I’ve had this story to tell for six years, since the end of my son A.J.’s sophomore year in high school.
The sad thing about being the kid whose dad is the only sportswriter that covers your teams, as he was back then, is that your dad short-shrifts things you do that he’d make a big deal out of if it were someone else.
There have been plenty of highlights throughout his 10 years of track, from middle and high school in AuGres, Michigan, to college at Seattle Pacific University. He eventually became the rightful owner of all three of his high school’s individual distance records, capping his senior year by heading to State in the 800, 1600 and 3200 and upsetting the state cross country champion (and owner of a four-year Division I scholarship) in the process.
At SPU he was essentially a walk-on, but served as co-captain and captain of the cross country team from his sophomore year on. In track he took on the steeplechase – three kilometers with immovable barriers (topped by a 4×4) and a pool of water – earned a partial athletic scholarship and came so close to making the NCAA Division II nationals as a sophomore and junior that he could taste it.
An injury late in this, his senior year, effectively ended that dream. But after missing almost a month, he finished third in the steeple at last weekend’s GNAC conference meet, earning the right to stand on the podium in his school uniform one last time.
It wasn’t the triumphant end to a college career, culminating with a trip to Nationals, that he’d worked so hard for.
I sat staring at the track as subsequent events ran on for about half an hour, keeping my sunglasses on even as the sun set.
But my unwillingness to let go of the moment faded as I spent the rest of the weekend watching A.J. celebrating with or consoling teammates as they achieved or fell short of their own athletic dreams, watching this … this man, who is graduating and getting married in the next few months … and realized that the person this sports thing shaped and sometimes hammered into maturity isn’t so different than the little kid we used to have. And was a heck of a lot better than the “what might have been” of a trip to Nationals.
So now that his formal sports career is over, and I’m wrapping my mind around the relentless progression of time, you’ll have to indulge me.
It was one of those moments made for a sports movie.
A.J.’s high school track coach, Kevin Loga, took me aside after he’d pulled off a double stunner in the North Star League meet, winning both the 1600 and 3200 as a sophomore on a hot, humid Michigan afternoon against a pair of rivals he’d never beaten.
“When we get back to the school, meet me at the locker room,” Kevin said. “I don’t think he has any idea.”
The gym lights were off when the three of us walked the length of the court, with only sunlight filtering in from the setting sun. We stood below the school record board as Kevin pulled out the time sheet from the meet.
“There’s your time,” he said, pointing to the printout. “And look at that,” he pointed at the record board.
A.J. looked up at the board, still not quite comprehending what was going on, but then his eyes got big as it dawned on him.
There was hugging and yelling and celebrating. The record was only a year old, set by a recent graduate, Jake Taylor, who a year earlier had gone out of his way to mentor A.J. as a freshman. But before that it had stayed unchanged on the board since 1974. And when you’re in a town of 1,000 with high school of 150 kids and a graduating class of 35, everybody knows in a flash.
He was the center of attention for about a week, and a big deal was made at the spring sports awards banquet.
But was when the mystical sports-movie-triumph-moment ended.
That night when we got home he asked if I had the time sheets from the previous year’s meets.
Of course I did, and I watched for a few minutes as he started digging through them.
“What’s going on?”I asked.
“I could swear that Jake broke the record twice last year,” A.J. said. “I don’t think the board is right.”
The next day, my 16-year-old kid walked into his coach’s office with the time sheet from my archive that proved that the record board was wrong; Jake had indeed re-broken his own record with a time faster than what A.J. had run, and no one had noticed. No one (except maybe Jake) knew, and to A.J. it was a betrayal of a teammate who had inspired him, of the sport itself, and of his own desire to legitimately hold that record.
He went out and told all of his friends that, hoopla or not, Jake still owned the school record. Tracked down Jake himself to let him know that his name still rightfully belonged on that board.
It was a miserable few weeks trying to absorb all of the conflicting emotions that came with that. Having the record, not having it, “giving back” all the recognition, setting the record straight. Kim and I struggled with our own feelings almost as much as he did his.
It was the thrill victory and agony of defeat in one package. A lesson in humility, dealing with an innocent error that at the time seemed like the biggest thing in the world. And learning the satisfying pain of doing the right thing, even when no one knew, or likely would ever have known, there was a right thing that needed to be done.
It took another year, but A.J. finally broke that 1600 record, as well as the others.
But that was the moment when I discovered who my kid was, and who he was going to be.