December 22, 2012

State of the Game: Life lessons from dad

By Chuck Jaffe

This is a story about a man who never liked lacrosse, not from the moment he heard about it through the last time we talked about it. 

Chuck Jaffe is the editor of New England Lacrosse Journal.

My father, Herbert M. Jaffe, was born in Germany, moved to the United States as a teenager and was never much of an athlete himself, nor was he particularly interested in sports. When he finally came to see a college football game during my time at the University of Michigan, it was mostly to watch the halftime show; because lacrosse didn’t have halftime shows and he had never played or seen the game, it held even less interest for him than football.

He was not the kind of parent who would yell at the refs, because he seldom made the game. In more than three decades as a player, coach and ref, my father only ever saw me on the lacrosse field twice.

We didn’t play catch in the back yard, because I don’t think my dad could catch. Not with a baseball glove and certainly not with a lacrosse stick; I never saw anyone so much as toss him a dinner roll at the family table.

My dad had two complaints with the game.

First, he worried about injury. Indeed, in the first game he ever came to — while I was in high school — I was warming up in the net when some town kids decided to also shoot balls in the direction of the cage; I was paying attention to my coach when, out of the blue, one of the kids hit me with a shot in, well, a very sensitive spot. Hurt and embarrassed, I cussed out the kids, for which my coach benched me for the first half of the game; in my father’s first five minutes of watching me on the field, he saw me both in pain and acting out of character, neither of which made him thrilled with my participation.

Second, he worried that too much emphasis was placed on the sport, and not enough was placed on the things in life that are more important than a game.

That said, my father also did what was most important to me: He let me play and encouraged me to have fun and keep the game in the right perspective in my life.

I point this out because my father died in early October, and for the vast majority of my life I didn’t really appreciate the questions about why I was still playing at my advancing age — or after I suffered a heart attack — about whether I was being safe, or if my obsession with all things lacrosse was somehow affecting the rest of my work and family life.

I also didn’t appreciate that the only parental pressure I ever faced when it came to lacrosse (or any sport) was to have fun, and to be safe. Wins and losses were unimportant; achieving my goals — even if they weren’t his — and feeling accomplished and happy on the field was all that mattered.

My father would have been just as happy if I had quit — or if my children had never started playing — but he understood that there is no place that gives me a break from the rest of life the way the lacrosse field does.

And in his own way, he supported the lacrosse obsession. It was the birthday gift card that he knew would go to buy me the latest protective gear, or the times when he encouraged me to take the family on the vacations that were built around lacrosse events, finding that right mix of family with the game.

When my daughter’s braces were removed, my parents got her a custom mouthguard, with my dad telling her, “If you’re going to play that game, we don’t want it to ever affect your beautiful smile.” When she was looking at colleges and the talk would start around the coach or the sports facilities, he would ask about the quality of the education and the ability to pursue her major in addition to finding a spot on the field.

It’s a balance that is easy to lose sight of.

“If you keep the game in perspective,” my dad would say, “I have no problem with it, but the minute you cross that line, that is when it’s a problem, and most people who have those kinds of problems don’t recognize it in themselves.”

I see it all the time, in parents screaming at officials or their own children at youth and high school games. I’ve seen fathers who reduced pre-teen boys and girls to tears because they didn’t score enough goals or they passed to an open-but-lesser teammate when their team might have had a better shot at winning if they had gone to the net on their own. I’ve seen kids hide their faces and cover their ears so as not to see or hear what their parents are doing in the stands or on the sidelines.

And as much as I typically attended more of my children’s games in any weekend than my father attended mine in his lifetime, I know that I was far better off with his attitude than I would have been with someone who pushed me into the game.

I believe lacrosse can be a lifetime sport, though my body is starting to disagree with me on that point. To enjoy it for a lifetime, however, it first has to be safe, and then has to be fun, and then it has to capture your heart.

Somehow, my father, the non-athlete, got it. I wish the parents who over-value sports, who relive their glories through their children or who see the sport as a means to an end, like a scholarship, would get it, too.

My dad didn’t love lacrosse; it showed. He loved me, and that showed, too.

The moral of the story: Don’t think of yourself as a “lacrosse parent,” think of yourself as a parent who happens to be lucky enough to have a kid who can enjoy the benefits of playing a great game.

Thanks, Dad; I promise I’ll be safe.

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Chuck Jaffe is the editor of New England Lacrosse Journal. He is a longtime youth and high school coach and official, and runs BullsEye Lacrosse.

Twitter: @NELaxJournal