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Lessons in sports become lessons in life

June 15, 2003|by MARK KELLER

keller@herald-mail.com

I'm sure that most people my age - a tender, young 33 - have had experiences that have changed their outlook on life and caused them to look at things from a new persepctive.

Certainly marriage and kids will do that. Advancement in a career or pursuing another will, too.

Special days take on new meaning as well.

There's probably not many who look forward to birthdays like before. And remember how you looked at Christmas as a child? I'm sure most of you see it in a new light now.

So it is with Father's Day for me this year. In fact, I'm entering a third incarnation of that holiday today.

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The first was when I was a child and bought my father a seemingly endless string of goofy cards, bad wallets and golf balls.

The second began nine years ago, when I was first the celebrated father.

Today is the first time I'll have a Father's Day without my father, Tommy, who passed away in February after a bout with cancer.

There have been good and bad days - for me and for the rest of my family - since Dad died, but most have been good. And today's going to be good, too, because there's plenty of good to remember about Dad.

Dad always loved sports and he always encouraged my brother and me to share in his love of sports. His encouragement then undoubtedly played no small role in the paths Doug and I took as we grew up.

Doug was always the better athlete of the two of us. I enjoyed playing sports - still do - but I just never had quite the natural ability Doug did.

No small surprise then that he's still playing softball, flag football and hockey and becoming a pretty good golfer, while I'm sitting here writing about it.

The one thing we did love was playing with Dad, and he loved doing it with us. It seemed he was never too busy to have a catch with one of us if we asked him, although I'm sure there were plenty of Saturday afternoons he'd have rather propped his feet up and taken a nap.

I'll bet deep inside our father was just like any other dad - he wanted to see his boys playing in the big leagues. But he never verbalized it, and he never pushed either one of us to play.

Of course, he didn't have to. By the time we were old enough to play in organized leagues, the sports were so ingrained in us there was no reason not to play.

And again, Dad was right there, first "helping out" with Doug's baseball team, then becoming an "official" assistant coach.

Dad was a great teacher. He loved working with the kids at the ballfield, just like he worked with Doug and me in the back yard. If there can be such a thing in little league, Dad would have been known as a player's coach.

Kids loved playing for him because they knew he cared about them - not about how they played, about them.

He knew how to have fun, too. We used to get a laugh - still do, actually - about Dad playing in a softball game between the coaches at National Little League.

The game was played on the little league field, so the coaches were supposed to bat opposite-handed in order to make hitting home runs a bit tougher.

In his first at-bat, Dad stepped up to the plate left-handed and cracked a homer over the fence in right field, which was enough to tick off the other team.

So, at his opponents' insistence, Dad stepped to the plate right-handed in his next at-bat.

Do I need to tell you where the ball ended up? Let's say I don't remember any more of those softball games after that.

Dad loved to golf when he was younger, and by all accounts he was very good. His brother, Mike - the youngest of 14 brothers and sisters and my Dad's best buddy - said Dad could do things with an 8-iron that he had never seen before or since.

He used to take Doug and me to the driving range at Yingling's. After I had scuffed through my small bucket of balls, I'd sit and watch as Dad would hit drive after drive straight as an arrow toward the railroad bridge.

In recent years, however, we resorted to simply talking sports - yet that was still every bit as fun as playing.

I'd take my family over to visit my parents on Sundays and, eventually, Dad and I would make our way to the living room to watch the end of that weekend's golf tournament. My wife used to beg me not to make her watch, but she soon gave up and instead used that time for a nap.

When a spot showed up in an X-ray of my father's lung in the summer of 2001, it shook us all, though none of us were shocked. Dad had smoked for many, many years and though he tried numerous times to quit, he never could kick the habit completely.

He underwent surgery in November 2001 to have one lobe of his right lung removed. The spot found before was a tumor, and the tumor was cancerous.

Dad's life - and ours in turn - changed forever that day. He began chemotherapy treatments right around Christmas and radiation soon followed.

Through it all, Dad remained upbeat. He knew it would take a positive attitude to win this fight, and he did his best to stay positive.

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