On Saturday, my 4-year-old son and I played catch for the first time. Real catch. Sure, we have tossed around baseballs and footballs, we’ve ricocheted chest passes off each other during Little Tykes basketball, and we consistently bounce things around to one another.
Last Sunday was different for me, though. It was the kind of moment I have always yearned for somewhere deep in the marrow of my being. The kind of 15-minute, sublime confirmation that I am exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to do, the kind of moment that pumps pure helium into the chamber’s of your skip-beating heart. My son and I played catch. In italics. In bold. In the kind of font that you have to pay extra for if you want to use it to try to feebly describe what just occurred.
He was focused. Determined. And, most importantly: full of the kind of distilled joy that is so perfectly captured in children doing something that they’re actually, really, truly, no-bullshit-for-the-sake-of-making-Dad-happy enjoying.
He clapped his tiny ten digits together, knowingly explaining to me that it meant he was ready to catch the ball, then ge caught my gentle passes. He threw shockingly tight spirals and he mocked his stiffly heavy father for trying to make unsuccessful 1-handed grabs when a pass was overthrown. It was perfect. After a while, our bodies painted in the salty watercolor of late September Nebraska sweat, we headed inside to grab a purple freeze pop and a Diet Mountain Dew.
Sitting there, mercifully seated on our couch, watching football as dusk spilled like a gorgeous oil slick across the city sky of my prairie home, it was the kind of lucid dream that I have been creating in my own mind ever since my father and I shared its preamble so many years prior.
That night, José Fernández died.
The 24-year-old with a 100 MPH fastball and a 101 MPH personality that touched so many in such a short time, died in a boating accident that left sadly rhetorical questions and a sadly real gaping hole in the South Florida community. He was gone far too soon, his stunning backstory only overshadowed by his solar-flare-bright future.
Then, on Sunday, Arnold Palmer died at the age of 87. “The King”, forever crystallized in the minds of many at the height of his golfing powers, or remembered from the crisp drink that bore his name and seemed always to taste of summers spent out on grass, catching southern breezes and low scores.
On Monday, the greatest offensive line coach ever to lay foot to turf, passed away. Former Nebraska coach, Milt Tenopir, passed away. In typical Tenopir fashion, this legendary member of the Cornhusker family didn’t grab the most national headlines, but his death touched people the most locally.
If Nebraska football was Mount Rushmore, Tenopir might not be on it. Rather, he would be the guy with the hammer and chisel, carving the way for others to get the glory. Better yet, he would be the foreman of the work crew, in amongst the grit and callouses of his men, lifting hammer and spirits with equal measure. He was of Nebraska. By Nebraska. For Nebraska. At all times.
His offensive lines were the stuff of whispered, midnight nightmares for opposing coaches; spook-stories for Big 8 defensive line coaches that could turn astroturf into napalmed, scorched debris and they would do it while he was smiling and fading into the background, just the way he liked it.
3 legends. Each unique. One gone too soon, two gone before WE were ready. Old men, with legacies as defined and rock solid as the pavement of the streets that will be named in their memory. One young man, ripped from our consciousness before his road was fully traveled upon. If Arnold Palmer and Milt Tenopir are the stone mountains, built over years and years, José Fernández is the ethereal, gorgeous, momentary cloud floating past their peaks.
When I was younger, I viewed life through the prism of sports. As I have aged, it has become clear to me that I now view sports through the prism of life.
I have seen giants fall in 2016 and it has given me the chance to say farewell through both of these prisms, and given me the chance to drink more deeply from the here; from the now.
Recently, I explained to that same little boy who some of the stars we were gazing at so wondrously — from our wooden seats on the back of our porch — had already burned out so long ago. I explained to him that, though they may not be burning any more, we can still see them due to the intensity of their light while they were here. He leaned up against me, small head fitting perfectly in the crook of my arm, his football snuggled between us, and we watched them together. Burning bright.