Never Much of an Athlete, This Newark Dad Wrestles With Raising One

By Matt Sullivan

For this local dad, sports were something to bemoan as an adolescent. Now, he proudly sits in the stands and cheers on his son.

Illustration by Tim Foley

It was the summer of ’90. I was 15 years old and in the midst of a record-setting season of Little League Baseball. At least I assumed I was setting a record. Can you bat less than .000? No? Boom.

Those were the final strikeouts of a completely undistinguished, decade-long ballplaying career. From T-ball at age 6 all the way to the “majors,” I suited up every spring and played for the same coach, a former high school athlete who also, improbably, happened to be my dad.

My athletic career didn’t start terribly. I held my own when knowing which way to run after the ball was hit was the key skill, but as gangly tweens turned into serious ballplayers with actual fastballs, I had no business being on that field. I would have quit years earlier had it not been for my dad, who signed me up every spring in the hope that something might have changed over the winter and I was now stronger, faster, harder … somethinger.

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And then we’d get to practice and … nope, just me.

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The funny thing is, I like baseball. I enjoy sitting in the stands for a game. But I could never muster the interest to follow the stats and trades that obsessed my friends. That attitude extended to most sports. As a reluctant participant in gym class, I didn’t see the point in running in circles to prove who’s fastest, holding the line to show who’s the toughest, or throwing a ball through a hoop to establish who’s the tallest—and yes, I’m just self-aware enough to realize that’s because I knew I wasn’t going to win. Other things came easy, so I focused my efforts there. I developed a classic nerd shield of silent superiority and came to distrust most jocks, including my father.

I didn’t want to go through that with my son. It seems every decision you make as a parent is a reaction to the way you were parented—either reinforcing what worked or correcting what didn’t—and I felt I had some corrections to make. I would protect this kid from the psychological scars of childhood sports. I wouldn’t push him to play a game he didn’t care about. I would let him explore things on his own, find what he likes, support those things. (What’s the worst that could happen? Banjo?)

And I wouldn’t have to sit through 10 years of games that I barely cared about.

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Flash ahead to the winter of 2020. I’m courtside as my son suits up. He’s in the starting lineup of the championship game of his nearly undefeated eighth-grade basketball team. This season started five days after his soccer team was knocked out of the playoffs, one game shy of the championship. Last spring, he finished third in shot put at the track championships, despite being a last-minute replacement for a sick kid and not knowing how to throw a shot put before that morning.

I once heard a coach refer to him as “super athletic.” He organized his mom’s workplace fantasy football league and won. When it’s shirts versus skins, he prefers skins. He asked for a portable chin-up bar for Christmas, because he does chin-ups. Voluntarily. For fun.

This is strange new territory for me.

I’m proud, I surely am. I sit on the sidelines. I cheer. I’ve become way too emotionally invested in team after team, even the soccer year when we lost every single game and went weeks without even scoring. (“This is character building,” I would say. “Yes, it’s good for the kids,” people would reply. “No, I meant for me.”)

I’ve watched my son learn perseverance and develop focus, two things I never got out of sports. I’ve seen him form close bonds with friends on and off the court, something I struggled with as a child and, if I’m honest, as an adult too. You can say you want your children to be better than you, but when it’s actually happening in front of your eyes, it stirs all kinds of complicated, contradictory feelings.

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I guess the men in my family have some experience with this.

My boy’s becoming quite a young man, but I know he’s missing out on some of the formative experiences that made me into me: the introverted afternoons spent quietly observing how people spoke and acted, the hours roaming through bookstores at the mall, the sci-fi marathons in the basement—that’s not my boy. He’s on a different path. And as proud as I am, there’s a twinge of sadness there. Most of our conversations revolve around a sports highlight that he can’t believe I missed. The stack of Guardians of the Galaxy comics I bought him four years ago remain unopened. I have no one to talk to about Doctor Who.

Matt Sullivan is a writer living in Newark. You’ll hopefully find him on the sidelines of a soccer field this fall./Illustration by Abby Musial

My father comes to games with me when he’s in town and sits on the sidelines with open glee. My son is living proof that his genes actually went somewhere. (“It skips a generation!” he yells, nearly every time my son makes a basket.) Our relationship got a lot better after I stopped playing ball. I enjoy being a fan with him.

When a child is born, you have all these hopes and dreams for what they can accomplish, but you’re also acutely aware that you’ve saddled this new human being with half your DNA, for better or for worse. But my boy has taught me that DNA is not destiny and that there’s something to be learned from running in circles. And maybe we’re capable of more than we believe.

Published as “Like Grandfather, Like Son” in the August 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

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