I got my love of sports from my dad.
Both of my parents were big sports fans. My mom grew up blocks from Wrigley Field and attended many a game. Hell, she even got kicked out of NHS in high school for ditching class to attend opening day - but that’s another story. It was my mother who accompanied me when I went to the Stanley Cup Banner raising game in October 2010. But it was my father who lived and breathed his love of sports for the majority of his 65 years on this earth.
There was nary a sport my father wouldn’t watch. Basketball was really the only major sport he didn’t care for, a sentiment I share. Like my mom, he was a Cubs fan, but he had drifted away from the fandom - they broke his heart one too many times. His rant against Ron Santo and the 1969 Cubs was one of legend. He’d watch Sox games in the last few years to which I’d tease him about how the hell he could stand to listen to Hawk’s broadcasting. But I guess listening to a terrible call of a baseball game was less painful to him than the Cubs’ endless futility.
He loved football - he’d turn the sound down on the Bears game to listen to the radio call, a tradition I continue. A Sunday afternoon in the fall would not be complete without my dad shouting and clapping at the TV. Somewhere in my parents’ basement remains a well worn VHS copy of the Bears Super Bowl win in 1986 that we taped off the TV. A commemorative football from that special season sits above my dad’s entertainment center to this day.
But it was hockey my dad loved the most. My parents got Blackhawks season tickets the year they were married, in 1969. My dad enlisted in the army in 1970 (his draft number was low), and I know it pained him to give their tickets to friends when he was stationed in Virginia. He had to listen via radio to that painful Stanley Cup Final against Montreal in 1971, and in hindsight it probably was for the best. He might have launched himself from the upper deck of the Old Barn in anger had he actually been there. My parents had season tickets until 1976, the year I was born. My mom bravely climbed the stairs of the Chicago Stadium until she was eight months along with me. After I arrived, she gave my dad an ultimatum - if I can’t go, you can’t go. Thus endeth the Season Tickets for my family, until my brother carried on the tradition a few years ago.
Growing up with my brother, sports were a important part of our lives. We’d spend many a summer evening playing catch with my dad, and both my brother and I participated in park district baseball and softball respectively. “TWO HANDS”, “WHAT ARE YOU SWINGING AT?” - God, I will hear my dad yelling that from the stands until the day I die. Needless to say, neither my brother or I were particularly athletically adept. My brother chipped an ankle playing park district football (he was a lineman) and I infamously took a line-drive softball in the face during a game when I was 14. Ask me about it, I’ll show you the scar. But no matter how pathetically awful we both were, my father faithfully showed up to every game. Even though he may have gotten exasperated at our lame attempts at athletics, he always offered an encouraging word.
We used to go to Santa Fe Speedway, a dirt track for stock cars that once resided in Hinsdale practically even weekend in the summer. In September they’d have their annual 200 lap “big” race. My mom would pack a lunch of ham sandwiches, and we bake in the sun whilst fighting off bees for hours. In the last 15 years, my dad’s love of the dirt track was rekindled. He’d travel all across the midwest for a race, and would go twice a year to Eldora, OH for their world class races. He’d drive my mom nuts attempting to listen to a race via internet radio while we were trying to eat dinner. My dad wasn’t much of a reader (although he religiously read both the Sun-Times and Trib every morning), he hated the movies (I think seeing 2001 with my mom scarred him for life), but racing was his hobby and he loved every minute of it.
My parents took us to many a baseball game as kids - both Wrigley and Comiskey. But it was always the Blackhawks games we looked forward to the most. Even though our family was what I’d consider on the lower end of the middle class spectrum, we always went to at least one game at the Stadium each season. My brother and I would be giddy with anticipation for weeks. As my brother and I grew up, we didn’t go to as many hockey games as we once did together. I do remember when I was in college being home for a weekend, attending a game with my dad and brother in 1994 or 1995. The United Center had just opened, and across the street they were in the process of tearing down the old stadium. Somewhere I have a picture of the Old Barn in disarray through a fence - my dad is the the background walking away from it. I really think it pained him to see that.
