EDITOR’S NOTE: The more astute among my one or two regular readers might have noticed that something went missing yesterday. The post that follows this note was originally published Wednesday, removed on Thursday and republished on Friday. Only my father could cause that kind of inner turmoil. Some readers told me that the article was the best thing I’d ever written, and while I wouldn’t rank it that highly myself, I would put it somewhere among the top 5. If it’s that good, why did I move it (even temporarily) to the dumpster? Well, as you’ll soon see, the story doesn’t cast my late father in the best light, and to be fair, my willingness to share private thoughts about him doesn’t cast me in the best light either. What son would denigrate his late father? Apparently me, that’s who. Today, when I arrived home from work, I had some light snow-shoveling to do, and it was then, while freezing my ass off in a bitter wind, that I thought again of my father during what proved to be his last trip to visit me here in New Jersey. That’s his picture there, a shrunken little old man, dwarfed inside my son’s parka because the jacket he’d brought with him from Texas wasn’t up to the demands of a northeast winter. He was thrilled by the snow piled high in my grocery store parking lot, and insisted on having his picture taken. That’s not a gang symbol he’s flashing, it’s a “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign, because in addition to loving the Dallas Cowboys, the University of Texas Longhorns — my alma mater — was his favorite college team. My father was an exasperating man, the yin and yang of little old country boys. One minute you’d want to throttle him, but the next he’d do something so endearing that you felt guilty for ever being angry. He was my father and my dilemma. So here again is my original story, unchanged except for the Afterword I’m tacking on at the end.
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Dec. 31, 1967. I’m 11 years old and on my knees in front of the television set, praying.
It’s warm in my father’s living room in San Antonio, Texas, but brutally cold in Green Bay, Wisconsin where the game is being played. Breath plumes visibly from the heaving lungs of the 22 men exerting themselves in temperatures of -15F.
Dallas has the lead, but it’s all come down to this play. Bart Starr, the Green Bay quarterback, takes the ball himself and lunges past the goal line, ending the infamous Ice Bowl.
NFL Championship, 1967: Packers 21, Cowboys 17.
With the same two teams getting ready to play another key game on the same field this Sunday, you might think my mind would be focused entirely on football. It’s not. Instead, my thoughts turn to the man who sat quietly behind me 48 years ago while I prayed to a god who did not listen.
Indeed, it’s impossible for me to think about football without thinking about my dad, because the two are inextricably linked. Today I have my father’s name, along with some of his money and old furniture. I shave with his old gold-plated Gillette safety razor, and of course I also have his football team.
My father and I had our differences, but football was never one of them. Being a Dallas Cowboys fan was a birthright, passed from father to son. It really couldn’t have been any other way.
Growing up, football-watching in our house was serious business. We’d go to church Sunday morning, but soon after the last amen we would race home in time for the opening kickoff. Mama usually had lunch in the oven, and it would be ready when we got there. Out came the TV trays, because Dallas Cowboys football was the only time we were allowed to eat somewhere other than the kitchen table.
Watching the game, you had to follow a certain decorum or my father would kick you out of the room. Talking during the game was verboten. Cheering was verboten. Sometimes my father would make a two-word prediction for the upcoming play, like “screen pass” or “sweep right,” but win or lose, the atmosphere was like that of a funeral parlor. Yes, football was serious business, and you had to think about each play in detail, savoring and digesting it just like our Sunday afternoon peas, potatoes and ham.
There was just one player who could move my father to say more than a few words, and that was former Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton. My father didn’t like Craig Morton, and in his eyes, the poor guy couldn’t do anything right. “Get that Craig Morton out of there, he’s no good!” my father would seethe at the television. “Get Staubach in there, he can make something happen!” And who could argue? Despite not being a bad player in his own right, Craig Morton was certainly no Roger Staubach.
Ah, Roger the Dodger! Captain America! His name would go up in the Cowboys Ring of Honor. His bust would grace the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. His name shall forever be spoken in reverence by Cowboys fans everywhere. Craig Morton, not so much.
