By Kenny Lucas
This spring as I was coaching my three-year-old son’s pre T-ball team, I heard the voice again. It came to me as I tried to separate my three infielders who were pig-piling on a ground ball. The voice has always found me. Years ago, it slid through humid summer air and into the earhole of my oversized batting helmet. It rose above the sound of Chuck Taylors kissing hardwood and found me at the top of the key. It applauded and implored. “Don’t step in the bucket! Force him left! Stay in your stance.” And at night it told me that I played a good game and that it loved me.
That voice belonged to my father, who often doubled as my coach in youth basketball, baseball and soccer. Growing up, I loved everything about playing sports, from the games and teammates to the trophies and passed-down uniforms. But there was always something special about the seasons that my dad wore the whistle.
Dad’s focus was teaching and fun, not world domination. And he treated all of his players the same. I relished taking his instructions in the huddle and executing them on the floor. It pleased me to hear other kids call him “Coach.” And I loved the sense that those Saturday afternoons were our time, when we had to accomplish something together. Our wins and losses filled the conversations of the coming week.
I thought about the voice this spring when I became the skipper for one of our YMCA’s four peewee blastball squads. I remembered how I felt seeing my dad on the bench and wondered what my three-year-old son would think. “We’re the Thunder,” I announced to Wilson as I presented him his hat. “No, Dad,” he solemnly said. “You’re the coach.”
Those words spoken in his little voice swelled my pride in the same manner that my father’s tone had 30 years ago. Suddenly Wilson and I were bonded like never before. We watched sports together. He begged to hit off the tee in the backyard; the promise of an ice cream for a shot over the neighbors fence looming huge. On game days we would find our matching Thunder hats, pack the coach’s bag (extra hats, snacks and Band-Aids) and proudly tell the women of our family that we would see them at the field. During game huddles he would always find my right shoulder so he could drape an arm around my neck, and he answered any queries about our Thunder team with the declaration “And my dad’s the coach!” I marveled at how those words felt as good to hear as they did to say so long ago.
Now on game days I try to emulate my father’s coaching principles of “fun and fair.” Wilson is the same as any other player… But he’s not. I don’t go to bed remembering how the other players stared at me earnestly as I spoke. I don’t wish I could record their voices saying “Is this right, Dad?” And I’ve only scooped up one of my players after a long hit so that I could give him a quick hug.
I can remember my dad telling me ‘big shot’ and high-fiving me after I hit a jumper in a rec game. Looking back I realized that bucket, that high five, that moment was his as much as mine. All of those times, even the turnovers and fouls, were ours. And despite our efforts at playing the roles of coach and player, we were never more aware and thrilled at being father and son.
And so, this spring as I pulled my own son from the bottom of that infield pig pile, I again heard my father’s voice. Oddly, this time, the voice could muster no words. It was loud but strangled… It was laughing. Untangling arms and legs, I glanced to the sidelines and saw my father, my son’s and my namesake, sitting in a lawn chair, his eyes squinted shut and face cherry red with laughter. Finally he gurgled out “Nice play, Wilson!” and continued to laugh.
After the contest Wilson knelt next to my dad eating Teddy Grahams and drinking juice with more concentration than he ever addressed the ball. My dad was talking to him about hitting and looked up to see me. “It was a good game, Coach,” he said. The words seemed strange coming from his mouth. Even without the whistle he’s still the real coach.