It’s arguably the best time of the year as a sports fan, with March Madness in full swing. The contrast of the pure exhilaration and devastating heartbreak between the winner and loser in the college basketball games at this point in the season is unmatched. However, it just doesn’t feel the same this year.
Because as I sat on the couch watching small conference championships or bubble teams fighting for the tournament, Dad was no longer sitting in the recliner to my left. It’s now been nearly three months since Dad passed away, and to me, the effects of that are never more evident than when watching a sporting event. In the truest sense, a part of me is now missing.
You see, Dad had a love for sports that was unrivaled. It was that love that he transferred to me, my two older brothers Greg and Kyle, and even Mom. It became a part of us.
From the time I could walk, there was a bat and ball in my hand along with a Fisher Price hoop in our kitchen. Instead of being the envy of the neighborhood with a top-notch lawn, Dad converted our backyard to a half-court basketball court, three-point line and all. Meanwhile, the front yard featured home plate and a dirt patch in the middle of the yard for a pitcher’s mound.
It was here where I would go to shoot hoops out back and before you knew it, Dad was stopping whatever he was doing to round the corner and become my personal rebounder for the next 15 minutes. Growing up, I played travel baseball, and before every road trip or single game, he would pitch me batting practice in that front yard, oftentimes chasing a ball down the road if I turned on it too much. In the offseason, he would willingly scuff up his knees to crouch down in a catcher’s stance so I could work on perfecting my new curveball grip.
Looking back on it, Dad lived vicariously through the sports that my brothers and I played once his playing days were done (and trust me, he was an athlete himself. His nickname in softball was “The Vacuum” at shortstop because he never let anything past him, and he could still beat my brothers and me in H-O-R-S-E with that stupid corner jump shot of his). There wasn’t a game of ours that went by where he wasn’t in the stands. From the championship teams that I played for to the teams that only won one game the entire season, Dad NEVER missed a game. That’s part of the reason why I consider him my biggest supporter.
All this time, though, Dad never really rooted hard for a college team growing up. He attended a small college in New Jersey, so he didn’t have any allegiance as an alumnus … that was, until my oldest brother Greg decided to attend Virginia Tech. As a result, Dad and the rest of our family became die-hard Virginia Tech fans. And just like anyone who’s ever rooted for the Hokies, I’ll always cherish sharing those joys and frustrations with him.
One story involving the Hokies always sticks out in my memory. During the 2013 football season, Virginia Tech was facing Boston College (a game the Hokies would eventually lose 34-27) and the half was winding down. Instead of throwing a Hail Mary, Frank Beamer decided to bring on Cody Journell for a 56-yard field goal. To this day I remember the mutters from Dad in his recliner, questioning if Beamer had dementia, and then declaring, “If Journell makes this, I’ll smear peanut butter on myself and let the squirrels eat it.”
Sure enough, Journell drilled the career-long field goal, and we’re all losing it, pretty much in tears from the belly laughs happening inside our living room. No, Dad did not end up fulfilling his promise, but it’s a memory to reminisce on that encapsulates the insanity of being a Virginia Tech fan.
Over time, I’ve realized that Dad not only passed his love for sports to me, but he also handed down his proficiency as a storyteller to me. Dad always knew that stories wrapped up in the emotions of sports were the best ones to tell to anyone who would lend an ear.
He would always explain how he became a Dallas Cowboys fan by retelling the story of ‘Bullet’ Bob Hayes. When my Dad was a little kid watching football, Hayes was considered the world’s fastest man as an Olympic sprinter, and the Cowboys drafted him in 1964. Dad recalls watching Hayes blow by defenders on go routes. As a result, teams first started instituting zone coverage because no cornerback could keep up with Hayes in man. Dad loved telling this story of how Hayes was the reason why he was a Cowboys fan, and in turn, it’s the reason why I became a Cowboys fan.
Ask any of my brothers what MLB record will never be broken, and all three of us will answer Johnny Vander Meer’s record of two consecutive no-hitters. You hear a lot of talk about Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, but Dad was fascinated with Vander Meer’s record. He would always light up with excitement when talking about it because he noted how no one would EVER pitch the three straight no-hitters needed to break this record.
Out of all the teams that Dad rooted for, none was quite like his love for the New York Mets. (Luckily my older brother Kyle was the only one to follow in Dad’s footsteps rooting for them). I heard all kinds of stories about Dave Kingman, the modern-day equivalent of Adam Dunn, who would either hit a 500-foot bomb or strike out when with the Mets.
Then there were the 1986 Mets, Dad’s pride and joy, the last time the Mets won the World Series. This was Dad’s favorite team of all time and where the majority of his stories originated. When Bill Buckner allowed the ball to roll between his legs for the Mets’ game-winning run in Game 6, Dad never dwelled on this iconic moment, but instead, showed me the value of perspective by explaining how no one would ever talk about that blunder today if the Red Sox had gone on to win Game 7.
These words and the stories that I’ve shared above probably don’t mean a whole lot to someone else, or maybe they do. Either way it’s exactly who Dad was.
Over these past two and half months with Dad gone, I’ve been attempting to channel the inner writer in me to find the right words. I’ve wanted to be raw and honest in what has been the most difficult season of my life.
My mind drifts to areas of my life where there is now a void. I incessantly think about how Christmas will never be the same and how Dad won’t be there for my graduation next year or my wedding in the future. Even now, it’s challenging to do simple everyday functions and be surrounded by people living a normal life when I simply can’t anymore.
Still, every day I put my two feet on the ground to begin the day and that’s a win. I live knowing that Dad was and still is my biggest fan. Even though I’ll never see him on this earth again, I find hope in this dark time knowing that I’ll get to watch the big game with him again in Heaven.
Remember in the beginning when I said a part of me was missing? Well, now when I sit down and write, that missing part is put back together piece by piece. While Dad was a storyteller through the spoken word, every word that I type out on my computer screen is another piece of the puzzle connecting to tell a beautiful story.
A story that I pray continues to make Dad proud.
— Cory Van Dyke