4,560

County rinks in Minnesota resemble oversized garden sheds. Concrete floors, pitched aluminium roofs, little-to-no insulation. They are cold, the ice is fantastically hard, and voices carry, including my dad’s on occasion.

“Pass the damn puck!” 

His voice thundered off the cinder block walls and ice, overwhelming the click-clack of sticks.

Like all dads, mine had a different tone of voice kept in reserve. That ‘enough bullshit’ voice. He went to it sparingly. It was a blunt object, a force used for absolute clarity. The sound of it left me cringing on the bench in its echo. He wasn’t yelling at me, not usually. 

Those hockey games were twenty-five years ago and more. How I now measure anything in that length of time is hard to believe, but here we are. Now, my point-of-view is rotating. My wife, Natalie, and I are expecting a little girl in three months. She’ll be our first, and I fill the in-between moments of the day imagining pieces of her life to come. 

I know I’m 10 years away from any real sports dad moments, as any game played by kids younger than 10 more closely resembles a chaos theory experiment than any actual sport. I’m pumped for that youth sports phase, to be a sports dad. The thought of it leads back to my dad. 

Jim Lang’s run as a sports dad is an all-timer. With some back of napkin math and conservative estimates, it’s fair to say he attended somewhere in the ballpark of 4,560 of his kids’ sporting events over a 24-year run (1980-2004), that comes out to a little more than a game every other day.

Here’s how I got to that number. I started with Tony, the oldest of us kids, and estimated his total amount of games/events played in a sports season, having shorter season game totals for younger ages (10-13), then bumping up for older years. Then I added up the total amount of games I played in (I am the youngest). I assigned the average of Tony’s total and my total for the other four siblings. Everyone played 3 sports when kids, and at least two sports through high school. I added estimated college games for my sister, Angie, and me.

My dad’s attendance record at these games/events is legendary. I said 95% and my brother, Matt, thought that figure was actually low. Put in another way, he remembers the games of his my dad missed, including the first inning of a Little League game in which Matt hit his only home run. 

I don’t know how my dad did this while running a business for many of those years. I’m not even counting the 17 grandkids and their games. The man’s put in his 10,000 hours as a sports dad. 

Adding numbers is one way to measure sports parenting. Games, years, dollars, miles. God only knows how many miles my dad rolled on the odometer cutting across the metro area to find some random soccer or baseball field behind some random middle school in a suburb across town. Worse yet, out-of-town tourneys. There’s also the emotional investment to consider. That’s not as easy to count or weigh. 

Parents are like driving instructors when it comes to their kids’ emotions around sports. They ride shotgun while the kiddos take the wheel. The kids try their best to navigate the highs and lows of the wins and losses, to get the feel for triumphs and slights, all the while mom or dad are ready to take control, slow down, and get everything pointed back in the right direction if things get out of hand. 

Game in, game out. Every drive home maneuvering around every bad call, success, substitution; every interaction and how it proved so-and-so really did think such-and-such. 

The more I think about it, maybe the teenage years are the emotional equivalent of teaching the kid to drive a stickshift. 

We’ve all heard a story or two about unhinged sports parents, and I’ve wondered if youth sports have become an outsized focus for many, not to mention a billion dollar industry. Still, youth sports are incredibly important, and not because they allow parents to help their children realize the dreams their mom and dad could’ve realized if only they’d had a stronger parental guide. And while the life lessons are invaluable, there’s a bigger reason why youth sports commandeer so much of us. 

In sports, parents witness their kid experience success and failure in public. 

Where else in a parent-child relationship is that a more regular occurrence than during youth sports? Where else can a parent watch that play out in real time from the comfort of a folding chair? Algebra tests aren’t exactly a spectator sport, and there aren’t 30 school musicals a season. First kiss, first heartbreak, a nailed or failed summer job interview— all secondhand. Come adulthood, so much success and failure is relayed, discussed with but rarely seen by parents.  

