Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Inspiration

Inspiration can come in many different and surprising forms. My inspiration is 11 years old, about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighs approximately 90 lbs.

My daughter Savannah is my inspiration. She inspires me because she believes something that few other people believe, but she ignores that and does the impossible anyway. She is following her dream and she is determined to see it through.

Last year she looked at me and said, “Dad, I want to be the first female quarterback in the NFL.”

As most parents do in times like that, I smiled and said something like, “That would be great. I bet you can do it.” I am ashamed to say I didn’t believe her. Children rarely understand how difficult their dreams are, but parents are supposed to support them in their quests and somehow still protect them from the harsh realities of the world.

Savannah is not the biggest, the strongest or the fastest child at her age, but she was born an athlete. I don’t know where that comes from in our family line, but I know where her love of football comes from. It has to be my fault.

Spending every Sunday during football season locked in front of the television had to have rubbed off on her. She wanted to throw the football in the front yard. So I taught her the Peyton Manning Method for Throwing a Football. She learned it so well that in 2nd grade she broke her friend’s finger playing catch.

About a year later we found out that Flag Football was offered at the Field House near where we live. We signed her up and it wasn’t long before she was forced to be the quarterback. I say forced because she was the best option on the team, she could throw the ball accurately, she knew where everyone was supposed to be and she didn’t mind telling them where to go.

It is pretty much understood that football is for boys, but Savannah was fortunate to have the support of some girls who also wanted to play flag football. I will never forget last year when the flag football team they faced mocked the girls on Savannah’s team as the three young ladies walked out to the center of the field for the coin toss. The other team felt differently when they walked off the field with a loss.

I am not saying that she has always been a winner, because she hasn’t. She has had many games when she had to suffer tough losses and outright humiliation as opposing teams piled on points. Those defeats only made her more determined and probably a better player.

At the end of last year’s flag football season she declared that she wanted to play tackle football and she wanted to try out for her middle school team. Her mom and I said things of support, while we tried in vain to steer her towards some other sport that might change her mind, or better yet, prevent her from trying out because of overlapping schedules.

Savannah’s focus could not be broken.  I had promised her that I would take her to the Landstown Middle School Football tryouts, and so I did. I watched her take the field with at least 70 boys and begin doing group calisthenics and football drills. Knowing that the coach was only keeping 32 to 35 on the team, I sized each boy up. They were huge! I like to say that I am 5 foot 10 inches, and on a good day I might weigh 175 lbs in my underwear, and there were quite a few boys who were taller and heavier than me. But Savannah didn’t blink an eye.

The first day at practice I tried hard not to show it, but I cried. I am not afraid to admit that I have emotions, but I don’t always want other to see, so I hid behind my sunglasses. She gave it her all, and I was proud, but I was also torn by the prospect of her not being able to follow her dream. I was a wreck.

Day two at practice had the kids line up in a tackling drill, without pads. One kid had to run by another kid who was trying to tackle the first kid. Savannah faced the one of the biggest kids on the field, who promptly tackled her at the waist, picked her up and drilled her into the ground. It was a textbook tackle. I almost boo-hooed out loud as she bounced right back up and ran to the end of the line. Now I also had to add to my list of emotions the fear of her being hurt.

At the end of day three, cuts were to be announced in the form of a list of numbers that were assigned to kids on the first day of tryouts. If a kid’s number didn’t appear on the list, he did not make the team. I agonized over how she might take the news when her number wasn’t on the list. I thought about how I could turn the conversation to a positive and express how proud I was of her just for trying. I wouldn’t allow myself to think that she could make it, because I didn’t believe it could be possible.

The list was posted before practice was over, but I couldn’t look. It seemed wrong to take that away from her. If nothing else she earned the right to know before me. I watched her as she slowly walked up to the list, one of the very last to make it there. She looked briefly and dropped her head as she turned away. I walked over to her and began my consolation speech. She seemed ok, as she told me she didn’t see her number, but she added that one of the coaches had asked her to meet him over by the buses.

We milled about for a few minutes and talked about things. She had done her best and was at peace with herself. I was sure her coach would say something positive about her performance and encourage her to keep working at it and then end with the “maybe next year,” line.

The coach came over and as I said my fatherly lines about how she would work hard and we would see him tryouts next year, he looked at Savannah and said, “Did you look at the list?”

Savannah said, “Yeah…”

He said, “You better look again, you made the team. I thought that you might have missed it because your number was penciled in.”

Savannah and I exchanged unbelieving looks with our mouths hanging open, and I think I said thank you. The coach said, “She earned it,” and he even repeated it to make sure we both heard it. He walked us back over to the list and pointed out the number 7 written in pencil at the bottom of the page.

Lucky Number 7
I was overwhelmed by the enormity of what my little girl had done. The only thing I could compare it to was the movie Rudy. I jumped on Facebook when I got home and begged for someone to share their copy (thank you Aaron!). As a family we sat and watched this movie while I hoped that the significance of Savannah’s accomplishment sunk in not only for her, but for her brothers as well.

By the end of the first week I had stopped crying at practice. Well, for the most part.

In her first scrimmage I watched her get steamrolled while playing corner. The wide receiver put a vicious hit on her while blocking downfield for a running play. Savannah jumped up after the play and ran back to the defensive huddle.

During her first game I was sure she wouldn’t get any playing time. But as the score rolled up, I realized that she might see some action during junk time. And then she ran on the field!

She played tight end and blocked on one play, and the running back scored a touchdown! She ran off the field pumping her fist thrilled with her first taste of real football in pads.

From my limited knowledge of middle school football, I would have to say that the Lancers are a good football team. As I sat in the bleachers last night watching the game it seemed for a while that the score was a bit too close for Savannah to take the field. Then suddenly in the 4th quarter the score was 42 to 6. I was thrilled when Savannah ran onto the field, but I was shocked to hear the Landstown Cheerleaders began to cheer, “Go Savannah! Go!” over and over. Soon the play was over, but a minute later she was back on for another play. Again the Cheerleaders shouted, “Go Savannah! Go!” and now the people in the stands joined in with them.

And I remembered Rudy.

Game Face
This is why Savannah inspires me. Despite all the odds, and all the people who scoffed that a girl was trying to play football, she has taken another step towards her dream and made believers out of others. Including me.