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Excerpt: 'Not My Boy!'

R.J.'s Story



I was waiting for the baton as the anchor of the Magee Junior High track team's 4 × 400 meter relay. We were a pretty good team, but we were facing one of the best schools in Tucson. We had fallen behind in each of the three previous legs, and as I stood there anticipating my turn, I couldn't believe the distance I would have to make up in order for us to win.

I had come from behind before, but never from eighty meters back. When I got the baton and I saw how far my opponent was ahead of me, I thought, Just run smooth. Maybe you can make up some ground and keep it respectable.

As I rounded my first turn, my opponent had already begun the back straightaway. Then I heard my dad yell out, "GO GET 'EM, ROD!"

I felt adrenaline rush through my body, and I began to run. Not just to put on a good show, but to win!

In anything you do, most of success is the simple belief that you can win. At that moment, I believed I could, and I ran that way. I slowly closed the gap and closed the gap and closed the gap.

We came to the final turn of the race, and I had him in my sights. I could see him, but he couldn't see me. I passed him with twenty meters to go. We won the race and we went on to win the meet.

That day I learned that "it ain't over till it's over" was not just a cliché. Champions understand how to take advantage of an opportunity. They can recognize weakness, see the opening they need to win, and believe in it. That day, my dad had made me believe that I could do anything. That's the father I wanted to be to my son.

My dad had made the most of whatever gifts he had and any chances that came his way. As a child, he got up at five every single morning to do his chores. Money hadn't come easily to his family, and everyone had to pitch in. His father worked three jobs, on a neighboring farm, in construction, and as a handyman. At the break of dawn, Grandpa was in his truck going down the road picking up things to fix.

Dad was good at school and talented in sports, especially football. He got a scholarship to college, where he earned his master's in education. By the time I was born, he was a high school football coach and my mom was a schoolteacher. The University of Arizona hired him as an assistant coach when I was three.

My brother, Skip, and I were lucky to have a dad who provided us with a much easier life than the one he had had. We lived in the suburbs. Although Dad didn't have to be at work until nine, he still rose at five. He had a hard time getting my brother and me out of bed before seven A.M. Our toughest morning chores consisted of straightening our rooms and making our beds.

Even in the off-season, Dad had to work long hours. Yet with all of that on his shoulders, he took every opportunity to grab time with Skip and me. Many nights he'd come home from a long day of practice and meetings and still find the energy to go out into the street in front of our house and toss the football with us, or field a few of our fly balls or help us with our homework. Other nights we'd go to sleep not having seen him since the morning, though whenever he got home late, he'd quietly come into our rooms and sit on our beds to give us good-night kisses. I don't think I ever expressed to him how much that meant to me. He couldn't be around as much as he would have liked, but we understood how much we were in his thoughts. Despite all the demands on his time and energy, he was the opposite of a distant figure.

Once I got old enough to join team sports, I never knew when my dad would drop by practice to see how I was coming along. If he had a spare hour here or there, he would show up but stand at a respectful distance. Dad was conscious of not stepping on my coach's toes. He didn't want to make him uncomfortable, or make it seem as if he was looking over his shoulders. Although he knew twice as much as the guys who coached peewee football and baseball, he wanted me to have the experience of being coached like any other kid. He kept such a low profile that I wouldn't know he had been there until he told me when I returned home.

I liked him being there, and I wanted him to tell me what he saw in my playing and share his thoughts about how I could improve. He wouldn't offer his opinion unless we asked for it, and he never coached us until we told him that we wanted his help. He didn't want to be the dad who dragged his kid out to do extra work after practice unless his son initiated it.

I worked as hard as I could on my own, trying not to rely too much on him. When I needed to ask him for advice, I was often confused, or maybe even desperate, and ready to listen. He would always be very open about what he thought. He would show me a technique that worked better for me than the one I'd learned in practice. If my passing was a little sloppy, he might tell me to keep my elbow up to increase my accuracy. Even if he thought what the coach had told me was wrong, he would never phrase his advice in a way that would belittle the coach. He prefaced everything he said with "You've got to do what the coach says, but try this. It might help you."