We’ve manufactured elaborate ceremonies to celebrate some definition of success. Weddings (love, family), graduations (knowledge), birthdays (not dying), sacraments (spiritual progress), retirement parties (career), funerals even (you know, all of it). These are the recognition of success, but not the act itself. As for failures, we ignore those at pretty much any cost, and have mercy on anyone who experiences failure in public or has them captured on social media.  

Success and failure. Success and failure. Over, and again. Those early glimpses of how a child will handle both certainties – it must be immensely vulnerable and captivating to watch how both shape a child. 

I try to sense the volume of the numbers and emotions of my dad amassed as a sports dad. While us kids were always his priority at those games, he genuinely cared about how the team played. How could he not? He sat through too many games to watch selfish play, timidity, or mental mistakes.  

“Pass the damn puck!” There was a lot more beneath those words than my dad simply being fed up with having to watch a kid’s failed attempt at an end-to-end rush for the fifth time in the period. I am only just beginning to feel my little girl kicking in Natalie’s belly, and I still need to learn, uh, everything about being a dad, but am I fool to think I can now understand just a bit of why my dad would yell every now and again? 

It wasn’t too much for my dad to suggest the kids play as a team. 

Not so long ago, I envisioned myself as the silent dad at my kids games. I’d played and coached enough youth sports to have made the vow so many have made: I would never be the parents losing their shit at the game. 

All of us have experienced some version of these parents. They are the ones berating an umpire making $30 a game, the ones who can’t go five seconds without frantically reminding kids of techniques from across the field, the ones openly questioning coaching decisions to anyone within earshot. Nowadays, I’m guessing these are the folks starting chat groups online to talk crap and plot like cowardly teenagers. 

Out of fear of becoming one of these idiots, I planned to be the silent dad, and that was a stupid plan. 

My best youth sports experience was my baseball team from 13-15. I always appreciated that we had enthusiastic, young coaches (my brother, Tony, and brother in-law, Jay) that connected with the kids. I’m only now fully appreciating how great the families were. Much of the families were the same every year, and while it wasn’t perfect, there was a genuine feeling that parents were pulling for each kid to succeed on the team. 

We won a lot, which never hurts, but the sports cliches regained their original meaning in large part because the parents cheered when teamwork, resilience, effort, preparation, competition manifested into great play. They would call it out when those qualities were lacking, too. Compliments were often directed to specific kids, critiques rarely were.  

As much as where I was born, those families represent where I grew up. I don’t know where I’ll be living in ten years: here in California, back in Minnesota, or maybe there’s a curveball waiting for us down the line. Wherever we are, the families sitting around us in the bleachers will make up a meaningful part of our community. They will be a part of where my kids are from. 

While I won’t threaten my dad’s career numbers, we’re still talking about many games, many miles, many hours, many emotions. If we’re signing up for all of that, then we have to try doing it right. I gotta do my part as a sports dad in helping create an environment where the cliches have meaning. I want to be a parent heaping genuine praise on all the kids when they deserve it, including mine. And for every ten ‘atta boy!’, I want to be part of community that understands yelling “passing the damn puck!” is not an aggression, but preservation. 

I don’t want to help build community in which our fear of offending means we avoid making any positive impact on each other. Sports parents can create that environment or ensure it never has a chance.

Of course, my daughter might not even like sports. Those in-between moments I brought up at the beginning of this story? When I think about the pieces of her life, the truth is the vast majority of those won’t include sports. That’s why youth sports have to be about the lessons and the community that helps teach them. About learning how to compete, being a good teammate, celebrating success, collapsing into failure, and waking up the next day moving on from both. 

I’ll end with one of my favorite stories of my dad as a sports dad. the concession. 

My sister, Libby, was a basketball player. A good one, too. She was the only one of us kids who had any skill for that game. Plus, the Langs aren’t in the height business. She was a point guard on the high school team, and played plenty on varsity as a junior. Come her senior year, she was a likely starter, but there was this seventh grade phenom. The coach decided to bring the phenom up to varsity. Libby bore the brunt of it, and rarely played. My dad was upset. Plenty of no b.s. voice when that topic came up in the house. 

