Bleacher parents are more than mere fans

May 18, 2004|By Susan Reimer

IN JOHN GRISHAM'S sentimental little book titled Bleachers, a group of former high school football players gather in the bleachers at their old field, sharing memories as they wait for word that their feared and revered old coach has succumbed to cancer.

It's a lovely scene, but I think Grisham got it wrong.

As athletes, those guys never spent a minute in the bleachers during their high school careers, so it makes no sense that they would gather in that place to comfort one another.

The bleachers are where their parents would have gone.

If my calculations are correct, I have spent 15 years, more or less, in the bleachers watching my children play sports. If you count the hours spent in cushioned seats in an auditorium watching ballet and tap-dance rehearsals, the number is even bigger.

But all of that comes to an end this week, when my daughter plays her final high school lacrosse games.

I - and my rear end - can hardly believe it.

It is true that I still watch from the bleachers when my son wrestles in college, and it is possible I will be watching my daughter play some lacrosse at college, too. But after this week, the bleachers will never be the same for me, because they will be empty of the friends I have made there.

These are friends that coaches chose for me as surely as if they were drawing up a list of players: a roster of people I would need to get through my years as a parent.

These are my sports team friends, my quirk-of-fate friends, my friends of convenience and circumstance.

My best friends.

I suppose there are schools where this has not been true for parents. Schools where competition among their children has made friendships among the parents impossible.

I was just lucky, I guess. Either that, or nobody's kid was ever in danger of losing his starring role to the talent from my gene pool.

I grew up before Title IX, so I never felt the smack of the ball in the glove, as my son likes to remind me. But my years covering sports as a reporter, particularly the human stories behind the sports, made me mindful of the little dramas I was witnessing from the bleachers, and, like my fellow mothers, my heart swelled and ached for their children and my own.

Out of that high-pitched emotional state emerged the most unlikely alliances. I came to rely on the parents of my children's teammates for laughter, advice and to contribute buckets-full of pasta salad for a sports banquet.

My kids never told me much about what was going on in their lives, but apparently other children talk to their parents, and those parents covered my back through the dark alleys of raising adolescents.

Through the years in the bleachers, I have suffered terrible sunburns and I have been frozen to the bone. I have rushed into the shower after hours spent in the bleachers of a smelly gym watching sweaty wrestlers.

I have kept a permanent supply of outdoor gear in my van: umbrellas, seat cushions, blankets, mittens, heavy coats and raincoats, ball caps, wool caps and sunglasses.

But I would need a school bus to carry the friends I have made in the bleachers.

My husband and I never sat together in the bleachers; our kids whined at us once that their friends thought we were separated.

"We are," said my husband, "by about 12 rows."

The truth is, he could never stand my chatting, and I can't seem to do without it. I can't stand his pacing, and he can't seem to sit still. It was OK because we each had bleacher friends who understood.

It is a fact of sports that athletes spend the least amount of their time actually at the games, and that is certainly true for sports parents, too. Though the games sometimes seemed to last forever, especially in a cold rain, much of my time with the parents was spent elsewhere: on the phone tree, waiting in the car pool line in the parking lot. Or in the concession stand.

If war ever comes to our shores, I know who I want to be next to in a foxhole: the parents who run the concession stands at high school sporting events. There is no tougher bunch around.

These parents, willing to spend hours setting up, selling and cleaning up, could raise enough money, $1.25 at a time, to build a Taj Mahal of a stadium for high school soccer if you asked them to do it.

I've written before that I never missed one of my children's athletic contests, not because I was living vicariously, but because I wanted to be there just in case an injury meant a trip to the hospital.

I've made that trip more than once, I am afraid. And only another parent in the bleachers can understand how you feel in the eternal seconds when your child hits the ground and does not bounce right up again.

It is another fact of high school sports that the team that eats together, wins together. Or maybe just eats together some more. But team dinners have been more a part of my meal planning than family dinners.

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