I remember when things got weird. I was fifteen, and my father was teaching me how to drive. We lived in Arizona, where the roads stretch as wide as football fields and everybody calls cars “trucks.” I had inherited a 1995 Dodge Caravan, an ugly green box that smelled like shin guards. It was my second time driving with a permit, so my father was there, needling me every few minutes about the angle of my mirror and the speed at which I braked.
After an hour, I felt confident enough to turn on the radio. We pulled up to an intersection, and my dad told me to make a left turn. As I inched forward, he fiddled with his seatbelt. L.L. Cool J’s “Doin’ It” came on.
I wanna knock your block off, get my rocks off.
The car in front of me turned. I froze, my hands clenching the wheel.
I’m gonna call you Big Daddy and scream your name.
Across the intersection, trucks were still flying towards us. Instead of waiting for a break, I slammed my foot on the accelerator, swerving sharply to the left and forcing the the flow of traffic on the other side to screech to a halt. As I burned out of the turn like a getaway driver, my father yelped. His cries, along with the flurry of honks I left in my wake, drowned out the radio. I felt an immense sense of relief.
I’ve never understood why the term Daddy’s Girl has mostly negative connotations. Growing up, I knew I was one, but it meant something different to me: I wanted to be exactly like my dad. My mother was warm and familiar, but my father, a captain in the Air Force, was an object of perpetual fascination. He wore a funny blue hat that looked like an upside-down envelope and carried a fake leather briefcase he had bought in Korea. He read historical fiction, massive paperbacks with one word titles like Lincoln and Alaska. When he returned from business trips, he always brought me miniature bottles of shampoo from the hotels where he stayed, usually Motel 8s and Howard Johnsons. I mixed them together and lined them up inside a plastic lunchbox, then sold them back to him as “cologne.”
Like him, I was intense and competitive. He never made me feel bad for being those things. We spent hours studying maps to prepare for geography bees, and he clipped articles from Newsweek for me. I started playing soccer when I was five, and he drove me to every game. Whenever I got the ball, he ran parallel to me on the sideline, whooping with joy; when I inevitably lost control and started dribbling in a circle, he would awkwardly jog in place.
A few years later, I came home in tears one afternoon after a nasty coach yelled at me and my teammates. Later that evening, I crouched outside his study room and listened to him rip into the guy, screaming four letter words paired in combinations I had never heard before. It was terrifying, but also thrilling.
Every car ride alone with my father was a stolen moment. He taught me the capital of every country in the world, and I recited them back to him. He knew the names of my friends and enemies. When I refused to get out bed one morning, distraught because I had read a book about how poorly the white settlers had treated the Native Americans, he pulled up a chair and asked me what was wrong. I teared up and he gingerly held my hand. As I prattled on about smallpox blankets and circled wagons and Iroquois longhouses, he listened patiently, only dozing off once or twice.
At some point, this changed. By which I mean, I changed. I became more self aware. I no longer believed that everything I said was interesting to him, or anyone, really. My fears and dreams were embarrassing and inexpressible. I wrote livejournal entries and erased them. I started driving. I spent my weekends sitting inside malls and outside movie theaters, waiting for things to happen.
Near the end of high school, I stopped playing soccer and accumulated a light layer of baby fat—tiny curves that protruded over the sides of my low-rise jeans like a pair of quotations. I spent hours in the bathroom, alternating between talking in hushed tones on the phone and thumbing through Delia’s catalogs as tears streamed down my cheeks. Sometimes I could hear my father pacing outside.
One day, he dared to knock, and I nudged the door open with my big toe. He asked me what was wrong. “This,” I barked, poking my own belly.
He flinched, confused. A few seconds passed. “Do you want me to buy you new clothes? Something that fits better?” I kicked the door shut.
We still talked, of course, but only about certain things. When it was time for me to start thinking about college, he unveiled a 50-point plan he had been working on for years. He built a file cabinet to organize my resumes and essays. Over spaghetti dinners, we strategized, debating rhetoric and paper weight and early decision game theory. He came up with the idea of having me take my picture in front of an American flag because it would “go nicely” with a scholarship application about growing up in a military family. That picture lives on the internet and haunts me to this day.
After I got into college, we talked about internships. After I got an internship, we talked about jobs. After I got my first job in New York, he still called me every day after work, while he was driving. As I walked back to my apartment, we’d talk about the news, the weather, and his back, which was just starting to give him trouble. After a few minutes or so, we’d run out of things to talk about. The pauses in our conversations would swell until there was more silence than noise. Eventually, I would just tell him I was home.
