Pictured above is Ken Cook, my father. As I type this, I am getting ready to make another trip back to Carmel, Ind., because I am told the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with last October is going to claim him very, very soon at the age of 66.
A long time ago, a friend and I talked about whether we eventually are doomed (our word) to become our fathers, a conversation that was a bit of debate about genetic vs. environment because I’m adopted. All I can say is, every time I take coffee to the bathroom, I am Ken Cook.
But this being a youth sports site, and your probably not wanting to know about my bathroom habits (or my father’s), I can certainly share how he influenced my own sporting life as a child, and how he still influences it as an adult.
Of course, he always was good about playing catch with my brother and I, or playing quarterback while he and I ran routes against each other. One big advantage in having my father as a dad was that as a child he was forced to stop being left-handed, that being the rage when he was a child. So when he played catch with me, he could put on my brother’s right-handed glove. When he played catch with my brother, he could wear my left-handed glove.
I can tell you that my dad certainly would agree with the idea about Your Kid Not Going Pro, because he never had such aspirations for us, even when as a 6-year-old I was leaving older kids in the dust in long-distance races up and down my block. School always was first, and steering us toward a steady career was what he had in mind.
If he was thinking sports first, he wouldn’t have pulled me out of kindergarten in my Owosso, Mich., school and put me in first grade in the local Catholic school as a result of my kindergarten teacher being royally pissed I knew how to read, mainly because I was reading the other kids the notes she was writing to their parents about what brats they were. Thus, I was always two calendar years younger than my peers — the opposite of what you do if you want your kid to go pro.
If he was thinking sports first, he (and my mom — she was no bystander) wouldn’t have yanked me off of my sixth-grade basketball team when I was in my brief, intense budding delinquent phase. So often you hear the argument kids should stay on a team when they’re troubled because it provides structure. My father, colorful with language as he was, would respond: Fuck that shit, dumbass.
If he was thinking sports first, he wouldn’t have yanked my brother and I off our Little League team in North Muskegon, Mich., (we moved around a lot — dad was transferred frequently in his job with the phone company) when I was 10 and my brother was 9. He thought the coach was a jackass, in no small part because — six years after Carolyn King on the other side of the state in Ypsilanti successfully sued to force Little League to drop their no-girls rule — that coach wouldn’t allow girls on his team. My dad was conservative politically, and was not exactly out there campaigning for ratification of the ERA. But he had a strong sense of fairness. His judgment was vindicated when the next year we played on a Little League team, which had a girl on the roster, won our town championship — while the other coach’s team finished last.
If he was thinking sports first, he would have pushed my brother and I to sign up and stay on teams, rather than letting us decide what we wanted to do. If we didn’t speak up, he didn’t sign us up. And when I quit running cross country and track after my sophomore year of high school, his words were something like, “OK.” But he was there for my meets, and those of my brother, who did stick it out all the way through. He wasn’t disinterested, but he wasn’t going to shell out money and time if we didn’t care ourselves.
And in all of that, I feel his influence. I probably push a little more, maybe a result of me coaching so many of my kids’ teams. But I don’t sign up my kids for anything they don’t want to do, and if they don’t want to do it anymore after the season is over, that’s fine by me. And I agree that school comes first, and sports comes way behind that. It’s fun, and it’s great, but… well, the blog title applies to my own kids as well.
My dad, though living three hours away, made it to some of my kids’ games, the last one being one of my 6-year-old son’s bowling league matches. That was after he was diagnosed. I know he was very proud, and he made sure to give my 6-year-old the 15-pound ball he used for years in his own playing days, understanding of course that my son is a bit far away from being able to lift it.
Soon my dad will be gone. But he’ll always be around, as you can see. Now, I’m going to get some coffee.
UPDATE: My father died early this morning in his home. He died peacefully, knowing he had a lot of love and support in his final days.