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SportsMonday Column: An overdue story for Papa

Courtesy of Nesbitt Family
Peter, Steve, and Stephen Nesbitt celebrate the 2003 Bronco state title in Lansing, Mich. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 21, 2013

The other day, my father, a French and Spanish teacher, looked down at his precise cursive scrawl, chuckled, and shook his head. His pen still hovered above a student’s paper, above his signature: Stephen J. Nesbitt.

Courtesy of Nesbitt Family
The Nesbitt family in front of its red-brick farmhouse in Épehy, France, the day the family moved to the United States.
Courtesy of Nesbitt Family
Stephen and Peter Nesbitt celebrate their third birthday.

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Except, he is Stephen M. Nesbitt.

He later admitted his gaffe and said it was a humiliating sign of being eclipsed by his children. I smiled. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

***

This was always Papa’s dream, this sportswriting.

A tall, lanky kid from Birmingham, Mich., he went to Michigan State to be a sports reporter. He had the know-how, he knew how to craft a story, and he certainly had the writing talent.

But there, in the shadows of Spartan Stadium, he reversed course. He’d say his motivation was ill-founded. He’d say he was in it for the wrong reasons. He’d say his pursuit was only of the opportunity to meet famous athletes and to tell their stories.

So, he left East Lansing, instead, with a French degree to become a teacher. He met Brenda Knopf, they married, and their adventure quickly took them far, far away from where either of them had imagined.

In 1984, with 1-year-old Stephanie in tow, my parents moved to France to become evangelical Christian missionaries. Daniel was born in 1987, followed two years later by David, followed two years later by Peter, who was followed seven minutes later by me.

In total, my parents would spend 13 years there in northern France, working tirelessly to spread a gospel of love and grace and truth as they raised a family thousands and thousands of miles away from Michigan, from their home.

Home for me was never Michigan, though. Home wasn’t anything like Michigan.

My home was in northern France, in the Somme region, where fields and grasslands were stitched together like a patchwork quilt, where memorials and cemeteries and craters were everyday reminders of the battles fought in those same fields during World War I.

Home was Lille, then Hargicourt, and then Épehy. Home was a red-brick farmhouse that somehow fit all of us and a golden retriever under the same roof; home was a wiffle-ball field, bomb casings and bayonets in the backyard, fool’s gold rocks in the driveway, and six acres of land littered with sheep, chickens and turkeys on the north end of town.

But that was simply the backdrop. The life of this story was in our home. There is nothing better than growing up in a house brimming with laughter and children.

But, in time, the novelty of a large family began to fade for some. After receiving some criticism from a number of financial supporters back in the United States, my parents dropped the official title of missionary soon after their 10th anniversary, and they severed all financial support.

Now, contrary to popular belief, being “professional Christians” in the first place doesn’t exactly align with a life of riches. Not at all, actually. Papa found work teaching English courses at the chamber of commerce in nearby St. Quentin, then he started working as a sporting-goods salesman.

Rachel was born in 1993, followed two years later by Elizabeth, followed two years later by Carol.

We lived meager paycheck to meager paycheck. We first drove a yellow Volkswagen van, then a small, grey sedan, then no car at all, and then my dad’s white sales truck. We faltered, but we never fell.

Mama, our rock, never left the table empty. When zucchini from our garden was all we had to eat, that’s what we ate. Zucchini bread for breakfast; zucchini and squash salad for lunch; zucchini pasta for dinner.

There wasn’t always much, but there was something on the table, and there was family around it. It was a happy and healthy and bustling home. What more could a kid ask for?

I learned faith. I learned work ethic. I learned sacrifice.

And I learned sports, of course.

Even in a land where soccer and soccer alone rules the sports world, Papa’s love for sports, especially for baseball, became his sons’ love.

Every night, we played wiffle ball in the backyard. Every Saturday during the baseball season, we’d drive an hour northeast, across the Belgian border, to the city of Mons and its sprawling NATO base — Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (S.H.A.P.E.) — for baseball. We played on the Belgian team against all the Americans since our dad wasn’t in the military.