The phenom was incredible, no question about it. She went on to play and coach at Marquette and now coaches at Penn State. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t about her; my dad couldn’t get past the question as to why a seventh grader had to play varsity, and how that was the reason Libby couldn’t take her final lap as an athlete before going to college (Libby would agree that her participation on the J.V. golf team the following spring was strictly about getting a tan…she played in flip-flops, folks) 

Ultimately, there was nothing to be done. The kid was great, coach wanted her playing varsity, and so Libby sat the bench. Who knows what factors were at play—maybe the coach was worried she’d lose a future star player to another school if she didn’t play the 13 year-old right away. 

My parents still were there in the stands, even though it was clear how the season would play out. At one game, my dad walked down the bleachers, passed behind the bench and told Libby he was going to the concession stand – did she want a hot dog?

Imagining that moment kills every time. I’m laughing as the write this!

My dad has devoted the entirety of his time on building two legacies: his career and his family. That’s it. That’s the complete list of things Jim Lang cares about.  Sports have been a big part of his life because they were important to his kids.

I told my dad about this story last night. His response to when I told him 4,560: “And I enjoyed every one of them.”

My dad relished our sports successes. They made him goddamn giddy. And when the puck ought to be passed, he’d say it. When we failed, he felt it. And if concession was the last option, then he’d give us a laugh as we moved on to the next piece of life waiting for us. 

Phil Lang, 02.17.21

 

Week of December 6, 2015


It’s Time to Talk About the Warriors

I have been hesitant to write about the Warriors until, you know, they actually lose a game. But it’s time. What the Warriors are doing right now, 23-0 at the time of publication, is likely the most incredible thing I’ve seen in my life as a sports fan. Most of those 23 games haven’t even been particularly close. There are not enough superlatives for this. The Dubs have the whole league feeling like Kemba Walker does here:

 Unfortunately, in the closing seconds of a win over the Pacers on Tuesday, Klay Thompson sprained his ankle. I hope it isn’t too bad, because they will need him in order to do something historical. How historical? Before their 23rd win on Tuesday, FiveThirtyEight’s projection system has them with a 44% chance of setting the all-time NBA record with 73 wins a season, surpassing the 72 wins recorded by the 1995-96 Bulls (and a 25% chance of winning an insane 75 games). In this brief article, Kyle Wagner breaks down the various projection systems’ predictions for the Warriors’ final record.

Source: It’s Time to Take the Warriors’ Chances of Going 73-9 Seriously”, Kyle Wagner, FiveThirtyEight.com (12/08/2015)

PAL: The Warriors are absurd, and oh-so-fun to watch. Solid article, but I liked the other FiveThirtyEight article, which focused on trying to contextualize Steph Curry’s shooting. How about this nugget: “Curry shoots threes about as well with a defender 2 to 4 feet away (classified as “tight” by NBA.com) as an average NBA shooter does with the nearest defender 12 feet away.”


Scott Weiland’s Letter to Charlie Weis. Wait, What?

Back in 2005, in the first year of his original deal and after very little success, Notre Dame handed head football coach Charlie Weis a massive, 10-year contract extension. They quickly lived to regret that, and ended up having to pay him a buyout of $19 million. Notre Dame made their final annual payment on that contract this month. In other news, Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland died last week at the age of 48. Weiland had struggled for years with drugs and alcohol. These two stories are seemingly unrelated. So why do I bring them up together? As it turns out, Weiland was a huge Notre Dame football fan. He grew up in the midwest and his father went to Notre Dame. Weiland was such a big Notre Dame fan that in 2007 when Weis was rumored to be considering taking the New York Giants head coaching job, Weiland wrote Weis a fervent open letter, literally begging Weis not to leave Notre Dame. A sampling:

But LEAVING NOTRE DAME, your Alma Mater, without having achieved really anything of monolithic proportions like you’ve promised us is absurd and unfair. So at this point, I will get on my knees and beg. Don’t do it Coach. Don’t do it! Stay and do what you promised; your team, your school, the fans, the legacy deserves to be taken to the Promised Land.

