One last cheer from proud dad on the sidelines

November 11, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Today I wrap up my career as a football dad, a guy who sits in the stands on Saturdays cheering for his offspring. Our younger son, a senior at Johns Hopkins, straps on his helmet for the last time as the Blue Jays take on the McDaniel Green Terror in the final game of the year this afternoon at Homewood Field.

In some ways, the experiences of being a sideline parent are the same regardless of the sport being played. Over the years of watching my two sons play various sports, the four horsemen of emotion - pride, elation, frustration and worry - have often kept me company.

When your kid plays football, however, you have to come to grips with the fact that collisions, planned and unplanned, are central to the game. "They all go down in a pile," I recall one middle school mother saying years ago as we watched our sons play their first football game. "But as long as they all get up, I am OK."

It is a mantra I have silently repeated to myself a few times this year as my son's body disappeared from view under some 300-plus-pound opposing lineman. But my kid would emerge from the pile seemingly unscathed, sometimes getting credit for a tackle, which in the world of defensive linemen, is a prize.

Today's game is Division III football, where there are no athletic scholarships, where there are always plenty of free seats on game day, and where the members of the spirited John Hopkins Pep Band are volunteers.

It is not big-time college football, but it is big enough. The players are skilled, serious and far from tiny, a fact that was reinforced when I wandered onto the practice field a few weeks ago. There, in the deepening dusk, I looked around for my "little boy" and all I could see were square-shouldered giants. Eventually I found him. But as I was standing next to him, with the sweat pouring off him, I had a hard time believing that not so long ago, when he was a toddler, I used to carry him up three flights of stairs. Now I couldn't lift his leg.

After several highly successful seasons, the Blue Jays have struggled this fall. They need a win today to finish at 5-5. All of the games have been tight; the outcome was often determined late in the fourth quarter. This tightrope walk has made for a series of drama-filled, if sometimes disappointing, Saturday afternoons.

Beyond the wins and losses, playing college football has been good for my kid. It is hard work, requiring discipline and time management skills. Even with all the work, there is no guarantee of playing time. The level of competition is high. My son did not see much action until he was a senior. Now he is one of a series of players rotated in the middle of the defensive line.

Still he stuck with it and liked it. Many of his friends are on the team. Several of them live in a Charles Village rowhouse. They help each other out. A few weeks back when my son had a job interview, one of his housemates, tight end Kevin Smith, lent him a suit. When my son wanted to move a large box spring and mattress up several flights of stairs, Chris Whitehorn, another defensive lineman who has been knocked out of football action with knee problems, lent my son his truck and a hand with the move.

In the academically demanding and sometimes-frosty environment of college, the football boys have found fellowship. High school rivalries, which loom large in Baltimore, lose much of their edge in college. For instance, back when my son was playing high school ball for St. Paul's, wide receiver Anthony Triplin was playing for Gilman and was regarded as "the enemy." But in college, the two have become teammates and friends.

After looking at colleges up and down the East Coast and spending his freshman year at Dickinson in Carlisle, Pa., my kid ended up at a campus so close to our home that I sometimes ride a bike to the home games. Parents of other players, however, travel considerable distances. Brian Cook's family is one of many clans that drive down from Pennsylvania, Zach Rupert's parents fly in from Ohio, Anthony Woodard's dad motors in from Virginia. It's what football dads, and some moms, do on game day.

My wife is not a fervent football fan. Last weekend, for instance, she worked a crossword puzzle while sitting next to me as Hopkins beat Hampden-Sydney. She was concentrating so hard on completing the puzzle, the difficult Saturday New York Times version, that she missed Mark Nesbitt's game-clinching touchdown. She did ride along with me in mid-October to Gettysburg, Pa. For her, the highlight of that outing was the halftime performance by the Gettysburg College marching band.

For me, the Gettysburg game was frustrating. In the fourth quarter, the Blue Jays were moving toward the end zone and it looked as if they were either going to score a touchdown or rely on kicker Ben Scott's foot to knock through yet another field goal. But there was a fumble, Gettysburg pounced on it and to its credit marched down the field and put the game away.

I was bummed. But I often take the outcome of a game too seriously. It is, after all, an extracurricular activity, a part of the college experience, a pleasant way to spend an autumn afternoon.

James and Will Margraff seem to have the right perspective. They are the young sons of the Hopkins head football coach. At every game, they get their hands on a football and play catch. At halftime of the Gettysburg game, for instance, their mom, Alice, was throwing them passes. Those boys and their dad have a lot of football adventures ahead of them. But for me and the other parents of senior players, today is our last chance to hurrah.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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