Author: Paul Shanklin
Originally Published: September 19, 2005
My father grew up during the Depression deep in the Midwest. His people were farmers, fire and brimstone preachers, and small-time business men who populated small towns from Missouri to Oklahoma. Like all the other children of his time he learned that there was never enough of anything and that hard work was the only solution to problems of food and money. He went to a small Missouri college with his young wife, and they and I lived in a small trailer that served as temporary student housing. He worked, went to class and played a variety of sports, especially football. Dad was a very good athlete and later in life would play semi-professional baseball. Unfortunately his athleticism must have skipped a generation. The guys he went to school with had grown up hard by the farming experience and they had no ambitions of doing anything in sports more than what they had then and there. Most were the first in their families to go off to college and they bore a responsibility to others that they took seriously.
I learned my sports from my father. Basketball has been our family game, tying the generations together with an invisible rope. The first thing he taught me about basketball was to get the ball to other people, pass the ball, then move. Pass the ball, then move. We practiced the pick and roll endlessly, just as I would teach my sons the same move later in life. When we played on the same team, neither one of us would shoot much, but we made everyone else look good. When I played for my high school team in Massachusetts. I was 6’4″ guard at a time when that height would have normally made me a center. The coach liked me because I was the only player who would pass the ball to someone exactly when they could do something with. My father never saw me play more than two or three games since he was working three jobs to support a wife and five kids, but he never asked me about my scoring, only about my assists.
Dad taught me football in the backyard. He would spend an hour after church on Sunday between lunch and the Giants game throwing me all the patterns that we would see shortly on TV. I ran button hooks, flies, posts, slant-ins, curls and the like. When I was young I would run the patterns in his old college football cleats, my small feet would be lost in them and he would laugh so hard he had trouble throwing the ball. As our family grew to five children he worked more jobs to support them and that cut into our time together, but our Sundays remained sacred. He would throw perfect spirals in the afternoon sun, and I would make leaping, acrobatic catches with my shirt tail flying out. If I dropped the ball he would take the blame for throwing such a bad pass. When I made a particularly good reception, I would raise the ball high in the air as if it was a real reception in a real game.
In quiet moments he talked wistfully of dreams postponed. He really would have liked to coach, especially at the high school level. He said he wanted to be on the sidelines when the game was at a crucial point and watch his team’s character overcome the other team’s character, but his responsibilities took him down a different path. The closest he ever got was when my 1987 team won the first division championship in lacrosse in the school’s history. He paced behind the bench, although in truth he didn’t know anything about the game at all. He did know about athletic endeavor, and he did know about physicality and he saw both of those that day. In the spirit of good lacrosse parents everywhere, he even yelled at the officials a few times. At the end, after the referee handed me the game ball, I turned and threw it to Dad. He laughed and held it high in the late afternoon sun, just as I once had done with a football years before.
My father got old too quickly. Alzheimer’s ate away at his core, taking his strength and his memory, and leaving someone I didn’t know in his place. The strong man who played football in the days when you folded up your helmet and put it in your back pocket after practice, couldn’t remember how to fold his body to get in the back seat of a car. He would actually get down on his hands and knees and crawl into his seat. I had to turn away when he did that. I wanted back the man who helped me sledge hammer an old house into submission, who threw footballs all afternoon to his two grandsons until his arm got sore, who got tears in his eyes when I talked about Vietnam, who loved to sing Christmas carols as he haphazardly decorated the tree with several boxes of tinsel that Mom would later artfully and discreetly rearrange.
He lived for a while in an Alzheimer’s facility where he walked for miles each day in that never ending circular pattern so typical of Alzheimer’s patients. He didn’t always recognize me. I would sneak candy in to him just about every Sunday and he would hold it up to the light before tasting it, then smile as its flavor hit his tongue. The last gift I gave him was an indoor lacrosse ball. He tasted it and gave me a funny look. I laughed and gave him some M&Ms. I tried to show him how to squeeze the ball for exercise, but when I left I noticed that it was on the floor next to an old National Geographic.
Dad died a couple years back, the whole family in the hospital room with him, wanting him to go and not wanting him to go at the same time. His sense of duty and responsibility, his quiet commitment to outworking all those around him — still guide his son and daughters and his grandchildren to this day.
I think of him often and the choices he had to make in the past. My feet are still too small for Dad’s shoes, but they are walking in footsteps he made long ago.