TAMPA, Fla. - Little boys grow up and they become men, and some of these men, superb athletes, make it to the Super Bowl, and in this sports-mad, money-gorging, made-for-TV nation, that's the biggest show of all. They come here, the former little boys of America, to play the game of their lives - their hearts filled with passion and unadulterated glee, and some bring inner grief.
The grief from a phone call.
A phone call from a long-absent father.
And the long-absent father asking for Super Bowl tickets.
There are few Ravens as outwardly happy and friendly as Lional Dalton, who will be 26 years old next month. He is 6 feet 1 and 309 pounds. His teammates call him "Jelly." He plays the cello, and he plays defensive tackle.
Though Dalton's name is one step behind Sports Illustrated cover boy Tony Siragusa's on the depth chart, he's had considerable playing time and his talents are well-regarded. "A hustling, aggressive interior lineman," notes the Ravens' media guide. "An excellent run-stopper whose playing time has increased steadily. Was the only rookie free agent to make the 53-man roster in 1998."
The other day, Dalton sat in the sunshine at Raymond James Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be played tomorrow. He seemed to be in a great mood. I asked about his nickname.
"You heard of the world-famous Cooley High in Detroit?" he said. "I threw the shot put there. Best I threw was 59 feet, 6 inches. At the end of the [citywide] track meet, they had a 50-yard dash for all the football linemen who were shot putters. My senior year, I won it, and the coach saw me run, and he said, `That must be jelly because jam don't move like that.' "
Dalton's coach at Cooley High was named Michael Craton. "He was the man I admired most," Dalton said, "because I didn't know my father, and both my uncles were in the service in them days. My mother raised me and my sister. We lived with my grandmother and my mother's three sisters. So I was surrounded by women. ... And my father, he didn't come around ...
"Do you know," Lional Dalton said, and I heard a door opening into his life, "my father had the nerve to call me for Super Bowl tickets?"
He paused, and our breezy, easy chat dropped suddenly into the crevice between a young man and his father.
"He called and left a message," Dalton said, "like I owed him Super Bowl tickets. ... This is a man I've seen eight times since my freshman year in college."
Inner grief, out in the sun. He knew the exact number, the exact time span. Eight times since freshman year at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Dalton was a student athlete there. One time, his father came up from Detroit to change the shocks on his son's old Buick. Dalton doesn't demean the act when he speaks of it, but he wishes his father had come for a football game.
"My mother worked in the Westin Hotel in Detroit, sometimes a double shift, like when the Grand Prix came to downtown," Dalton said, recalling how he and his sister would go high up in the hotel with their mother to watch fireworks over Detroit.
His father was seldom seen. "He'd come around at Christmas. He'd show up and sit around with my uncles," Dalton said. "But since I've been old enough to think for myself, I don't have any memories of being happy with him."
That's a grief, a hole, inside a lot of men. It's always there, but more gaping at important passages - your wedding day, the birth of a child, a successful career turn ... the Super Bowl.
"Oh, yeah, I've talked with other guys on the team about it," Dalton said, acknowledging the reality of so many young men, the former little boys of America, who grew up without fathers, or without good feelings about them. The ideal seems to belong to some other world, where boys enjoy the special aura of loving, attentive fathers.
"My grandmother wants me to have some sort of relationship with my father," Dalton said. "Something inside me tells me I should try and straighten it out. But I don't feel ready. I have questions I want to ask him. Maybe I can deal with it better when I'm older."
Dalton, like his teammates, is treating relatives to a weekend in Tampa and the Super Bowl. He has tickets for his grandmother, mother and an uncle. He has no plans to get one for his father, a supervisor of public-school custodians in Detroit.
I spoke to Leonard Dalton about all this by phone. He didn't tell me to bug off. He struck me as candid and concerned.
"I really didn't know there was something bothering [Lional] about me," he said. "His grandmother told me. See, I worked a lot and me and Lional's mother broke up 20 years ago, more than 20. And I had all kinds of little side jobs. ... I didn't see him that often."
Lional did not return his recent phone calls, Leonard Dalton said. He doesn't expect to get Super Bowl tickets. But he told me he wants to talk to his son and get straight with him. "I'm gonna wait till after the Super Bowl and talk to him then," he said. "This has been bothering me. I hope he calls me back."
It's one of the hardest things for fathers and sons - to make peace, to get back what you've missed, to fix what's broken. But if you believe that inner peace is more valuable than anything on Earth - more golden than a Super Bowl ring, more valuable than a ticket to the big game - then you probably should give it a try. And sooner rather than later. I wished both the Dalton men luck.