Day by day, these were the ways that my dad built in us a deep reservoir of respect. The last thing we wanted to do was disappoint him. I don't ever remember him raising his voice, flying off the handle, or getting out of control. He always had a calm demeanor, but you knew when he was angry. You knew when he meant business. When he gave you that look and lowered his voice, he was serious. Most of the time he would call me Rod, but when he called me Rodney, I knew something was up.

Telling him a lie to cover up some wrongdoing would cause me more trouble than simply accepting the punishment for my mistake. He always taught us that if we told him the truth, we could work through it. He would turn the mistake into a learning experience. If I took the car and went out with my buddies even though I knew I wasn't supposed to, we'd talk about why that was wrong and what I'd realized as a result of that mistake. I'd take my punishment. No TV. You're grounded. No game this week.

But if I told him I hadn't taken the car and he found out (because parents always find out), he would say, "I'm going to give you one more chance to tell me the truth." It wasn't that I was afraid of him spanking me, although I did get spanked from time to time. What prevented me from getting into a lot more trouble than I did was how much I dreaded seeing that look on his face when I lied to him. When he caught me in a lie, it hurt him more than anything. And seeing that look on his face hurt me too.

The problem with me was that I was a good student, made friends quickly, and sports came easily to me. I was lucky that I could goof off all week and still know the capital of every state and ace the algebra test. But when things were going well for me, I liked to push that boundary a little bit. In that way, I seemed to be sliding through life. Every so often, I'd test to see how much I could get away with. Those were the times I forgot the powerful effect of that look on my father's face.

When I entered high school, Skip was a senior with three years of knowledge under his belt about the way the school worked. Fortunately, he was willing to share that knowledge with me. Among the things he told me about was a storage area that separated the boys' locker room from the girls'. If you stood in a particular place, there was a way to look in on the girls when they were changing. Knowing this dramatically improved my status among the other freshman boys. I told my friends about it, but I acted as if I'd already done it so often that it didn't interest me. You guys go right in there. Be my guests.

Five or six of my friends went in there and made so much noise, they got caught. Although I didn't end up in the principal's office, they all told on me. Their parents called my parents, saying I set the whole thing up and made the other kids do it. My dad was furious. It took me a moment to admit I was involved. At first I was like, What do you mean? I didn't do that. I thought he'd be relieved that I was smart enough not to participate.

He couldn't be fooled. He knew I was the ringleader, and that disappointed him deeply. I hadn't technically lied to him, but it was as if I had. He felt as though I had dishonored our name. One of the biggest things my dad used to talk about was how he never wanted me to dishonor our name by getting involved in this kind of foolishness.

Both my brother and I were conscious of how Dad wanted us to demonstrate respect and earn everything that came our way. No special favors, and as a part of that, we anticipated and appreciated each step along the way. He marked our rites of passage and honored every milestone.

We had a basketball hoop in our backyard, and when I first began to play, he positioned it low on the post. As I grew and became better at the game, he raised it a little. Each time he moved the hoop higher, he created a tougher challenge. Earn it. Work harder. Mastery is always just out of reach. As good as I got, he made me play within the rules and anticipate the next step along the path so I would want it more and appreciate it when I got there. A few of the other kids in the neighborhood were allowed to join Little League a year early. Even though I was better than kids who were two years older, I had to wait until I met the age limit. When I had a chance to move up to varsity as a freshman in high school, my dad wouldn't let me. I had to pay my dues, he said. His thinking was the same about when he would let me enter the place I most wanted to go when I was a kid: the University of Arizona locker room after a game.

Walking into the football locker room as a five-year-old was to walk among the giants. In our town, where everything revolved around the college, it was the greatest thing in the world to be with the players I admired. The most powerful giant among them was my dad. He wasn't as big as the players. He topped out at six feet. Yet when he spoke, everyone paid attention.

He always made his standards of behavior clear. First off, I had to wait until I was five. He said that if I were any younger, I couldn't be trusted to behave. Once I turned five, he told me that he'd only take me along if I did my chores, didn't sass back, and behaved myself in school all week.

Then the final hurdle: I had to be well mannered and respectful at the game. My mom, brother, and I sat in the stands on the Wildcat side, following my dad as closely as we did the game. If I acted up, Skip would go into the locker room without me.

