My Mom didn’t know a thing about football. Not at first.
She was a Midwest transplant, first generation off the boat, born and raised in the heart of the borough of Brooklyn, New York City.
How she ended up in Nebraska is, perhaps, a story for a different time. It is sufficient for this tale to simply say she married my Dad, post-war WW II, and followed her newly un-mustered GI back to Nebraska.
Dad, farmer and bona fide horse-whisperer – having been raised in an era of literal horse power – whisked his new bride to a Fairyland of milk and honey. Well, not exactly.
There WAS milk. Dad raised a prized herd of milk cows. But mostly the newlyweds found hard work and hardship. The farmhouse Mom made into a home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Very much a culture shock to the college-educated artist.
She persevered, though, and as I look back through the clutter that has accumulated in my brain over the years, the word that seems to fit my mother, no matter the situation, would be refined. I can still hear her voice with its Brooklyn lilt, and I remember her cool, soft touch at my fevered forehead.
Refined, however, would not accurately describe her four sons. We were rowdy, loud, fighting, like a perpetually swirling tornado. To keep her sanity, I suppose, Mom nudged us into sports. I can imagine her turning in desperation to the coach and saying: “Take them.”
So Mom, this girl from Brooklyn, was forced to learn football.
I am thinking about my parents and football because of the impending season, and because the older of my two sons is a freshman in high school and about to play his first year of real football.
I am frightened by the thought he may get hurt.
I remember the night before my own first football practice as a freshman. I lay in bed tossing and turning until, somehow, I flopped my right hand into the whirling blades of a small, round, bronze-colored fan rotating on the nightstand. (This was before air conditioning found its way to the Miller household.)
At first I thought everything was OK. But in a short while I knew everything wasn’t.
As I awakened Dad from a peaceful sleep, it was the first time I ever considered what it was like to be a father. And I wasn’t sure it was such a good job, when your son might wake you up at 3:30 in the morning with a chopped-up finger.
And I remember lying in bed a few weeks later on the night before my first real football game – a Junior Varsity contest against Nebraska Christian – and I fell asleep imagining myself intercepting a pass (I was to play cornerback) and running it back all the way for a touchdown.
You can probably understand my surprise – it was almost as if I were still in my dream – when the next night, underneath a black sky and blazing white lights, a pass from the opposing team magically settled into my grasp.
I set off down the sideline toward my team’s goal line.
And as I ran, I swear I heard this crazy woman screaming at me from the crowd. All hint of her Brooklyn accent was gone, at least for that moment. This was pure, Nebraska, call-in-the-cows hollerin’. Urging me to a touchdown as fast as my feet could carry me.
Mom later confessed she didn’t even know I’d made an interception (didn’t really know what an interception was, even) and didn’t know I had the ball until Lois Pearson, sitting next to her, had grabbed her shoulder and, pointing at the field, shouted something like, “It’s Mark!”
All I did was run and run. I was told Mom shouted and danced arm-in-arm with Mrs. Pearson.
Worlds collide. The past. Our present. Risk and reward. It’s football. My son, my son.
Breathe in: I remember the crisp, sweet, heady exuberance of being young, sweat beneath helmet and shoulder pads. Breathe out: frozen, white puffs hang in the darkening autumn air. My parents gone for so long. Flickering scoreboard lights clicking resolutely down to zero.