The stage was set, a perfect script for the final game of my son’s football career – not only were the Midshipmen riding an undefeated record into the championship game but they were playing for the title against Army … and in our backyard at Franklin Field.
Everything went according to plan. We met at a perfect spot for a pregame meal, found our way to the dungeon of a spot host Penn designated for us to celebrate out title. Our 91-year-old Mid Gram got situated into a wheelchair for the ride over to the stadium and with minimal trouble we got her, Mid Mom and Mid Sib situated. Mid’s best friend from high school showed up – he hadn’t seen him play since high school – and we took a perch higher up in the stands for a better vantage point.
And so the story unfolded, all according to plan.
West Point scored first, but Navy blocked the extra point. What a delicious twist to the plot, I thought, Army’s fate coming down to a missed extra point. When halftime came with Army still leading 6-0, it felt right. Army had jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the Star Game earlier in the season and Navy controlled the second half for the win. How perfect, I thought, that the story would repeat itself.
As the game pressed on, Navy’s offense continued to struggle. Well, I thought, maybe the script is calling for a 7-6 win. How dramatic.
With 5 minutes left in the game, the stage was set. Navy’s defense had put Army in a tough spot and it was clear the script called for Navy to get the ball back and march down the field for a game-winning touchdown, maybe even as time expired. When Army QB Ryan Sullivan faded back and blue jerseys swirled around him, a sack was imminent. Somehow, he unleashed the ball and it found its way to WR Nitai Chun who hauled it in and raced into the end zone.
I waited for someone to stop the action, to check the script and see that, clearly, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. But the extra point went up and I trudged down to the spot where Mid Gram, Mid Mom, and Mid Sib sat. Mid Mom looked up, “It’s over, isn’t it?”
My Mid jogged onto the field one last time and Navy turned it over on downs. I stood, frozen, watching him leave the field for the last time.
“Is that it? Is he done?” Mid Mom asked. Again, I could only nod.
The game ended and I had to look at the scoreboard one more time. The clock read all zeroes. Army 13, Navy 0.
I stared at the harsh reality, then turned toward the field, spotting him surrounded by teammates. His last time on the field.
For the briefest of moments, I closed my eyes. There we were on a sun-drenched August afternoon, father and son, walking hand-in-hand toward the field at Maccelsfield Park for his very first flag football practice. There we were fitting him for his first helmet. There we were, father and son, coach and player, on the field celebrating a championship after our last Pop Warner season. There I was, leaning over a fence giving some in-game guidance during a junior varsity game. There we were, celebrating a win in the high school playoffs. There I was, staring at my phone, waiting for a text to tell me if had finally made Navy’s Sprint Football team. There we were, hugging on the frigid field at St. Thomas Aquinas, basking in the glow of a championship. And there we were, just a week ago, walking as a family toward midfield, Senior Recognition Night.
I opened my eyes and wondered, where has the time gone? There was a 22-year-old man on the field where my little boy should be standing. The player on the field was just days away from finding out where he would be serving his country come May, but that little boy, that little boy certainly just wanted to go get some ice cream and maybe watch Thomas the Tank Engine before drifting off to sleep.
He finally looked up toward the stands and we locked eyes and, just for a fleeting moment, I thought, he feels it, too.
He sang the Navy “Blue And Gold” for the last time in a football uniform and we eventually found each other in that dank parking lot where he thanked Mid Gram for braving the elements and gave a big hug to his friend for the support.
Coach came by and hugged the Mid, too, then chatted for a moment. Soon after, our Mid said his goodbyes and trudged toward the bus for the long quiet ride back to Annapolis. It would take a bit of time to get over the disappointment, but in the end, we will all realize just how blessed we were to be a part of it all. As I rolled north toward home after dropping our Mid’s friend back at LaSalle, a song rolled through my head, one I hadn’t thought of for quite a long time.
“These are days you’ll remember
Never before and never since
Will the whole world be warm as this
And as you feel it
You’ll know it’s true
That you are blessed and lucky”
Yes, life didn’t follow the script. We didn’t get what we wanted. We are, however, blessed and lucky.