EDITOR'S NOTE: Through Father's Day, CBSSports.com writers will present a series of articles portraying fatherhood and sporting figures.
The father raised his son to be a sports writer. Not that he meant to do it. That wasn't the father's goal. But looking back, it had to happen. The son had to become a sports writer. Because that's how his father raised him.
He taught the kid to read by handing him the sports page. Back then they lived in Norman, Okla., where both the kid's parents had gone to college. Boomer Sooner? It was booming, baby. Every year the boy attended Meet the Sooners Day, walking from Sooner to Sooner, too young to know what he was doing and too bold for his own good, getting the words mixed up as he asked Billy Sims and David Overstreet if they'd sign my autograph.
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This kid was embedded deep into the culture of Oklahoma football. This kid? He lived a few streets away from legendary OU coach Barry Switzer. He spent afternoons with other neighborhood kids at the Switzer house, never going inside but hanging out nonetheless with Barry's son, Greg. This boy, this future sports writer, counts this as his earliest memory of childhood: Discovering an armadillo in Barry Switzer's backyard and poking that yucky little thing with a stick.
At home, the father was telling the son about Oklahoma football. About the punt returns by Joe Washington that netted nothing yet covered 80 yards -- 40 crazy yards backward, 40 crazier yards forward. About Lucious Selmon being small enough to play linebacker but tough enough to be the best damn nose guard in America. The kid ate it up. Learned to love sports.
Learned to read, too. The father whetted his appetite for Oklahoma football, then gave him an all-you-can-eat buffet: the Sunday Oklahoman. Page after page of football, OU football. The kid was 5. That's how he learned to read.
The kid learned other stuff, too. The father insisted. While the kid was reading about OU quarterbacks Thomas Lott or Dean Blevins, the father would be reading a story in another section, stumble over a sentence that was clumsy if not completely wrong, and thrust it with annoyance at the kid. Read this paragraph, the father would say. Find the mistake. Dutifully, the kid searched for the crime against grammar.
The boy didn't always find them, but nothing made him prouder than those moments when he circled the offending passage and slid the paper back to the father.
Even today, thinking about it, I get goose bumps.
The boy was me, of course. The father was mine. He wasn't a writer himself, but a lawyer, and when I was 7 we moved to Mississippi, where Dad taught law school at Ole Miss. It didn't seem strange at the time, but after living a few streets down from Barry Switzer, we moved to a neighborhood in Oxford, Miss., where our next-door neighbor was Bob Weltlich, the basketball coach at Ole Miss. My friends were kids of other Ole Miss coaches. Football coach Steve Sloan's son, Stephen. Tennis coach Russell Blair's kid, Russ. Golf coach Don Fruge's son, Don. Oh, and an assistant coach on the Rebels football team. His daughters played soccer with me. Their dad's name? Romeo Crennel.
|When Doyel was a youngster, Thomas Lott was running the option in Norman. (US Presswire)|
But we were in Ole Miss territory, and we went along to get along. About once a week we'd walk a mile to Tad Smith Coliseum and cheer for the Rebels from a spot four rows behind my next-door neighbor. John Stroud was my first basketball hero. Elston Turner was second. Next was Sean Tuohy, the real-life father who took in Michael Oher in the Blind Side. Great point guard, Sean Tuohy. Awful shooter. My hero.
On college football Saturdays, Dad dropped me off at busy Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to sell Cokes. On Sunday mornings we'd go back to empty Vaught-Hemingway with a football, a kicking tee, a soccer ball and a bag of baseballs. We'd do all three sports, right there on the artificial turf. He'd throw me passes. I'd kick field goals -- career long was only 29 yards, but hey, I was 11 -- and soccer balls. And he'd pitch me batting practice. Standing in the end zone, pulling a ball over the sideline, over the track, into the bleachers? Home run, baby. I'd round the bases, four empty cases that held the Cokes I'd sold the day before, and practice my pop-up slide into home plate.
In hindsight, you'd think it was obvious. A sports writer? Me? Duh. But it wasn't obvious. Being a kid, I had childish dreams. I loved animals, so I was going to be a vet. Or maybe a firefighter. Or a baseball coach. The one thing I never thought about being was a lawyer, which is a credit to dad. He never pushed in that direction, though he loved the law. He taught John Grisham at Ole Miss, turned down the chance to go back to Oklahoma as chancellor of the Oklahoma City University School of Law, moved north to get a Juris Doctor at Wisconsin, then to Georgia to teach at Mercer, and eventually to Florida in 1987 to go back into private practice. In 1995 he became a judge. This is an amazing man, my father. The youngest of 10 kids in dirt-poor Oklahoma, no father of his own, the first to go to college. Became a judge. My dad.
But it was left to a high school teacher to plant inside me the seed of sports writing. Well, no, that's not right. Dad planted the seed, whether he knew it or not, and he nurtured it for years. And Mom played her own gigantic role. She's the most talented writer in the family, my mom. Her letters are masterpieces of edgy humor, short bursts of personality -- she uses lots of dashes -- that make you wonder why she never went into writing herself. Maybe because she didn't have an English teacher like mine in ninth grade.
At the end of my one and only year in New Glarus, Wis., Ms. Connor called me to her desk and suggested I become a sports writer. She said something along the lines of, "You love sports and you love to write. Do both."
That was it. I was 14, but I was a sports writer. What happened the rest of the way -- the school paper in high school and college, the starter job with the Tampa Tribune in a bureau in Brooksville, Fla., the break covering the Marlins for the Miami Herald -- is just a series of details. It went that way, but it could have gone another way. I was going to be a sports writer, even if all those years playing sports with my dad made me good enough, barely, to get partial scholarship offers to play soccer or baseball at tiny colleges in Georgia. That wasn't for me. I wasn't going to be a professional athlete. I was going to be a sports writer.
Just like my father raised me.
I love you, Dad. Happy Father's Day.