Caring so much for my Packers, my heart is held hostage by their fate. They just lost to Seattle and, given the stunning way we lost, my heart feels wrecked, as from a sideswiping bus I didn’t see coming.
I am beyond grief, I am angry. Angry at myself for allowing this sport, this team, to affect me so. If I could get unhooked from this “first love,” and restore my outlook on football to something more healthy, maybe then I could find relief. As this has worked before, I try blogging to sort things out, to find some kind of comfort and peace, some kindness for myself. Then I’ll get out of this funk. I say, Maybe.
In search of a new outlook, I revisit my youth, when football was fun, full of collegiality and family support.
Back then I was first told (by Dad), “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”
Dad instilled in me a love for the game first by bringing my brother Bill and I to football games played by his alma mater Dartmouth, a team not always on the winning end. Not just Bill and I came along. For twenty-five years as Alumni Secretary for Dartmouth Class of ’34, Dad also convened thousands of his classmates and their clans, shuffling us hither and yon. We’d go wherever Dartmouth was playing a meaningful game that year—to Yale (CT) or Princeton (NJ) or Hanover (NH)—whoever was hosting that year’s “family” reunion. Hence, our kind dad ended up “winning” lifelong friends from these rival colleges.
While winning the game mattered to some, winning the company mattered more. These football weekend reunions were not all about football, but increasingly about festive and fun-filled “family” times. Talk about making friends across “enemy” lines, and between the generations! Dad was Mr. Hospitality, with a kind word for everyone. Years after I left home and for years after Mom left Dad, he’d go alone and work the game like a political candidate on a rope line. Football reunions were his solace and passion. Once at the game, he’d team up with his extended family, the Class of ’34, who never forgot, never left his side and showed Dad much kindness in return. They were there for him, so he was never alone with his grief.
Kindness that goes around comes around. Ever since 1934.
When Dad retired up to Hanover, he could go to all the home Dartmouth games. But for the last ten years of his life, he was too mentally impaired with Alzheimer’s to take himself to the game. That’s when Bill and I began doing for Dad what he’d done for us boys decades before. “Take me out to the ball game,” was Dad’s wish, even his dying wish; so every year, we’d fly out on the football weekend nearest his November birthday. The Dartmouth fight song he could still sing, long after he forgot our names.
When Dad died in 2006 at age 93, we did not let this heartfelt love of family and football die with him. Now Bill and I extend this same kindness to each other. With Dad’s legacy of kindness, his love of tradition and loyalty to family, we’ve combined that into a tradition of our own. Though we live 1000 miles apart, for ten years now Brother Bill flies to Madison (WI) every November on or near Dad’s birthday; in his honor, the football weekend becomes a mini-family reunion and safe space to share life’s wins and losses.
Such brotherhood multiplies the joy and divides the grief…. Aha, now I’m onto something.
When I too grow feeble in body or mind, I hope my two sons will keep this tradition going, and take their ol’ man to a treasured football game and reunite me with the next generation as often as possible. May this be my legacy when I pass, for my sons to keep gathering for the same reason that their Dad and Uncle do—that is, to extend the kindness of the previous generation.
Kindness, passing it along and paying it forward—it’s the gift that keeps on giving. And it’s the kindness of time spent together, a priceless gift, that really touches the heart more than winning.
Just as I finish this last line, Bill calls to console me on the Packers’ devastating loss. Now I have the friend I need to spread the kindness, divide the grief, and help me climb out of this funk.
Dietrich Gruen is a hospice chaplain to the elderly and dying, father of three adult sons, husband of one wife, working out of Madison, WI, where he leads fierce conversations on hot topics.