After the game, father and son would go out to the side lot, which was our football field. Daddy always played with me, I’ll give him credit for that. I’d run pass patterns while he tirelessly heaved the pigskin my way, and sometimes I’d catch it, but too often not. I wasn’t big and I wasn’t fast, clearly not cut out to be a football player, but my father wouldn’t give up. Maybe, he thought, I could be a kicker, so he rigged up a goalpost out of two upright bamboo poles, with a third pole as the crossbar. He’d make me try to kick the ball through the uprights time after time until my toe was killing me, then he’d berate me for giving up.
But the next week we’d be out there again, this time with my friend, Billy, who was even smaller than I was. Billy and I would knock each other senseless on our makeshift gridiron while Daddy quarterbacked for both teams, giving us tackling pointers and yelling at us to “rub some dirt on it” and “shake off the pain.”
“Get up on your toes! Run faster!” he’d yell at me as I plodded along on a deep post. “Hold onto the ball! Tuck it under your arm like a loaf of bread! Hit him! Hit him low! Don’t be afraid!”
My football career mercifully ended before it got started. Once I got to high school, the die was cast and I went with the rest of the geeks to the newspaper staff while the true athletes went on to glory with the football team.
I made a decent living during a 33-year newspaper career, while the vast majority of the athletes at my high school never made a cent playing football. But that’s really beside the point.
I didn’t find out until after my father died that he’d had another son by a different woman long before I was born. I’ve written about it before. It was during the last days of World War II that my half-brother was born, and he died from a botched tonsillectomy just three years later. I know these things now, but I didn’t then, and I’ve often wondered if that family secret was at the root of the difficulties I had with my father, and why it always seemed he was measuring me against something — or someone — and that I always came up lacking.
I’m an old man myself now, living in my own house with my own football-watching rules, which are really not much different from Daddy’s rules.
This weekend, I’ll pour a beer into Daddy’s old mug, the same glass that touched his lips will again touch mine, and I’ll think of him while our Cowboys play. Win or lose, I will not make a sound.
But at some point this Sunday I’ll think again of the 1967 Ice Bowl, and the man who sat in judgment behind me that day and every day. A chill will touch my heart because at last I understand that the half-brother I never knew was Daddy’s Roger Staubach. I was his Craig Morton.
AFTERWORD: When I started writing this post earlier this week, it was just going to be my recollection of watching football games with my dad. It was then that I thought of how Daddy would grow apoplectic about Craig Morton, and it was that memory that pumped some poison into what originally was going to be a feel-good piece. My father’s words hurt me a lot growing up, but I still loved him, and I know that he loved me. Did he love his first son more? I’ve thought so on more than one occasion, but there’s no way I’ll ever know. When I put myself in my father’s shoes, I have to admit that if I had a first-born son nobody knew about, I’d probably think of him once in awhile, too, and wonder about how he’d have turned out if he’d lived. Would I measure that mythical son against my own son and wonder about which would have been taller, faster, smarter or more handsome? Yeah, probably I would. But would I love one more than the other? No, and it was unfair of me to imagine that my father automatically gave me second-rate status. I think back to the last time I saw my father alive. Weakened from his long battle with esophageal cancer and finally settled into a nursing home, it was time for me to leave for the airport. Daddy held onto my arm and wouldn’t let go. I’d seen death — recently with my mother — and thought I knew what it looked like. Daddy was in bad shape, no doubt, but I felt confident that death was not imminent. Still, he wouldn’t let go of my arm, and I’m convinced now that’s because Daddy knew, even if I didn’t, that he’d never see me again. I pulled away for the last time and flew home with other thoughts on my mind. My daughter’s wedding was just a few weeks later here on the East Coast, and my sister traveled north from Texas to attend. That’s why neither of us was there when Daddy died three days after the wedding. Although it couldn’t be helped, my sister and I feel guilty that a couple of strangers sat with my father while he died in a nursing home thousands of miles away. It just goes to show that in death as in life, things happen that we don’t deserve. I love you, Daddy, and I’m sorry.