I can still remember the first sporting event I ever attended. One reason for this is that I wasn’t a baby, but a little kid. My parents weren’t crazy about taking babies to games; truth is, they weren’t all that crazy about games either.
It was a big deal, then, when on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in September my father and I made the ninety-minute drive to Charleston, with my mother staying home with my younger brother and sister. It was the season opener in football for my dad’s alma mater, The Citadel, and the opener of openers for me.
We made our way to the east stands, in the section next to the cannon crew, on the visitors’ side of an already obsolescent Johnson Hagood Stadium. I think we sat there instead of on the home side because there was a lot more room available and my father could thus more easily manage a small child.
Bobby Ross was in his second year as the coach for the Bulldogs. His charges that night were facing Presbyterian College, a traditional gridiron foe for The Citadel. The game itself was not really very good, unless you were a kid who had never been to a game before. For me, it was a wonderful, dramatic affair.
The Citadel won a slugfest 6-0, with the game’s only score taking place almost right in front of us. The star of the contest was a sophomore linebacker named Brian Ruff, who seemingly made every tackle for the cadets that day. A Bulldog named Ruff — yes, small me got a kick out of that.
The next game we attended was later that same season, against Davidson, and the Bulldogs smashed the Wildcats 56-21. I was super-excited about that. They were awesome! My father was honest with me, though. “Davidson’s just not very good,” he said. I was still impressed.
We started going to one or two football games at Johnson Hagood every season; after a couple of years, the rest of the family started tagging along too. Following an afternoon game, we would drive back home, always tuning in to “wonderful WOKE radio” to listen to its one-of-a-kind scoreboard show, hosted by the legendary Tennessee Weaver. Those were fun times.
I became, much to my parents’ surprise (and possible horror), a huge sports fan. This was definitely not an inherited trait. My love of sports was probably exacerbated by the fact that The Citadel always seemed to win when we went to the games, a truly novel circumstance. I am not sure how many games I attended before I finally saw the Bulldogs lose, but the number was at least ten.
One night Dad went to an event hosted by the local alumni club, and was introduced to Art Baker, who had succeeded Ross as head coach of The Citadel. My father told the coach that The Citadel always won when I went to the games, prompting Baker to tell him that he needed to take me to Johnson Hagood Stadium more often.
“He said it in a kidding way, but I think he may have been serious,” my father told me many years later, laughing at the memory. My guess is that Baker was hoping we would not miss the Furman game the following season. When it came to the matchup between The Citadel and Furman, Baker needed all the help he could get.
Of course, that winning streak of mine didn’t last forever. Davidson can’t be the opponent every week.
We started going to other sporting events from time to time. American Legion games became a semi-regular part of summer for a few years, along with high school football games in the fall. There were basketball games too, usually involving The Citadel. The first basketball game we attended was a pre-season scrimmage in Orangeburg.
That scrimmage took place early in Les Robinson’s tenure as head coach of The Citadel; to this day, I’m still not sure why the team played there. A few minutes into the game, a loose ball made its way into the stands, and into my hands. I hesitated briefly, tossed it back to the nearest player, then looked at my father. He nodded. I was glad to receive his approval, as I wasn’t sure whether or not I was supposed to have kept the ball.
My father tolerated my obsession with sports, even though he personally could take or leave them. He had actually been a member of his high school basketball team, although he rarely played. At The Citadel, he decided (along with some friends) to attend a tryout being held by the new hoops coach, a fellow named Norm Sloan.
He never got a chance to display his modest basketball talents, however. Sloan asked all the cadet hopefuls from Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky to take one step forward. The coach then announced, “The rest of you are cut,” and walked out of the gym. Dad enjoyed telling that story.
Growing up, his primary sporting interest was short-track auto racing. He developed a small taste for stock car action again later in life, although he preferred watching the races on TV to actually attending them. His favorite driver was Jeff Gordon, which I found puzzling, as he seemed an odd choice for my father (and this was after Gordon was past his peak in terms of NASCAR success, not that Dad was ever a front-runner).
It made sense once he explained why, though. Gordon, he said, was a great driver, the best on the circuit, whose excellence behind the wheel was such that he rarely made mistakes that would get himself or anyone else in trouble. My father simply appreciated Gordon’s driving skill (described to me as “clean”), which was fundamental to his sport.
