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Monday, December 22, 2003
Updated: December 23, 9:52 AM ET
 



FATHERS PLAYING CATCH WITH SONS ...


The death of any son's father is a sad event. When the son is a three-time NFL MVP about to play a crucial game on national TV and the father was his mentor, his coach and his friend -- and the death happens four days before Christmas -- the poignancy is heartbreaking, even for people who didn't know either Irvin or Brett Favre.

But this is more than just a sad story, says the Writers' Bloc's Robert Lipsyte. It's also an affirming story -- the best-case scenario of a father and son meeting and prospering through the medium of sport. And, as we know, all father-and-son sports stories don't go that way.

By Robert Lipsyte

This is a classic American father-and-son story. No post-modern irony here, no psycho-snarky twist at the end. It is sad but somehow affirming in the sweetness of its plainness in this time when dads go mad driving their boys toward the ever-expanding pot of gold at the end of an increasingly seductive rainbow.

Irvin Favre, one of the best-known coaches in southern Mississippi, ran the wishbone at Hancock North Central High School, even though his quarterback, Brett, had a cannon arm. Irvin had fine running backs who needed their touches, too. Brett was even the lead blocker on pitchouts, the signature play. In the kitchen, Brett might complain that he'd never get to Southern Miss this way, never get to the NFL, but Irvin would explain that he was coaching everyone, not just Brett.

But, of course, he was coaching Brett all the time -- in the car, in front of the TV, at the table, taking plays apart, constructing situations. There is a wonderful, safe intimacy in such talk for fathers and sons who are lucky enough to share an interest. Sports is probably the simplest -- when it isn't the most complex -- of the meeting grounds for fathers and sons.

We know the bad stories. Our Little Leagues are strewn with the bodies of boys who got mitts in their cradles and never quite learned how to use them properly, not to mention the dads who have fought each other, sometimes to the death, over their sons' playing time. It is not always easy for a father to differentiate between his own needs and the needs of his son. It is even harder for youngsters to distinguish between what they do for love of the game and what they do to get dad's love.

Brett Favre
Brett Favre has always played the game with a kid's enthusiasm.
But when the bond is mutual and holds, an Irvin Favre can say, perhaps a little ingenuously, "It's hard to believe that the little boy we raised has done all this" -- as if he hadn't raised him to lead the Packers to a Super Bowl victory in 1997, and to win three NFL Most Valuable Player awards.

This is a sad story, because a little more than 24 hours before Brett was scheduled to quarterback the Packers in their Monday Night Football game against Oakland, Irvin drove his pickup truck into a ditch off a Mississippi highway and slumped dead over the wheel, apparently a victim of a stroke or heart attack. He was 58. The family urged Brett to play the game.

It is an affirming story, because it is a best-case scenario of a father and son meeting and prospering in sports. That dad knew what he was talking about and the boy was enormously gifted has to be factored in, of course.

But at the heart of the story is the possibility of sports as a safe haven, a place where men can talk openly yet keep their distance, share feelings without scaring themselves by becoming vulnerable. Men don't have a lot of such places.

There are critics of Jock Culture who believe that sports can hinder the psychological development of young boys, especially when they are channeled too early, when a coach uses shame and humiliation to toughen them up, when a team becomes a kind of gang that discriminates against all outsiders, including all women.

I think there is a great deal of validity to such criticism, which puts an even greater significance in the promise evoked by poet Donald Hall's magical phrase: "Fathers playing catch with sons." A strong and loving dad is critical if a boy is going to learn to be comfortable inside his skin, to be competitive and aggressive without being violent.

The most successful athletes of our time -- Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- had strong fathers showing them the way. There were no positive paternal hands on the shoulders of Mike Tyson or Darryl Strawberry, two of the most publicized crack-ups of our time.

"Sometimes a mother or a coach, a surrogate father can do it," says Dr. Michael Miletic, a former Olympic weightlifter and now one of the leading sports psychiatrists. "But nothing can really beat that father-son connection to lead a boy to a place where he can be both a gladiator and a nurturer, a strong, good human being."

Success in sports, even with dad behind you, is no predictor of happiness or success as a man. There have been about 150 father-son combinations in Major League Baseball, according to historian Jerome Holtzman; all the kids are not all right. But dad -- or something comparable -- can make a difference.

When his son Brian was still in college, Bob Griese said, "It's important for a kid to have someone there at the end of the game."

Brett Favre seems to have been one of the lucky ones. Irvin will not be there for the end of the game Monday night, but he had been there for all the others.