...says Denzel Valentine of Big Ten Tourney favorite MSU, which is 5-7 in its last 12 games. Cumong, man.
I got dressed early on Friday afternoon and sat down in my parents’ living room with a couple of hours to kill. My father had passed away earlier that week and I was nervously awaiting our departure for his wake. As I waited, I surfed the hype threads and tailgaiting threads on MGoBlog and realized that my game day experience was going to be unique. I wanted to share some thoughts with all of you about life, loss, and sports.
Last Monday my dad succumbed to a two and a half year battle with leukemia. He was 61. My sister and I were by his side as he drew his last breath. A year before he was diagnosed with cancer he had an attack of acute pancreatitis, spent 2 weeks in a coma, 4 months in the hospital, lost 1/3 of his pancreas, and lost his abdominal wall due to the multiple surgeries. I thought we had seen it all. Little did I know that his struggle was just starting. The next 2.5 years were filled with chemo treatments, transfusions, a bone marrow transplant, and too many procedures to count. During the last 8 months or so we had to bring my dad to the hospital on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule for blood and platelets transfusions. The hospital was an hour away in Boston and the transfusions would take all day. I never looked forward to bringing him in but I couldn’t complain in the face of the bravery and resolve that he displayed on a daily basis. My dad taught me many lessons in life. The final lesson was how to die with dignity.
My dad raised me as a Boston sports fan. I don’t have a definitive first memory of Fenway Park because I was too young and was going there too frequently. From the cold bleachers at Foxboro Stadium, to the obstructed views of the Garden, to the cigar smoke in Fenway, my childhood was largely spent watching and talking sports with my Dad. His favorite sport was baseball but when I started focusing exclusively on soccer he tried to immerse himself in the game. We took a couple of trips to visit family in England and saw two Arsenal games. I got a VHS highlight tape of the 1994 World Cup for Christmas and watched that thing too many damn times to count.
Whenever the conversation paused or we couldn’t figure out what to say next one of us would bring up sports. I watched countless games with him in the hospital and they provided a welcome distraction and a good excuse for me to visit constantly. I’d call him up to remind him that the Sox were on tonight and he’d better get his game face on. His new hospital didn’t carry the channel that our beloved Celtics were on so we dived headfirst into the Bruins during the winter. The tv’s were standard definition and impossibly small but I enjoyed every game that we saw. Well, except for 2009 against Ohio State. I think I might have scared one or two nurses that day.
I was fortunate enough to attend the same university as my dad and we commiserated with each other about the frustrations of following a middling mid-major basketball program. In the last ten years we saw them play in two conference finals for a ticket to the Big Dance but they couldn’t bring it home. I called him from the conference tournament last year. We finally had the #1 seed and home court advantage but got bounced in the semis. “We’ll get ‘em next year”, he’d always say.
My dad viewed my increasing obsession with Michigan with a sort of curious fascination. Being from the Northeast he wasn’t much of a college football fan. He cheered for Notre Dame because we are Irish Catholics and he also had a soft spot in his heart for the Wisconsin Badgers. He’d laugh as he listened to me rave about the Maize and Blue. When Denard was setting the world on fire last year I couldn’t wait to see him on Sunday and make him watch the latest jaw-dropping play. He told me, “It looks like Rich Rod has found his guy”. We wanted to get out to the Big House to see a game together but it wasn’t to be.
On Saturday we held his funeral. I tried to stay stoic for my mom, my sister, and my aunt. After the burial and the reception my mom and I went back to the gravesite for some closure. We talked about what he meant to us and I was finally able to cry. Then my friends picked me up and we went out to a sports bar in town and saw the most amazing football game of our lives. As Roundtree came down with the game winning TD I got up and screamed “that’s what I’m fucking talking about baby yeah!!!”. I know my dad was up there laughing and smiling at my reaction. I’ll never forget the range of emotions that I went through on that day.
Sports are such a big part of the bond between a family. Do me a favor and go watch a game with your old man or give him a call. A lot of you are fathers yourselves. Take time to share with your kids what Michigan means to you. It may be the most important thing that you ever share with them. I’ll close with a quote from one of my dad’s favorite bands, the Moody Blues:
Time, take this sadness from me
Time, bring my heart back safely
Hold on to warm September
Cause life can be like December Snow.