And, at long last, Papa tried his hand again at sportswriting. He began writing, designing and producing The European Baseball Report, a baseball magazine targeted at spreading the popularity of baseball in the region.

My first venture into journalism, I suppose, was at the dining-room table, as I helped fold the magazines, slide them into their envelopes and lick the envelopes closed.

But Papa’s sportswriting career finished almost before it started. We moved back “home.”

We moved to Marlette, Mich. in Oct. 1998 to help my grandfather take care of my ailing grandmother as she reached the final stages of her battle with Alzheimer’s. We moved home for exactly the right reason, but it wasn’t easy to accept.

Gone was the pastoral French countryside. Gone were the sheep and the chickens. Gone was home as I knew it.

But Papa couldn’t find a teaching job nearby, so he did what he’d always done — he found a way to make it work. Despite owning a Masters degree in curriculum development, he worked for a full year at two milking parlors. Twelve-hour shifts, minimum wage, and he’d never even get so much as a hug afterward — but not because we didn’t miss him. It was because he’d come home, exhausted, with his black jacket splattered with manure.

Still, he found time to ferry us to baseball games, near and far, and to coach from the third-base box whenever he could.

Bethany was born in 2000. That year, the Nesbitts, a family of 11, survived on $10,000, faith, and a lot of prayers.

***

This sportswriting was always his dream. I’ve just been fortunate enough to have lived it out these last four years.

A tall, lanky kid from Grand Ledge, Mich., I went to Michigan to be a news reporter, to do something vigilant and important and different, but I couldn’t steer myself away from the sports section. I was told that I had the know-how, that I knew how to craft a story, and that I had the writing talent.

But there in the shadows of Michigan Stadium, I nearly reversed course. I worried my motivation was misguided. I worried I was in it for the wrong reasons. I worried my pursuit was only of the opportunity to meet famous athletes and to tell their stories.

But as I watched Denard Robinson fumble, recover, then gallop for a touchdown in my first game at the Big House, I knew I was in the right place. I stayed the course.

I found The Michigan Daily, and 420 Maynard became my home. I found my best friends here. I found an education and a career here. I found my passion here.

Here, I learned that everyone has a story, a beautifully unique story to tell. Sometimes, though, people don’t understand the weight and gravity of their story until they finally tell it, until they chip away the layers bit by bit, until they see it spelled out in front of them.

I’ve told Maureen Moody’s story. Her father never missed a moment as Maureen grew up, but terminal metastatic pancreatic cancer stole him away at the start of her senior season.

I’ve told Dave Molk’s story. He cried in Schembechler Hall as he told me memories of his mother who died a decade earlier. It was a story he’d never told before, something he never liked to think about, but he let me in. The story almost never ran. It was sensitive; it was personal. But, in the end, it went to print. “I’m glad I agreed to this story,” he wrote in an email. “More importantly, I waited for the right reporter.”

And I’ve told Denard Robinson’s story. The soft-spoken quarterback told of his journey to escape the danger of the streets in his hometown of Deerfield Beach, Fla. He told of his humiliation when college coaches came on in-home visits. He told of his brother Timothy’s death and of his own dream to become the first college graduate in his family.

If I get to tell people’s stories for the rest of my life, I’ll be a happy man.

But there was one story I wanted to tell while I still had the chance. It’s the story of an aspiring journalist, someone who wanted to meet the rich and famous, who wanted, to some extent, to be known. It’s the story of a man who always did things the right way, who always fought to keep his family together. It’s the story of a teacher, an expert in a selfless field. It’s the story of the man whose youthful dream I am living.

He wanted to tell people’s stories. He wanted this life, but he gave it up. He never accomplished his dream, but he was a better father than he ever could have been a sportswriter.

And he gave me the opportunity to come here to Michigan, to the Daily, to this farewell column, to tell this story today.

Papa, after four years, Stephen J., your son, salutes and thanks you. I wish it could have come sooner, but here’s your story.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.

He will be interning at The Indianapolis Star this summer and at The Miami Herald this fall.