Dee Johnson Wilson/Family photo

Analysis: What Resonates On Father's Day

A passion for sports helped a child through troubled times

I saw more than any child should, so sports were my escape.

It started with football, throwing one around in the backyard, first playing catch with myself and eventually simulating games with my younger brother. 

We didn’t always live with our father, but David E. Wilson knew what made me tick. We drove to the Motor City on Nov. 17, 1974, for my first NFL game. The Detroit Lions defeated the New York Giants 20-19 at Tiger Stadium.

For some reason, while zooming around on the zero-turn mower this fine Father’s Day, childhood memories like that one turned me a bit sentimental. No explanation for it really. My father has been gone since 1998. As I grew into a young man, our relationship was strained at times — the son was wired a bit differently from the outset.

But say this for my dad, he fed my escape. It wasn’t that, at 9 years old, I cared about the Lions or Giants. I just remember we had lunch at a Burger King before the game, then I was blown away by the NFL experience in that old stadium. Dad knew I would be.

About two years later, on Nov. 28, 1976, my father took me to old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Browns-Dolphins game was more memorable. Although Bob Griese was still the Dolphins’ quarterback, Miami was three seasons removed from its second Super Bowl triumph and it had been four seasons since the NFL’s only unbeaten season.

Whenever the Browns were on TV, my father would always pull for them and I would cheer for the other team. He knew I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but none of that mattered when we braved the frigid temperatures on the banks of Lake Erie four decades ago.

The warmest moment we had was at the end, when the Dolphins drove into position to win the game in the final minutes. Everyone stood and stomped, screaming “D-fense! D-fense! D-fense!” That got the blood pumping. The Browns stuffed the Dolphins with a goal-line stand to preserve a 17-13 victory.

Years later after my father moved to Indiana, I became aware of his affinity for the Indianapolis 500. Cookouts and listening to “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” on radio was the tradition. Eventually, he took me to my first 500, when Johnny Rutherford won in the yellow Pennzoil Chaparral in 1980.

He never lived long enough to see my journalism career take off, nor appreciate the stories accumulated from 22 years of covering the Indy 500 or 18 years of reporting on the Indianapolis Colts. Dad died of cancer about 18 years ago.

Fear not, this isn’t going to turn into one of those tear-jerker tributes. My father wasn’t the emotional type. Just his way, which took years for me to understand.

Because I lived with my mother, as referenced at the beginning, I saw another side of life from abusive men at a young age. While my father was bitter about not raising his oldest son and seeing me grow up, I was angry about what was happening in my home, except for when sports were there to take me away from it.

The Steelers won Super Bowls. The Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” won World Series. Eventually, the Los Angeles Lakers won NBA titles and the Detroit Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup. The Ohio State Buckeyes were always good in college football.

The kid looking to cope grew up to meet so many of the men involved with those teams, from Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Chuck Noll to Johnny Bench and Pete Rose to Magic Johnson to Woody Hayes and Archie Griffin.

They were human beings, hard to believe, but we never forget the mythical perception we have and embrace as children, do we?

My father’s body was ravaged by cancer when I spent most of the last day of his life with him in the hospital. We watched the British Open on television. I grew up a Jack Nicklaus fan. Dad liked Arnold Palmer. We had endured our share of golf rounds over the years, including three trips to Myrtle Beach, S.C. 

When he slept, I watched golf and read a book about Nicklaus. When he awoke, about an hour or so before I departed, I turned reporter and began to ask him about his favorite things in life. What stands out to this day is there was so much about my father I didn’t know. That included his favorite color, wine.

I always thought wine was just something women drank.

He died a couple hours after I left him. David E. Wilson had wine-colored flowers on his casket.

The promise I made to his body before the funeral was that I would some day have children and they would know they were loved because, unlike my father, I would tell them repeatedly. My two children are now 15 and 13. The daughter just got her learner’s permit and is driving my old car, preparing to get her license. My son cares about video games and reading books, many of those about video games.

Neither have a particular affinity for sports. They’ve met Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. “Dad, is he more famous than you?” my son asked. “Yeah, just a little bit.” My children have been to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the sound of race cars opened their eyes, then the speed with which they passed on the main straight opened my kids’ mouths.

But aside from that, I’m happy as long as they enjoy whatever they want. Their lives didn’t revolve around a team winning or losing from one week to the next, as mine once did. They know they are loved because they’ve been told repeatedly what their father didn't hear.

I appreciate the fact my father connected with my love of sports. He made an effort, the times I lived with him or visited. Too many people have never even had that.

I still love sports as much as ever, especially each NFL season in a press box or at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, and have enough stories to share for a lifetime, should my children ever ask.

But more than anything, this Father's Day, I’m most grateful my two children never needed sports as an escape.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.


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