New York Times feature – Becoming the Sports Parent I Wished I’d Had
By JOHN NUCKEL NOV. 25, 2016
My mother screamed at me from the bleachers only once. It was 39 years ago, but I still cringe from the memory of it.
“John Nuckel, get over here right now!” she yelled.
I looked up at the clock. Only 35 seconds until halftime. I can hold out, I told myself, as I developed a plan: Ignore my mother until the end of the first half, run into the locker room, and by the time I get out she’ll be gone.
I was 15, only a sophomore in high school, yet there I was under the lights at my first night lacrosse game. It was the Nassau County lacrosse finals, at Hofstra University Stadium. The coach had brought me up to varsity to help fill out the bench for the playoffs. I had joined one of the best teams in the state and it was an honor to be there. Until my mom showed up.
“John! John!” she continued to yell. There was no way I could leave the bench and walk across the track facing the stands to speak to her.
The guys were starting in on me. “Johnny, Mommy’s calling.” “Time for your nap, little Johnny,” they called out to me.
My mother had never come to any of my other games. Of all the games to come to, why had she chosen this one?
Halftime came and I sprinted toward the locker room. My mother was at the gate waiting for me, but I ran past her, head down. I thought I was safe as the team settled in to the locker room. Until the assistant coach called out to me.
“Nuckel, come with me. And bring your equipment.” My mother was pulling me out of the game.
I left, slump-shouldered, to the roar of laughter. I wore that day for years: “Hey Nuckel, bring your equipment.” That was the line they stuck on me.
It was a lifetime ago, yet I still get embarrassed thinking about it.
Why that one day? There were a lot of bad days by the time I reached my teens. The summer in the welfare hotel. The nights my father beat our mother. The cops took him away, but he came back. There were bruises on my mother’s face when she shook me awake soon after to tell me we were leaving, getting out of there, away from him.
I knew even then, as a child, that I wasn’t going to be like my father. I was determined to do better with my two daughters. I own my business as a financial adviser, so I had the opportunity to coach my younger daughter in Little League and drive the older one, the actress, to theater classes. I kept stats at basketball games and used a box score app for softball. I was also something of a backstage dad, downloading songs from my daughter’s upcoming shows on my iPhone and memorizing the lyrics. She always sounded even better than I imagined as I sat in the theater, mouthing the words as she sang.
More essential than ever.
I never called a coach or drama teacher, didn’t complain about playing time or who got the lead in the show. I tried to watch as quietly as I could, lending support. (O.K., I yelled at a couple of refs and umpires.) But I think the girls were left with good memories.
When one of my daughters was in the playoffs for high school basketball, it felt as big as the Final Four. During that playoff run I thought back to my own high school days.
My senior year we won the state championship at the same stadium where my mother had embarrassed me. For that game I was on the field, but my mom wasn’t in the stands. We returned to the school afterward and there were banners and family photos. There was even a band.
As the other families embraced and cheered and partied, I walked home alone.
My mother was a tough woman. Strong enough to raise five college graduates out of the welfare apartments.
There was little money and less tolerance for whining or complaining. If my mom had a catch phrase it would be, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” She was a bit of an eccentric. She had us all convinced that she was once a pageant queen, Miss Brooklyn, and her talent was tap dancing. As kids we would ask her for a dance. She would smile and tell us she was retired. We all had to contribute to maintain a little two-bedroom apartment. We lived off food stamps and watched a small black-and-white TV.
The day she came to get me at that game, it was because I had been offered a job at a snack bar at the local pool. She was told that if I got there that day I would be hired for the summer. I worked there for the next three summers.
My mother worked until the day she died.
As an adult I respect her burdens and it pains me to find fault in anything she did. Yet I did have some bitterness as a teenager.
Decades later, when I drove my daughter home in silence after her final game, I thought about how watching my mother work six days a week taught me the work ethic that enabled me to have the luxury of time she didn’t have.
My mother’s pulling me out of that game 39 years ago bought me the ticket to my daughter’s playoffs. The memory of my walk home alone the night of the championship put me in the car with my daughter after hers. It allowed me to be there when she turned to me after a long, quiet ride and said, “Thanks for always showing up, Dad.”
John Nuckel is a private equity adviser and a novelist.