I'd managed to keep it together for the weeks before the first home game and while the players were on the field. After the game, I was nearly jumping out of my skin as Mom led Skip and me down to the entrance where we would meet the security guard who would escort us to Dad, who was waiting at the door to the locker room. He pushed the doors open and there we were in the echoing room filled with huge men. As anxious and alert as I was, the team was relaxed, joking. Dad sat us on a big couch at the edge of the lockers, telling us not to move until he'd showered and changed.

When he finally came to get us, he led us through the locker room and introduced us to the players. He had schooled us on how to hold in our excitement, and I was aware of my father's eyes on me as I respectfully shook hands with the team. Walking out with a chinstrap or wristband from one of the guys who had scored a touchdown made me feel like I was one of the luckiest kids in the world. Even an apple or a banana from the snack table there tasted extra sweet to me.

I was allowed into the locker room at age five, but I had to wait until I was eight to join my brother on the sidelines. When we were on the field, Mom wasn't around to keep us in line and Dad was too busy to look after us. He told us exactly where to stand so that we'd be safely out of the way. The other members of the coaching staff and the security guards reinforced the order not to move from that space. Skip warned me that if I messed up, I'd never get to do it again.

Standing in that space, I heard that a lot of what Dad said to the players sounded the same as what we heard at home. "You know better than that. We went over this and over this. We practiced and practiced, and you still got it wrong. What are you thinking about? You've got to focus!" Only on the sidelines, I heard my dad raise his voice.

Watching him up close during the game when he didn't know I was looking brought my respect for him to a new level.

My dad had opened up this world to us and, at the same time, made us feel as though we belonged there. We had met his standards, followed his directions, and in doing so we received his support and affection. He had shown us how to do him proud.

With a dad like that, it's hardly a surprise that I always wanted kids. My idea of how I would be with my son was better than the opening credits of Father Knows Best. I would be there for him from the time he was born. I would even be there before he was born. After that, there's a bit of a gap in the highlight reel of "Dad's Greatest Plays." I could picture myself reading to my son and going for a first round of golf when he was about three or four. I imagined the long talks we would have, and in this fantasy, you can bet he was listening to me very seriously as I filled him in on everything that I knew. I was going to allow him to do all the things I hadn't done or hadn't been permitted to do. I was going to make sure that he was able to take advantage of everything.

I was trying to figure out how my dad was such a great father and take it a step or two further. That's what each generation wants to do: build on the base that their parents created and make a better life for their own children.

When Holly was pregnant and we found out that she was having twins, I was on cloud nine. I was even more excited when we learned, a few months later, after our first ultrasound examination, that we would be having a boy and a girl. "YES!" We hit the lottery. I got my boy! I prayed that everything would go well with my wife during the pregnancy and the delivery, and that my kids would be healthy.

In the weeks that followed the birth of the twins, I reached back into my childhood. My dad seemed to have figured out some of the most important things about being a dad. Yet the world my brother and I grew up in was very different from the one in which I was about to raise my children. My wife, Holly, and I were living in a nice part of Los Angeles in circumstances that were a lot more comfortable than the way either of us had lived as children. Things were so different, I did not know for certain if the ways my father raised us would apply to being a twenty-first-century dad.

I know my dad had always wished he spent more time with me and Skip. I hoped I could do more with my children because, at least for the part of the year when I was not playing football, I would have a more flexible schedule than my dad had had. And I wouldn't be playing their whole life, so when I retired, I'd have much more time to spend with them. I wanted to be that dad who took the kids to school and picked them up too. Also, I'm a different kind of man than my father in some ways. I am more passionate than him. He comes from the old school. You're not supposed to show that stuff. When he says hello, he reaches out to shake your hand and says, "Hey, how you doing?" I don't do that. I give people a bear hug.

At that moment in the hospital when I held our newborn babies, there was so much of our young lives still to be lived. I had to rush back to Philadelphia shortly after they were born, to rejoin the Philadelphia Eagles and lead the team against the Dallas Cowboys, our old nemesis. But I wasn't thinking about football. I was thinking that Holly and I were so blessed with our wonderful babies, and that there were so many opportunities before us, as we stood on the great foundation that had been laid by our loving families. Little did I realize then that R.J.'s diagnosis of autism would shake us down to that foundation, test me and our marriage, and bring me into a kind of fatherhood nothing in my life had prepared me for.

From Not My Boy! by Rodney Peete. Copyright 2010 HollyRod Entertainment. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

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