One of the weirder things about this job is the interaction with parents of the athletes I write about. Fans, friends, coaches, teammates, even my bosses – I know they will all be more or less fine with what I write, whether they love it, hate it or forget about it within minutes. But the parents, that’s what makes me nervous.
Last weekend at Mississippi State’s Super Regional in Starkville, I heard someone call my name as I was walking to the press box. I turned around and it was Tim Sexton, father of MSU pitcher Austin Sexton. A million things ran through my mind, like a kid called to the principal’s office trying to remember what he had done wrong. In the half-second I had to think, I wondered, “Did he say ‘Bob’ in a mad way? Did I say something bad about Austin on Twitter? I’m pretty sure he’s on Twitter. Maybe I wrote something? Maybe he’s mad because I haven’t written enough!”
Tim Sexton, near as I can tell, anyway, is not an angry person. In fact, he’s been nothing but kind to me in the instances I’ve been around him and has appeared overwhelmingly supportive in the sacrifices he has made for his son to have reached the point he is now, having just signed an MLB contract this weekend. Parents of the players I cover just make me nervous.
They’re the ones who know the subject the best and the ones who will be the first to notice if something is wrong or some sleight has been made. They are the ones to whom the stories often mean the most, the ones who used to put school pictures and report cards on the fridge, who built shelves for little league trophies and went on visits all over the country before a choice was made to go to MSU.
All of this running through my head in the split second I stopped and held out my hand to shake his, scared of what he was about to say.
“I just wanted to say thank you for the story you wrote on Austin last week,” he said. “That really meant a lot to us.”
Dads are so proud of their kids. I can’t imagine the stress of someone like Tim standing along the wall of the concourse behind home plate and watching his son pitch in front of 15,000. Likewise, I surely have no concept of the joy fathers like him get from watching their children perform and perform well on some of the country’s biggest stages in the SEC.
An all-conference, All-American or Player of the Week honor is just another fact for most of us, something to tweet about or slip into a line of a story. For those dads, though, it’s another trophy on the shelf, a picture in the newspaper framed in their office, a call to grandma to tell her what great thing her grandchild did this week. It’s validation that their child is every bit as special as they always believed them to be.
Dads are everywhere in sports, and not just in the memories of teaching their kids to throw a baseball in the yard or shoot on a hoop in the driveway. Dads are motivation for some. Dads made the sacrifices for others. Many of the athletes are dads themselves, their children serving as an inspiration for every rep in the gym and every minute in their fields of play. Dads raise athletes, they raise fans, they raise those who become coaches and surrogate fathers to athletes of their own one day.
John Cohen, for instance, is very much the man and coach he is today because of the law-professor father he had growing up in Tuscaloosa. Vann Stuedeman’s dad couldn’t be prouder of the softball coaches his children have turned out to be. Bob Mullen stays away from the spotlight his son Dan so often commands, happy to watch from the stands like so many other dads.
Dads come in all varieties. Some were athletes just like their kids, while some never had an athletic bone in their fatherly bodies. Some dads are present, some are not. Some dads are stepdads. Some dads are moms. Some dads are coaches. The case could be made that all coaches are dads, at a certain level.
In this space, I’ve written about the day Preston Smith became a father, the morning of the 2013 Liberty Bowl, a day sparking a run that took him from his junior year at MSU to a career in the NFL. He sat on the phone in his hotel room in Memphis while family members told him all about his daughter, Lauren Marie Smith, who looked just like him. Father’s Day, to him, was New Year’s Eve, not a Sunday in June.
Last summer, when MSU hosted the SEC Outdoor Track Championships, State’s Zach Taylor beat every personal record he had as he placed second in the decathlon and qualified for the NCAA Championships, fulfilling a promise made to the father he recently lost. Tears of both joy and grief welled up in his proudest moment.
This spring, nearing the conclusion of an unlikely college career of both the basketball and educational type, Travis Daniels wondered what life would have been like if he had ever known his father. He also shared how bleak the outlook certainly would have been were it not for the foster parents he later found.
Last fall, tragedy struck when Keith Joseph, Sr,. and Keith Joseph, Jr., were lost to a car accident, father and son, both Bulldogs, leaving the world together. Both were known for their smile, for their talent and for the fact that they were very much father and son.
After being faced with the difficult task of writing a story that could accurately capture the life of a legend, it was Jack Cristil’s daughter who was among the first to reach out to me, thanking MSU for the tribute to her daddy.
Just last semester, Cam Lawrence returned to school and finished his degree because he knew that, more than his NFL career or any other venture, would make his dad the proudest.
Dads have made Mississippi State what it is now, both through their own work and through supporting their children.
Hall of Famer Bailey Howell did it once as a player, and does it again now as father of Anne Stricklin, father-in-law of Scott Stricklin. Peggy Prescott did it for years, often playing the role of both mother and father to Dak and his brothers. Like so many other Maroon-and-White-clad fathers, Ryan Sparks does it, too, the backwards-hat-wearing dad of the most famous five-year-old fan MSU has seen, the curly-haired and always-visible Reed Sparks.
The stands at softball games, the areas outside locker room doors after football games, the courtside seats following basketball games – they’re all filled with dads.
I’m occasionally nervous, sure, but I’m grateful to the dads, to my own dad. I’m thankful for the work put in, the sacrifices made, the hours and dollars spent, all so they could share their kids with the rest of us. The most stressed among us at any game as they watch their sons and daughters play, they are also responsible for the best among us at any moment, the proudest of any achievement no matter how great or small.
I wouldn’t be who I am without my dad.
Mississippi State wouldn’t be what it is without its dads.
Thank you and happy Father’s Day to them all.