OK. I confess. Within seconds of seeing the ultrasound scan that revealed our first child and son-to-be Elliott was indeed a son, I dialed the phone anxiously trying to reach then Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weiss. A nice lady in the Notre Dame athletic department answered and politely told me Coach Weiss was unavailable. She said something about preparing his team for their upcoming Sugar Bowl matchup with LSU. I confidently told her coach would want to be interrupted with my news. She boldly assured me he would not.
After much debate, I had to settle for leaving a message. Once she got it, though, I know she jumped from her office chair and bolted for the practice field to inform Coach Weiss:
Keith Cartwright called. He's seen the ultrasound. It's a boy... (I'm sure she paused here to allow coach to dance and slap high fives with his assistants). Although Mr. Cartwright admits it's a bit hard to tell from the images, he thinks the kid's a linebacker. Looks a lot like Buoniconti. He'll be in touch. But for now he wants you to feel sure the kid's ready to commit to Notre Dame.
I never heard from Coach Weiss. He was fired a couple of years later so I'm guessing I never will. To date, my efforts to get in touch with current Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly have been equally fruitless.
Meanwhile, back in reality, Elliott is in the middle of his first season of tackle football. And, his 9 year old body continues to evolve into something that looks more like a kicker than a middle linebacker. No offense to kickers. Well, at least not much. Elliott is one of the youngest guys on his team and don't bother breaking out your tape measure and scales. He's the smallest. Factor in many of the other boys on his team have been playing contact football for several years and what you have is Elliott patrolling the sidelines far more than he's catching touchdown passes or making game saving tackles.
I read something recently that hit me like a Buoniconti tackle midway through this first tackle football season. It comes from the book Love that Boy - What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, And My Son Taught Me About A Parent's Expectations by Ron Fournier. In his book, Fournier says the following:
A parent's love is unconditional. A parent's satisfaction comes with caveats. This is an important distinction: You love your kids no matter what, but you expect them to be something - smart or popular or successful, maybe a scholarship athlete who marries well and runs the family business.
A parent's love is unconditional. I think a majority of parents would agree with that. Even if one parent's idea of love looks different from another's.
A parent's satisfaction comes with caveats. Really? What kind of parent puts conditions on being satisfied with their child?
Elliott and I have about a 25 minute ride each way to his practices 3 nights a week. On the way there it gives us a lot of time to talk about what he can do to improve at that night's practice. On the way home we evaluate how he responded to those chats. After reading Fournier's words above, do you know what I've concluded many of those conversations have been about? They are about how satisfied I am Elliott is becoming a better football player. One that is working his way toward more playing time. One who looks like he belongs on the field as much as some of the older and bigger kids who are scoring touchdowns and making game-saving tackles.
I knew going in contact football was going to be a unique challenge for Elliott. The kid doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body. That's not to say he doesn't have a burning desire to win, because he does. Too burning most days. But in football, at most positions, the desire to win has to be accompanied by a desire to repeatedly use your body to pummel someone else's body. Elliott's never been big on pummeling. I don't think he likes the idea of potentially hurting someone else. I know he doesn't like the thought of someone else hurting him. Good football players have an ability to at least momentarily disregard both.
One night last week, though, Elliott did that. The team frequently does a tackling drill where one player carries the ball and the other player runs up on him from about 5 yards away and tries to tackle him. Elliott does great at hustling to the ball carrier. When he gets there, though, he always slams on the brakes before the point of contact. In his mind I imagine it's a lot like trying to avoid a head on collision with a tractor trailer rig. On this night, though, he went through with the collision. And he made the tackle.
I remember the first time I watched one of my favorite movies with Elliott: Rudy. When the movie was over I asked Elliott what he thought of the movie. He said he liked it. I asked him if he learned anything from it. He looked at me and with Elliott-like seriousness he said, "you never give up."
I think sometimes our satisfaction with our kids gets screwed up because we get the caveats all wrong.
Elliott, in spite of being tired and knowing night in and night out that he's outmanned on the football field, has never asked to quit. Additionally, his team is undefeated, and Elliott embraces that status as if he's the leading scorer on the team. He loves wearing the pads and having a jersey with his name scrolled across the back of it. In his eyes, that alone puts him on the same level as Odell Beckham Jr. - the name he likes to go by when we're playing catch in the yard.
If the kid is having fun being on a team, and he feels like Beckham, why on earth should I screw it up expecting him to be more like Rudy?
Especially when he's proving to have a whole lot of Rudy in him.