As parents, we want to prepare our kids for everything. But what the heck do you say to your kid before playing in the biggest game of his life? In front of thousands of people at Ford Field? In a state championship football game broadcast live on television?
“Clarkston has great coaches,” I told my son Nick before he played for West Bloomfield on Saturday in the Division 1 state championship against Clarkston, our rivals.
“They will use your aggressiveness against you. Watch out for reverses. Trick plays.”
I tried to stay calm but my insides were a mess. I wanted to say so many other things: Just enjoy it and treat it like any other game. Don’t let the moment get too big. Trust your instincts. Have fun.
But it felt like a horrible batch of clichés, and, at some point, you just have to let your kids go, right?
As he walked on the field for warm-ups, I tried to sit down in the stands. But couldn’t. I was too nervous and excited. I paced around and walked down the steps, near the field and found Dave Veasley, the father of quarterback Bryce Veasley.
“Holy freakin’ crap,” I said, as we hugged.
Our sons have played sports together since they were 11.
“We are here!” he said.
I’ve covered the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Olympics. I’ve written about the Final Four, several national championships and I can’t tell you how many state championships. Swim meets. Track meets. Baseball finals. Soccer finals.
But this was the first time that I had this perspective.
As a parent.
I was full of pride, excitement and nervousness, and it was absolutely surreal, exciting and nerve wrecking. But more than anything, it was petrifying. I’ve never had an ounce of fear, watching my kids play sports. But this was different because of the magnitude.
This felt like the defining moment of his childhood — or perhaps, the end of his childhood — and I didn’t want anything to ruin it.
“If you fumble in this game,” my older son Jake said, “you are going to remember it the rest of your life.”
No pressure at all.
Even though we had tons of family and friends in the stands, I sat by myself for the first quarter.
And it was so strange.
Because Nick is usually sitting next to me.
For more than 10 years, I have taken my two sons to Ford Field to watch the state championships. It is our family tradition.
In 2007, we watched Nick Perry lead Detroit King to the state title. He was probably the greatest high school football player I’ve ever seen, and now he’s playing for the Green Bay Packers.
Now, here was Nick, down on that same field.
And my eyes welled up with tears.
A marathon of emotions
After the first quarter, I started to calm down to the point where I could breathe again.
Nick was flying around the field, making all kinds of tackles. It was bizarre, looking up at the big screen at Ford Field and seeing all those kids, who have spent so much time at my house. And at halftime, I moved down and sat with friends and family.
Even when Clarkston took a 3-2 lead, one of the strangest scores possible, in an absolute defensive battle, I felt like we were going to win.
Still, every play felt enormous, full of drama and pressure.
At one point, I remember thinking, “I don’t ever want this to end. It was so cool and thrilling and dramatic.”
But we could never get on track offensively. As the final seconds clicked off the clock, and as Clarkston started to celebrate a 3-2 win, Nick took a knee on the field.
“I was shocked,” Nick said.
He was stunned that it was over. The game. This magical run. His high school football career.
This team had overcome losing its first two games and the loss of kicker Nick O’Shea’s father. It went on a magical run, beating some of the best teams in the state —Bloomfield Hills, Waterford Mott, Utica Eisenhower and Detroit Cass Tech.
And I think it gave me a new perspective on sports.
I don’t think I will ever look at March Madness the same. It gives me so much more appreciation for what Tom Izzo has done at Michigan State, going on so many tournament runs. And it gave me a different perspective on pressure and expectations and how exhausting a run like this can be on everybody — the coaches, the players and even the parents. It’s a marathon of emotions.
The nerves melted away
On Sunday morning, I sat on Nick’s bed, as he put his football stuff away, and we recapped the game.
“How nervous were you?”
“Before the game, I was really nervous,” he said. “The night before. On the bus ride. In the locker room.”
But all the nerves melted away when he stopped on the field.
“You are going to take this with you the rest of your life,” I said. “You just faced incredible pressure and you played the game of your life. That’s going to be inside you the rest of your life. You can always draw on that, whether it’s a college class or in the real world. A business meeting. Whatever.”
He was exhausted, disappointed but not dejected.
“It just sucks that it was Clarkston,” he said.