A Sporty Retorty

I’ve never gotten along with sports, and perhaps I never will

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

This is a story I love to tell. I end up telling it all the time. At the bar. At parties and get-togethers. In the car and at family gatherings. In awkward conversations with people I hardly know while waiting for some kind of baked chicken to be served at a wedding reception. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time with me has probably heard it. The story is my go-to personal anecdote when I need to say something brief and funny about myself which, according to my wife, is apparently all the damn time.

It involves sports.

Here’s the short version: I quit Little League so I could stay home and watch Heathcliff cartoons.

In fact, I think I only ever participated in sports at all because I felt too guilty not to. I’m not sure where that guilt came from, but it was probably from after-school television specials about fat kids.

The slightly longer version: In the mid-’80s, Little Mikey Paulus was enrolled in a Little League-like tee-ball league. I didn’t like it very much. One summer day before practice, motivated by a mixture of general sports-related dread and the overwhelming need to watch that afternoon’s episode of Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats, I asked my mom if I could quit. She said OK. And I didn’t participate in an organized sport for another three or four years.

I’m not sure why my mom let me quit. There must have been tense words behind my back when my dad got home, but if there were any parental attempts to get me back on the tee-ball field, I can’t remember them. So that was it. Later in life, I played football throughout middle school and into high school, and I’ve even got one season of seventh-grade basketball under my belt. But honestly? I never enjoyed any of it.

To this day, I’m filled with an unmistakable cocktail of dread and anxiety whenever I walk into a high school gym or onto a baseball field. I’ve just never felt comfortable playing sports. It can’t have anything to do with my lack of athletic ability, because I have no problem completely missing the hoop/goal/glove/dartboard/whatever, and I don’t mind losing.

In fact, I think I only ever participated in sports at all because I felt too guilty not to. I’m not sure where that guilt came from, but it was probably from after-school television specials about fat kids. And bam, there you go – the never-ending cavalcade of disintegrating self-esteem that is American television strikes again. I was addicted to TV, and TV made me feel guilty for watching TV, and so, to escape those bad feelings, I watched more TV. And ate Chips Ahoy! Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Whoa. Despite my robust (and totally practical) liberal arts education, I never fully understood that until today. Well, now that I can blame all the problems in my personal and professional life on cartoons, let’s get back to sports.

In all honesty, I wish I’d done something a bit more useful with the time freed up by quitting tee-ball. Like many of you, I have a long and glorious history of knowing exactly what I don’t want while having no clue what I might actually enjoy. Looking back, I’ve got tons (megatons!) of fun suggestions for Little Mikey Paulus. Half of them involve Dungeons and Dragons.

But all I can really do now is let go of the past and hope like hell my kids don’t ask me too many questions about sports. My son plays soccer, and loves it, but he doesn’t make too many specific inquiries about it. If I needed to actually learn the rules – the real rules – to soccer or baseball or fencing or Taiwanese kickboxing or whatever kids are playing nowadays, well ... I guess I’ll just have to do that, no matter how unpleasant it may be.

Like any parent, I want my kids to be passionate about something, and if they happen to be passionate about sports, what can I do? I’m right there on the sidelines cheering them on as they kick the ball down the pitch for a touchdown.

Because I am a dad and that is my job.

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