It was sound reasoning from a sound man. My father didn’t lack imagination, but at heart he was practical and sensible, not given to flights of fancy. That isn’t to say he was regimented in his thinking, for in a quiet way he had a bit of an independent streak. However, he could be a stickler for the bottom line.
He wasn’t such a stickler, though, to suggest I shorten my own athletic career. He surely would have been justified in doing so. After serving as a not-so-glorified tackling dummy in Pee Wee football, I tried basketball. Dad put up a basketball goal, and was rewarded with jump shooting so bad that one time an errant shot of mine bounded across to his parked car and knocked off the driver’s side mirror.
He wasn’t too happy about that.
Eventually I gravitated to tennis. I wasn’t very good, but luckily my high school team wasn’t, either, so I got to play. I was never more pleased than when my father got off work in time to watch me in action, especially as his commute was about an hour’s drive. He had to get off work early to get to my matches. Otherwise, he would have missed most of them, as I had a habit of losing quickly.
Then it was time for college. He never suggested that I go to The Citadel; if anything, he was a tad ambivalent about it. We both knew I wasn’t a natural fit for the military school. I wasn’t good at things that are kind of important at The Citadel. It would take several hundred words to really explain it properly, but basically I am as graceful and physically skillful as a drunken giraffe, without quite as much polish.
When I made up my mind to actually go there, though, he was solidly in my corner. He knew it would be hard, but he gave me a great piece of advice, framing the entire experience in a way that made it easier for me to persevere.
“It’s a game,” he said. “Remember that. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Every day is just part of the game. You win the game when you graduate.”
I had to remind myself of that a lot, especially in my freshman year, but it helped. There were times I was overwhelmed, like anyone who goes to The Citadel, but I would always maintain a sense of perspective and hang on for another day, and continue to play the game. After four years, I won myself a diploma.
In the room where I am typing this, I have an arrangement of three items hanging on the wall in separate frames. To the left is a small notice of a “Provisional Appointment” to The Citadel. I received this when I was all of three months old. To the right is a cross-stitch of a cadet, one of my aunt’s creations. In the middle is a photograph. I don’t like seeing myself in pictures as a rule, but this one is different.
At The Citadel, a graduate with a son or daughter receiving a degree has the right to present the diploma to the new alumnus. As the cadet’s name is called, he or she walks onto the stage, and the school president gives the diploma to the father, who then presents it to the latest member of The Long Gray Line. It’s a nice thing, a great tradition.
In the background of the photograph on my wall is the fine gentleman who was the president of The Citadel, one of those people with the remarkable ability to appear relaxed while standing ramrod-straight. He is watching as my father presents me with my diploma. There is evident pride between us in the picture, and more than a suggestion of amusement as well.
After I graduated we would talk about sports on occasion, usually over the telephone, almost always initiated by me. There were exceptions to this. On an October night in 2004, almost immediately after Doug Mientkiewicz had caught an underhanded toss from Keith Foulke, my telephone rang. I picked it up and heard my father’s voice. “How about that, they finally did it,” he chuckled.
I was a little surprised to get that call, but pleased. His parents were originally from Boston, and the ancestral club of our family had finally made good. It was most worthy of a late-night conversation.
Last year I went to five of The Citadel’s six home football games. The game I didn’t attend was played on a beautiful autumn day in Charleston, the kind that makes people fall in love with the city. We had been to a lot of games over the years on days just like it.
That particular day, though, I was with my father, not at the stadium, but in a hospital. It was the end of a long and very difficult battle.
A couple of weeks later, I went back to Johnson Hagood Stadium. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, and it wasn’t, really. The Citadel won easily on a brisk but sunny day and the home crowd went home happy.
About a half-hour before the game started, I was standing outside the stadium, aimlessly watching the tailgating scene, when I noticed someone stride out of the front gates and walk over to a gathering of family members. He directed them to where they were supposed to go, then walked back into the stadium through an open side gate next to the Altman Center.
The security-proof visitor was Bobby Ross, who was being honored at the game. As I watched him talk to one of the stadium workers, it suddenly occurred to me that Ross had been The Citadel’s coach at the first game I had attended with my father, and now was being honored at the first game I had attended since my father had passed away.
Memories came flooding back, and the next few minutes were tough. I recovered, though, and walked into the stadium to watch The Citadel beat VMI.
Maybe a little kid was there with his father, watching his first football game. I hope so.
My father was a very good man. He was also a really nice guy.
Miss you, Dad. Always will.
Happy Father’s Day.