I grew up and moved out, but when I’d go to visit my parents, I could always count on my dad having the TV turned to ESPN, SportsChannel (now CSN) or the like. My dad and I didn’t have a lot of “deep” conversations (he was stoic German to the core), but we could spend hours talking about the Hawks, the NHL, football and the Cubs. It was always comforting to sit next to him and just watch a game with him. It was so natural.
2010 was both the best and one of the worst years of my life. That 2010 Stanley Cup run for the Blackhawks was the pinnacle of my sports life (thus far). Even though I was in a bar on June 9th, one of the first thoughts after Patrick Kane scored was of my dad. He was a teenager when the Hawks had last won in 1961, and I know that moment was so special to him. The euphoria of that magical season lived on for the rest of that year, but it all came to a crashing halt in December. My dad had a terrible case of jaundice and was admitted to hospital. Even though he looked like a radioactive carrot, he was in good spirits and commented that this was the first time he had been overnight in a hospital since he had his tonsils out as a small child. A few days later we found out the news - the jaundice had been caused by a blockage near his pancreas - cancer.
He was to have surgery in January 2011 to remove the cancer. Spirits were cautiously optimistic - if the surgery was successful, it was likely he had several years of good health at least. After about an hour in surgery, the doctors called my family into a room. Even though the scans had not indicated it, when they went to perform the surgery, they found the cancer in his liver. It had spread, it was Stage 4, it was terminal.
My dad started chemo shortly thereafter. It weakened him but he rarely complained. By summer that year, he was well enough to return to work. Sitting at home doing nothing those months drove him crazy - he needed to be busy. Although he lost a lot of weight and didn’t have the energy he once had, he continued to work, continued to travel to races and had as normal a life as possible. He turned 65 this past May, and mom planned a surprise party for him. It was a great time, and so many family and friends attended. In hindsight, I will be forever grateful for that evening - it brought our family together for one of the last times.
I had told him this summer if he wanted to go to a dirt race that I would take him. He wasn’t well enough to drive long distances and I knew he itched to get back to the track. We went to a race this past July 4th downstate. It was 100+ degrees that day, and I asked him several times if he was sure he wanted to go. He did, and I went to the track with him for the first time in about 20 years. I took photos of the cars while he dutifully wrote down the race results in an old battered notebook he took with him to every track. It was a good evening. It would be the last time he’d ever go to a race in person.
My dad found out later this summer the cancer had spread everywhere. He tried not to show folks how much pain he was in, but he was suffering. Three weeks ago he stopped going to work. On August 31st my partner drove him and mom to a doctor’s appointment - they immediately admitted him to hospital. After a few days he attempted rehab, but was admitted to the ICU after a dizzy spell - his blood pressure was extremely low. I visited him practically everyday after work. We didn’t talk too much - as always, much of what we felt about one other remained unsaid, but known. When we did talk, it was about sports. The Bears. The NHL lockout. Sports was the security blanket we all needed.
In the last few days my family came to the difficult decision to put my dad in hospice. The doctors said he didn’t have much longer and we wanted him to be comfortable. Yesterday we went to visit dad and let him know where he would be going - he was to have been transferred today. He seemed at peace with the decision. It would be the last time we’d see him.
My mom received the phone call this morning - he had been complaining of labored breathing at 5am. The doctor authorized a morphine drip - he passed away peacefully shortly thereafter, as we had hoped he would. That phone call from my mom - it is something I sincerely hope no one else has to experience. My mom and dad were married when they were 20 and 22 respectively - 43 years.
The next few days will be spent reminiscing and reflecting. We’ll pick up the pieces and do the best we can, even though a part of our hearts will be gone. I keep telling myself I’m 36 and way too young to be experiencing this, but then I remember how blessed we were to have those nearly two years after the diagnosis to be with my dad. So many people get so much less.
I will always remember my dad in his favorite chair watching sports on the TV. Yelling and cheering, sometimes simultaneously. That is what he loved.
Thank you dad. For everything.