Sunday, September 22, 2019

My Dad and Sports


By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

My dad passed away Thursday night.

We all grieve in different ways, and I think did all the usual things, but honestly, after a few hours, I just wanted to zone out and watch a bad football game.

Luckily, the Jags and Titans obliged me, but the game also reminded of all the sports memories I had with my father.

I remembered walking two miles from our parking spot to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami, and making him buy me an Arepa from a guy in a cart along the way. I remembered walking across a bridge in Pittsburgh with him when I was in 3rd grade, after we watched the Steelers win the AFC Championship, singing with a bunch of drunk dudes that the Steelers were finally going back to the Super Bowl.

I also remembered that I had this site, and that writing, though not my profession anymore, has always been cathartic. So, here we go...

My Dad was the Best/Worst Sports Fan

Maybe it's because he grew up poor in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, but my dad never really mentioned his youth sports heroes, and never took pro sports particularly seriously.

He was 19 when Bill Mazeroski homered in the bottom of the 9th to win the Pirates the World Series against the Yankees, but he never even mentioned to me if he watched or listened to the game, though he did have memories of my grandmother screaming when Bruno Sammartino was in trouble against some evil, non-Italian, wrestler.

Still, he would always talk fondly about the 1970s Steelers teams from his 30s, most notably his favorite players, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell, the latter of which he still couldn't believe wasn't in the Hall of Fame.

He also thought the Steelers should have permanently benched Terry Bradshaw for Joe Gilliam, so he definitely had some Hot Sports Takes™ in his day.

My dad is the reason I root for the Steelers. I was born in Pittsburgh, but we moved to South Florida when I was still a baby. I remember the Steel City as a tough, gritty, smoggy place, where we would go to visit my grandparents, and my dad would occasionally take me to see the Steelers or the Pirates play in the old Three Rivers Stadium, or the Penguins skate in the old Civic Center.

The city made me think of my parents as kids, and the toughness they had to have as the son and daughter of immigrants to make it in this country the way they did. I always liked that identity, though it was never really mine, so I pasted it onto Pittsburgh's pro sports teams.



I think my dad was mad at himself for inadvertently making me such a die-hard, because he would always tell me not to care so much, but it was too late. I had seen my teams win and felt too much of a rush (I still remember the Penguins winning the Cup when I was in kindergarten), and I had seen them lose and taken it way too hard (the 1994 AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XXX broke me in 2nd and 3rd grade, respectively).

When I was in middle school, I remember my dad basically saying, "don't you think we should root for the Dolphins now?" I was shocked, but I think it was actually his way of saying, "stop taking this all so seriously, you psycho."

It took me a few years... Well, many years, but eventually I did.

I became a positive (some would say "fair weather") fan, and my dad was right, it's much better. We cheered for the Steelers and the Penguins when they were winning, and watched, but didn't obsess over them when they were losing. Heck, when the Heat snagged LeBron, we cheered for them too. We were Floridians, after all, and that seemed like fun.

Actually, the last game I watched live with my dad was Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals (pictured above). What an epic way to go out. The old man flew me down to Miami because one of his friends had given us amazing seats on the baseline for the biggest game in the world.

With LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli all running around, I specifically remember that the one guy my dad noticed, oddly enough, was Chris Andersen.

"Look at that tattooed guy. He just shoves that other dude every time he comes down the floor."

"Yeah dad, that's Bird Man. He's a nut."

"You were our Bird Man when I coached you in basketball. Every team needs a Bird Man to protect the guys who can actually play."

He wasn't wrong, but more on that later.

Anyways, the last game I actually got to watch with my dad is one I barely remember.

My beloved Steelers were fighting for their playoff lives against the Saints last December, and we were down in Florida for the holidays. We went out to dinner with my parents, and the game was on the restaurant's bar TV in the background. I watched it from afar, and I remember the Steelers lost, but I couldn't tell you the score. However, I can remember that my dad ordered way too many appetizers for the table, and that I had an awesome meal with my parents, my sister, her husband and my wife.

I'm pretty sure that's the way my dad wanted me to balance sports with life, and I'm glad I finally got there. It sure took long enough.

My Dad was the Best/Worst Youth Sports Coach




There are no two ways about it, win percentage-wise, my dad was an awful coach. The man drew up eight plays, max, per season when he coached my youth flag football teams, and he just rolled the ball out when I played basketball and hoped somebody could score (my childhood friend Warren was basically Allen Iverson on those teams, while I was more of a Dennis Rodman, grabbing rebounds and generally bullying people, then getting out of the way on offense).

Our average record was probably something like 3-7 in football and 5-15 in basketball each year.

But my dad taught me so much about inclusion, compassion and dealing with adversity in those years. Before every season, the local YMCA league we played in would have a "combine" of sorts, where kids would run, catch, pass, shoot, etc. for all the coaches. Then, those coaches (usually kids' dads) would pick four or five kids they wanted on their son's team.

My dad always picked the kids nobody wanted.

Not only did he pick them, in football, he would literally design plays for them. If a kid dreamed of playing quarterback, we had a special play just for him to play quarterback, and my dad would ask him which throws he thought he could make, who he wanted to throw to, and what he wanted the snap count to be. I remember being in the car on the way to a game, with my dad telling me that we had to make this play work, because it would make this kid's night.

Being the competitive little jerk I was, I hated this. I wanted to win, dammit, and he was out here designing plays specifically for our least athletic player.

I'm not going to lie, those plays rarely ever worked, and they mostly frustrated other kids on the team. But I'll be damned if, the two or three times we got a completion or gained positive yards on one of those plays, the entire team didn't erupt and rally around a kid we had previously viewed as a liability.

I'd like to think these plays taught me valuable lessons about teamwork and togetherness but, really, they taught me not to be a judgmental, condescending asshole.

Honestly, it's the best thing he ever taught me.

A close second was probably how to deal with losing. Every time I would complain to him that our teams always lost, he would tell me, "a win is a win, but a loss is a lesson." Being a smart ass, I would usually respond with, "we should be really smart by now, because we always lose," and he would hit me back with something like, "well, how many times do you have to get the same lesson before you learn?"

The old man was right. We're all going to lose, we're all going to fail, but if you can't learn something from it, then you're just wasting your time. I wasted a lot of mine as a kid and young adult before I really saw the wisdom in this. Learn from your losses to create future wins, or it's gonna be a long season.


I could go on forever with classic quotes from my dad, or goofy stories, like when he trained my little sister and me every day after school to win our elementary school's Punt, Pass and Kick competition (I won my grade, Jackie finished 3rd in hers... Good job, dad), but I'll leave it at that. The man was obviously far more than a sports figure to me, but every time I watch a game, I can't help but think that he would definitely tell this team to run the flea flicker, or that basketball player to throw up a half court hook shot.

I love you dad, I'll miss you forever, and I'm excited to teach my daughter just a few of the lessons you taught me.

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