One November evening when I was six years old, my dad came home from work with “a surprise” in his briefcase. He pulled out two tickets to the upcoming Saturday”s Michigan football game against Minnesota and asked if I”d like to go.
I had never been to a game at the stadium before I couldn”t have told you whether Ann Arbor was 30 miles away from our Novi home or 100 but I knew the tickets meant one thing: An afternoon with my father, where I could have him all to myself. My brother, then a two-year old toddler, demanded quite a bit of attention and this would be just us.
Game day came, and the weather was close to zero degrees, miserable all the way. Quickly the afternoon turned into a survival mission, rather than a day of relaxation.
Breaks between quarters and halves were spent underneath the shelter of the concession stands. We bought hot chocolate, not to drink, but to warm our hands. Dad talked of lasting as long as possible before giving up and heading to the car.
But I didn”t want the day to end. Sure, the game was close, but that wasn”t the real reason I was there. Going to the car before the game was over meant a return to the house, a return to routine, the afternoon cut short. I wanted it to last as long as possible, just me and my father.
With some coaxing, we stayed for the finish. A determined Rickey Foggie led the Gophers down that frozen field and Chip Lohmiller lined up for the mid-range field goal that beat us as time wound down. The crowd groaned and filed out, depressed at the outcome, thankful for salvation from the cold.
Twelve years later, I learned that the 1985 Michigan-Minnesota game, the one my father and I attended, cost the Wolverines a shot at the national championship. We had been ranked No. 1 at the time.
I had never known the significance of my first Michigan football game until I arrived on campus. That”s because I wasn”t there for the football that day I was there to spend time with my dad. He wouldn”t have minded heading home midway through the second half, but I think he sensed the importance of the afternoon to me. We stayed all 60 minutes.
Perhaps a year later, the two of us were out in the yard, getting me ready for my first season of Little League. We were tossing a tennis ball back and forth, dad providing occasional instruction on what to do.
I was doing just fine catching the low ball, where I could cup my mitt and bring it in basket-style. When the ball was thrown higher, I was baffled. Instincts kept telling me to continue catching it the way I had been before, lifting my wrist up to my eyes to catch the ball underhanded. It felt extremely awkward, but I knew no other way.
“No, Chris,” my dad said gently yet with a purpose, demonstrating. “You”ve got to get your glove up, or you”re going to get hurt.”
He threw another one shoulder-high, and one after that. I was still improvising, trying to catch it underhanded. Again, I was told that I wasn”t using the right technique. I could get hurt.
The next throw came up high, and I was too late with the glove. The tennis ball struck me square in the nose, and I dropped to the ground having never felt more pain.
I took my glove inside, crying, and blubbered to my mom that Dad had hit me right in the nose. Mom began to address my wound, and when my father opened the screen door to come inside, the day”s game of catch obviously finished, she gave him a lecture.
Dad was unfazed by Mom”s protectiveness, having known before he threw the ball that she wouldn”t understand why he had to do it. “Chris,” he monotoned, “You have to learn to get your glove up, or that is going to continue to happen. And next time it won”t be a tennis ball.”
Half an hour later, the pain was gone, the memory was not, and the lesson had been learned. From then on, I got my glove up. To his credit, dad had made a perfect throw exactly when he needed to prove his point right on the nose.
These two stories paint my father: Always sacrificing himself for the family, always teaching his sons the right way to do things. His lessons extend far beyond the construct of sports. Those are just the ones that resonate with me the most, a testament to a father that has never stopped doing his job.
This is Chris Duprey”s final column for The Michigan Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.