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What Football Can Teach Us About Losing A Loved One

After the death of their father, for the first time when they look up, their fullback is not out in front blocking.

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Two close friends, Greg and Michael, lost their fathers earlier this summer. I never met either of their dads, but I know they were good men from the sons they raised. Both fathers, gifted athletes in their own right, were avid supporters of youth sports and believed that playing team sports was crucial for the development of young people. 

Greg’s father coached baseball in Rye, New York, while Michael’s dad coached soccer in Macon, Georgia. The lessons took, as both sons became successful college athletes and dependable men. I’ve talked to each of them through their grief. This is partly because they know my father, who’s still alive, also believed character was best taught on the athletic field.  

Seeking to console my friends, I shared a childhood memory with them. It’s from a home movie my mom took in 1980, on Thanksgiving, of my dad, my brother, my sister, and me playing tackle football in our backyard. The teams were my sister Brig (age 11) and me (age 9) versus my brother Jack (age 7) and my father. My dad and Jack were on offense.

In the play my father had drawn up, all Jack had to do after receiving the handoff was stay behind Dad, who would lead the two-person convoy to the end zone. Jack was the running back who carried the ball, while Dad was the fullback who blocked. The only problem was Jack grew impatient. He ran out in front of his blocker and got dropped like a sack of hammers by Brig, who tackled with the ferocity of Mike Singletary.

That’s where Greg and Michael are now, but, unlike my footloose brother, it is not by choice. For the first time when they look up, their fullback is not out in front blocking. It’s unsettling at any age because clearing a path is what good fathers do. They quietly take the hits so their children can achieve things they never imagined for themselves. It’s what John Quincy Adams was articulating when he said, “I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.” 

In football vernacular, this is love in motion.

The metaphor isn’t perfect. Greg and Michael are not children anymore. They have their own families for whom they’ve sacrificed for years. Still, while their fathers were alive, paternal intervention in a problem — even the quickest of gut checks — was only a phone call away. Death takes that possibility away and ushers in a new reality. Bringing the sporting analogy home, my friends are no longer running backs. They are fullbacks now, permanent blockers. A gradual, lifetime transition is made official.

The good news is my buddies are, as I mentioned, not just good athletes but good men. Each knows that their change in position has less to do with duties than it does outlook. Each knows embracing their new roles is the best way to honor the legacy of their fathers. 

Most importantly, each is learning true happiness in this life lies in seeking the good of another with a heart of self-emptying love.

This is the essence of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Gentle Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of fullbacks; who knew?

Greg and Michael are learning this important lesson, although only in their fathers’ death can the fullness of it be appreciated. In that sense, their dads are still blocking for them after all.


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