My Son Taught Me Sportsmanship by Not Playing Sports

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My sixteen year old son walks out towards the car where I wait to pick him up from band practice with a huge smile on his face. He waves at me, then drops his backpack to the ground to pull out something bulky and bright red, which he proceeds to put on. He comes closer, his smile wide. Squaring his shoulders, he points proudly to himself. He is wearing his new varsity letter jacket over his t-shirt and shorts in the sweltering August heat. It’s nearly 100 degrees but from the smile on his face, I know he doesn’t care.

His pride over the jacket surprises me. He’s not the kind of kid who’s into sports, as a player or a fan, and never has been.

He’s more interested in other things, like music and computers, and goes to football games only because he’s a member of the marching band. At the games, he knows when to pound out a stand tune to get the crowd going and can play the school fight song on more than one type of instrument, but he’s not entirely clear on the rules of the game and often doesn’t know the final score after he gets home.

I think he was in first grade when I first gave in to my own feelings of peer pressure and signed him up to play flag football. All the other boys’ parents in his class had gotten together to form a team and despite my son’s lack of interest in anything involving a ball, I told him he had to play.

I didn’t want him to be left out by not playing sports, and to be honest, I didn’t want to be left out either.

He liked being on the team, wearing the uniform, and especially the post game pizza, but he spent all of his time on the bench, telling jokes and cheering on his teammates. When the coach finally put him in the game for one play, he didn’t try to get the ball or the other players’ flags. Instead, he ran alongside the best player as he made his way down the field smiling and yelling, “Go Jeffrey! You can do it!” The parents cheered as Jeffrey scored the winning touchdown, and barely acknowledged my presence on the bench as they high fived each other over the team’s victory.

I should have let it be, but I didn’t. Over the course of his elementary school years, we tried to find his sport, and in the photos from that time, he appears in a variety of uniforms— baseball, basketball, soccer, and even that Pee Wee flag football team. Looking at them now, I see how each time it was like trying on a costume that didn’t fit.

At recess, when other kids played ball on the playground at recess, he would spend the entire time reenacting scenes from Star Wars or Indiana Jones, humming his own action themes as he battled enemies invisible to the rest of the world.

At some point, we gave up trying to interest him in playing sports. I like to think we were letting him find his own way based on some theory of independent parenting, like letting free range chickens roam at will across the pasture, but in truth, not playing sports might have been merely the path of least resistance.

And then quite by accident, he discovered band. Given his choice of instrument, he picked percussion. His joy in music found expression in the rhythm of drumming, to the great dismay of his sisters. Even when he wasn’t officially practicing, he would tap his fingers or a pencil or even his fork on any available surface, finding serenity in the repetitive cadence.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy for him or me, but as I’ve watched him move from that little boy sitting on the bench to become a young man, I know I’ve grown up too.

As he walks onto the football field, my son takes his place proudly not with the players, but with the drum line. I cheer as the band takes the field, and wear my band parent status with pride. My son has finally found his team, one that welcomes him and accepts him as he is. It gives him teammates and friends, the challenge of competition, and the joy of sharing music as a common goal, all with no running around after a ball. Now I understand why that jacket makes him smile.


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