’ll occasionally watch a game or an event to make her happy. I spend most of the time looking at my phone, though. Sports just don’t engage me.
I didn’t realize how much my antipathy towards sports would negatively affect me socially until after college. Navigating new professional and social situations, I quickly learned I was incapable of even feigning interest in what was happening on ESPN, much less having a conversation about it.
I can’t tell you how many times a guy would begin an interaction with some variation of, “Hey, how ’bout them Nats?”
My response was always some variation of, “How ’bout them?”
This uncaring ignorance was usually a conversation killer and definitively ended a few potential friendships. These failed interactions left me feeling a little less manly for a moment — until I remembered I didn’t need to base my sense of manhood on points scored, yards gained or the best strategies for drafting one’s fantasy football team.
Everything changed when I became a dad — including my ability to make conversations with other guys. From the moment our son, Zephyr, was born in early 2013, I had new common ground to explore: fatherhood. I thought a lot about what it meant to be a parent and the best way to do it, which made me want to discuss the experience with other dads. Plus, there were so many funny moments that were perfect fodder for jump-starting a conversation.
Once I asked my son to tell me his favorite vegetable. “French fries,” he responded cheerily, as I groaned inwardly.
I tried again. “Um, okay, what’s your second favorite?”
He smiled. “Strawberry ice cream!”
When I shared this anecdote with another father at one of the countless pint-size birthday parties our family began attending, he shot back, “At least he likes fruit.”
The conversation built from there. This chat — and many others like it — turned into a dialogue about dad-dom and helped me make countless new friends. Not once did I have to discuss my picks for this season’s MVP or reveal who I thought had the best chance of winning the World Series. If someone did broach the topic of sports — “Can you believe the Wizards this season?” — I quickly turned the topic of conversation to more comfortable ground.
“I’m the father of a 3-year-old boy. The only wizards I see these days are LEGO mini-figures,” I’d say.
If they asked, “Did you see the game on Sunday?” I had the perfect rejoinder.
“Sorry, the only game I see on weekends involves a group of parents trying to convince their little ones to kick a ball into a goal instead of run off in a million directions simultaneously.”
Because here’s the kicker: I’ve been coaching my son’s soccer team for the last few seasons — and I love it. I may never be a sports fan, but I will always be a fan of my son. Whatever sport he wants to pursue, I will happily help him succeed at it. Even if that means having to hang out on the sidelines talking with other parents about defensive tactics and the team’s playoff potential. Fatherhood is my game — and I play to win.
Martell is the author of several books, including his most recent: “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.” He tweets @nevinmartell.
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