A Father's Love

 James Leath SR 1947 - 2018

James Leath SR 1947 - 2018

My dad passed away on Monday, September 10, 2018. He was a good man. He was a father to more than his sons and a friend to more than a few. This is one of my favorite moments as his oldest son.

It’s the last day of tryouts.

My helmet is a little too big, my shoulder pads don’t quite fit right, and my knee pads are studiously protecting my shins.

I’m on one knee trying to look as big as possible surrounded by “upper-graders” who recently entered the 5th and 6th grade. I’m among the youngest, trying to make the team as a 4th grader. The football coach reads off a list of names of those who made the team:

Bowser. Boyd. Daniels.

With each name called, an excited boy stands up and sprints to the other side of the field to join his new team.

Keller. Maxie. Rodriguez.

Tears fill my eyes. Maybe he forgot to read off Leath?

Sanchez. Talley. Williams.

The coach reads off the final names, takes a deep breath, and lowers his clipboard. The hardest part of coaching is not having a spot for everyone wanting to be a part of that team, then having to look those would-be players in the eyes and tell them to go home.

“Gentlemen, thank you for trying out for the team. Unfortunately, we only have enough gear for 30 kids. You were close, having made it through the first round of cuts. However, this is not your year. I hope to see you out here next year. Please take off your gear and put it in the shed.”

With that, the coach turned around and headed towards his new team, walking away from 11 sniffling kids trying to hold back tears, some of us failing horribly.

I took a deep breath, wiped the tears from my eyes, took my gear to the shed and walked over to my dad waiting in the jeep.

I opened the door and pause before I climb in.

“Hey, buddy.”

I avert my eyes, not wanting my dad to see me cry.

“Where is your gear?”

“In the shed. I didn’t make the team.” Tears make everything blurry again. I wanted to make the team so damn bad. I was mad I didn’t make it, then sad. I get to my dad’s jeep, now embarrassed because I wanted my dad to be proud of me.

“Did you have fun?”

“Yes.”

"Are you going to try out again next year?”

“Uh-huh.”

My dad smiles, being wise enough to know this is a moment that will help define me later in life.

“Proud of you, son.”

“Thanks.”

“Let’s go get some ice cream.”

“Okay.”

The older I get, the more I appreciate what he did that day. But even more important, what he did not do that day.

He did not go talk to the coach and try and get me on the team.

He did not try and get me to talk about what happened.

He did not let me leave the scene without letting me know he was proud of the attempt.

My father never shielded me from lessons that can only be learned through the experiencing pain. When I got detention and had to miss a game because of it, he took the side of the teacher. When I wanted to go to prom, but our finances were tight, he helped me get a job.

I remember my senior year of high school when I brought him a brochure that showed the rings and letterman jackets all my friends were getting for graduating high school.

“What’s this for?” He asked.

“It’s for graduating high school. It’s a thing.”

"You want me to buy you something for graduating high school?”

“Uh, yeah?” I say. He thumbs through the brochure, then hands it back to me.

“Son, you are supposed to graduate high school. Listen, graduate college, and I will hand you a $10,000 check.”

I rolled my eyes and never brought it up again. I never got a high school ring or a lettermen’s jacket.

James and James

Ten years later, I finally graduate with a bachelors in communication. He is beaming with pride as we chat post-ceremony in the communication building at Fresno State. He pulls out his wallet and hands me a wrinkled $10,000 check dated the same date I graduated high school.

“I’ve been waiting 10 years to give you this check. I’m proud of you.”

I resigned from my dream job at IMG Academy to be in Dallas during the last months of his life. I have never once regretted that decision, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

In heaven, my father was greeted by my brother Monte, my good friend and former teammate Randy, and all my grandparents.

Here’s to the fathers and the coaches who are surrogate fathers. Your influence will last long after you are gone.