The whole letter is pretty amusing, as Weiland writes like a 12-year old throughout. What a weird story. -TOB

Source: Dead STP Frontman Scott Weiland’s Impassioned Letter Begging Charlie Weis to Stay at Notre Dame”, Troy Machir, Sporting News (12/04/2015)

PAL: I never would’ve guessed this. It’s strange to read the words of a rock star that come off like such a dorky Notre Dame guy – impassioned and hyperbolic with the blinders firmly affixed. Also, Jimmy Clausen was a thing.


Vicarious Abuse

In Minnesota, the “Hockey dad” is a thing, as I’m certain it’s “Football dad,” in Texas, “Tennis dad” in some faux “academy” in Florida and so forth, especially in places where a sport and location are nearly one and the same. Watching a parent lose control at youth sports game is surreal and disturbing. The lack of awareness needed in order to, say, threaten violence on an umpire, referee, or – worst of all – your kid  in a public setting at a meaningless sporting event is unsettling.

Untitled 2

O’Sullivan’s dad was beating him by the time this picture was taken.

Patrick O’Sullivan’s story of enduring years of physical abuse is horrible, yet familiar. We’ve heard this story before. However, his perspective on it is refreshing and needed, especially  in an era when younger and younger kids are specializing in a sports at the insistence of coaches and parents. O’Sullivan’s take on the single-mindedness of it hits home, especially for a dude that grew up in a hockey-crazed community:

“Once you get to the pro level and you witness how fast the game moves, you finally realize that no amount of running or weight lifting or private lessons is going to change one simple question: Do you understand hockey? Do you really understand the game? Do you know where that puck is going next?”

O’Sullivan’s dad is a pathetic failure. – PAL

Source: Black & Blue”, Patrick O’Sullivan”, The Players’ Tribune (12/09/2015), ℅ 1-2-3 reader Pat O’Brien

TOB: This was a really disturbing, but also necessary, read. It helps that O’Sullivan is a little removed from the game – he is 30 years old, but has been retired since 2012. This perspective allows O’Sullivan to note two important truths about his horrible story: (1) the worst part of it all is that O’Sullivan’s NHL success undoubtedly makes his awful father believe he did the right thing; that O’Sullivan owes his success to his dad beating the hell out of him, day after day, for over a decade; and (2) that there were people, grown adults, who saw O’Sullivan’s father abusing him after games and did absolutely nothing. O’Sullivan’s story could have been a woe is me memoir – but instead he makes an important point: parents abuse their children, and it is not acceptable. But the least acceptable thing is for other adults to witness the abuse, look the other way, and do nothing. As O’Sullivan closes his story:

“I’m writing it for the people in the parking lot. Yes, if you say something, you may ruin the relationship you have with that person. You may get embarrassed in front of the other hockey parents. You may have to go through the awkwardness of filing a police report.

I can understand why a lot of people worry, “But what if I’m wrong?”

If you are wrong, that’s the absolute best case scenario. The alternative is that child is a prisoner in his own home. What you’re seeing in the parking lot or outside the locker room — whether it’s a kid getting grabbed and screamed at, or shoved up against a car — could just be the tip of the iceberg.

It’s so ironic, because the hockey community loves to talk about toughness and courage. In that world, courage is supposed to mean standing in front of a slap shot without flinching, or taking your lumps in a fight.

But that’s easy. That’s not real courage. Anybody can do that. I guarantee you there’s hundreds of kids across North America who will get dressed for hockey this weekend with their stomach turning, thinking the same thing I did as a kid: “I better play really good there, or tonight is going to be really bad.” It just takes one person to act on their instinct and stand up for that child. That’s real courage. The kind we don’t always glorify in the hockey world.”


Video of the Week:

Wait for it…

Baseball players are so lovably dumb.


Tweet of the Week

-Former teammate of Marshawn’s at Cal, who went on to play quite a few years in the NFL.


PAL Song of the Week: A Tribe Called Quest – “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo

Check out the playlist here. Consider it your holiday bonus.


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Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?

– Clark Griswold