Saturday, May 07, 2005

Thanks, mom

Here's the thing about all those macho professional athletes we're always praising as gladiators and warriors and gritty, gutty gamers:

They're mama's boys. Just about all of 'em, too.

Pretty obvious when you think about it. First thing an athlete does when he hits the contract jackpot? Buys mom a house. What does he yelp when the sideline camera is in his face? Hi, mom. Worst possible PG-rated insult? Yo mama.

Yep, behind almost every world-class athlete is a proud mom. Sometimes, she even shows up beside him on the field.

During a New Jersey Nets game four years ago, Stephon Marbury and teammate Jayson Williams careened into each other while hustling after the ball. It was an awkward and gruesome collision, with Marbury leg-whipping Williams across the thighs.

As the players writhed in a tangled heap of limbs, the Nets trainer rushed toward the fallen players … only to encounter a third person already at the scene. Ma Marbury had sprung out of her seat, slipped past security and arrived at the side of her precious, wounded baby.

At that moment, it became clear that Stephon's point-guard quickness was a gift from his mother's side of the gene pool.

Marbury was rattled, but okay. Williams? He broke his leg and tore knee ligaments, injuries which eventually ended his career. "I was fine until Mrs. Marbury trampled me getting to Steph," he said later. He might have been joking.

That Marbury story has become part of NBA lore, but my favorite Moms And Sports anecdote is more obscure. It comes from one of those NFL Films specials my clicker always seems to stall on. I can't remember the topic of the specific show. What I do recall is the camera catching the attention of a young, bright-eyed member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, uniform No. 25.

First, No. 25 smiled and spoke the standard line: "Hi, mom."

But then, so sweet and sincere: "I love you."

I was so impressed by his open, unbridled adoration of his mom, I looked up No. 25's name. Turns out it was Fernando Bryant, a rookie defensive back at the time. There's a man who was raised right, I thought.

This may come as something less than a revelation, but I believe - no, I know - that a strong, supportive mother is a crucial and underrated factor in a young athlete's success. Dads are important, of course, but they have it easier. They get to watch ballgames with you, teach you how to gripe about the Red Sox, chuck the football around the yard. Any dad worth his La-Z-Boy will tell you it beats the heck out of cleaning the gutters.

Moms have the tougher job, so much so that some sociologist somewhere coined a term for the various duties of the modern sports mother: "soccer mom." But the reality is that the job description is always growing.

My sports "career" pretty much screeched to halt 15 years ago - all sportswriters are failed athletes, you know - and yet I can recall a résumé's worth of roles my mom filled during my semi-athletic youth.

She was a fashion consultant. When I was in third grade, she convinced me that if I'd stop wearing my favorite argyle socks in my pee-wee basketball games, I might score more points. Also, and my comedic-genius teammates might stop calling me "Silly Socks Finn." Didn't score more, as I recall, but the nickname ceased. At least until now.

She was an equipment manager. For a sixth-grade project, I was assigned to dress up like a character from my favorite book. A costume? No problem for Mom McGyver. She took the cushions out of an old couch and cut out a pair of shoulder pads. Then, she rubbed some mascara on my face, which made for perfect eye black. Finally, she crafted a fake beard out of some leftover felt. I didn't just look like Dan Fouts from Great Quarterbacks of the NFL that day. I was Dan Fouts from Great Quarterbacks of the NFL.

She was a sports psychologist. When I was a splinter-picking scrub on a powerhouse high school basketball team, my mom never failed to say with a straight face that my three points in a 92-58 victory were "three very important points, dear." Her soothing words were usually accompanied by a post-game pizza. Comfort food, you know.

The truth probably came to me sometime in the years after I put away the basketball and began writing about it: Mom really does know best. But as I grew older (if not up), I, too, often took her endless warmth and wisdom for granted.

Maybe I'd forget to make that Sunday phone call, or maybe I'd mail that birthday card a few postmarks too late. I'd feel the twinge of guilt, a reprimand from my conscience, and then I'd move on with my day.

I figured she'd always be there. She always had been before.

Then, reality slapped me in the face. Not long ago, my mom had a health scare, and not a minor one. For a few frightening days, she lay in a hospital bed, helpless. The feeling became too familiar to all of us.

By a miracle of science, or perhaps of something greater, she came out of it. Even her doctor is astounded by her progress. He tells her she is stronger than before.
Me, I tell her she is stronger than any athlete I will ever encounter.

Maybe my mom didn't give me a Marbury-quick first step, but she gives me a better gift. She cares, always, no matter if she is cheering for a slow, clumsy teenaged basketball player, or a slow, clumsy groom trying not to trample his bride during their first dance as husband and wife.

Come to think of it, a certain slow, clumsy writer struggling to do her justice with his words could use her inspiration right now.

Perhaps instead of writing about one more football hero, this mama's boy should take his words from one. So I will.

Hi, Mom.

I love you.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor, May 11, 2003.)