Growing up, I always liked watching sports more than I did playing them. We moved all the time, criss-crossing the country in the Caravan whenever my father was reassigned. As a result, my only geographic allegiance was his hometown—Seattle. I liked the Supersonics, mostly because I loved the color green. I saw the M’s play half a dozen times at the old Kingdome. At my very first baseball game, my favorite player, Edgar Martinez, hit a grand slam. As Gar lumbered around the bases—he always ran like he was late for a train he expected to miss—fireworks erupted over Seattle. Every few minutes, I’d crack a peanut, de-shell it, and plunk it into my father’s outstretched hand.
My dad liked baseball. But he loved football. When I was small, I watched Seahawks games with him, sprawled on the carpet near his feet. I absorbed his opinions and learned to worship his idols: Largent, Kennedy, Jones. He taught me how to complain about bad calls—unless someone in the room is genuinely worried that you’re having a seizure, you’re doing it wrong—and what to cheer for. Like most men of a certain age, my father is less impressed by flashy runs and diving catches than he is by players who fight for every last inch—those scrappy warriors who lunge across the first down line even as their ankles are dragged backwards. “What an effort!” he’d cry. “What. An. Effort.”
The older I got, the fewer games I watched. Eventually, I stopped paying attention altogether. I went to a liberal arts college where no one I knew admitted to watching television (ironic viewings of The O.C. notwithstanding) and the only competitive sport was jostling for unpaid publishing internships. I followed the Hawks, barely, as though skimming headlines from another country. When I went home for the holidays, I watched important games with him. I remember the time our quarterback said he wanted the ball and he was going to score, then didn’t; I remember the Worst Officiated Game in NFL History. The team was good, then they were mediocre, then they were bad.
I can’t really explain why I decided to start watching football again. A few years ago, I met a friend of a friend who was a big Hawks fan. I emailed him on a whim, and he invited me to the bar in north Brooklyn where he and his friends hung out on Sundays. I watched one game, then another. I mostly kept my mouth shut, since I has nothing to say. But I kept going back.
The bar was a twenty-minute walk from my house. After I left one evening, I fished my phone out of my purse and called my father. “What did you think of the game?” I asked.
Without hesitating, he launched into a critique of our offensive line. We talked about play calling and power running. I asked him what he thought of the rookies. If he was surprised by the sudden reignition of my interest in the sport, he didn’t show it.
This was not a fun time to root for the Seattle Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck, the aging quarterback who led us to the Super Bowl in 2006, was fading into obsolescence; we snuck into the playoffs with a losing record. In 2011, the team was helmed by Tarvaris Jackson, a stoic soldier who was both terrified of releasing the ball and incapable of protecting it. When Jackson went down before a game against the Browns, we put in Clipboard Jesus, a once-promising prospect who resembled a surprisingly handsome homeless man. Inaccurate and indecisive, Jesus turned out to be a false idol. We lost 6-3. It was an excruciating afternoon.
The team finished 7-9 that year. We were unexceptional, but my father had a way of making me feel optimistic. I called him after every game, taking mental notes as he dissected the play of the different units. There were bright spots, young players who showed flashes of dazzling brilliance. Earl Thomas, a whirling dervish who streaked across the backfield. Doug Baldwin, an undersized receiver from Stanford who was passed over in the draft and played with a giant chip on his shoulder. Richard Sherman, a gangly cornerback with sloth-like arms and a manic intelligence. When I go back and stream highlights from those games, it feels a little like watching casting call tapes for movie stars: the lights are too bright and the script is banal, but the talent shines through.
It didn’t take long for Sundays to bleed into the rest of the week. The more I watched, the more I wanted to know. My interest spiralled into obsession. I started reading basic news reports, then blogs, then forums, then x’s and o’s analysis. I learned to spot penalties before they were called, and to differentiate between various kinds of defensive coverage. I listened to podcasts in the subway. I watched old games for fun.
My father, who gets most of his news from the print edition of the Washington Post, drilled me for real-time information before and after games: injuries, roster moves, scoring updates. He was amazed by how quickly I found answers to his questions on Twitter. “Look it up,” he’d say. “Use that thing you use.”
The team was bad, then it was mediocre, then it was good—really good. We picked up a young quarterback who everyone thought was too short to play in the NFL, a calm, religious kid who looked directly at the camera and spoke in aphorisms he seemed to actually believe. Against all odds, he turned out to be the answer.
My father still calls me almost every day when he’s driving home from work. We still talk about the news, and the weather, and the pain in his back, which has gotten a lot worse over the years. But mostly we talk about football. I tell him the rumors that I read on the internet that day. We scoff at the ignoramuses who dare criticize our team—typically East Coast sports analysts—and praise the brilliance of our coach and general manager. We keep talking as I fiddle with my key, unlock the door, and trudge up the stairs.
Somewhere in my parents’ house, there is a framed picture of my father and I running a race together. I was four or five at the time. We’re pretty close to the finish line, and there are dozens of people swarming around us. My dad, then in his early thirties, is wearing a thin tank top and shorts, his svelte legs and arms pumping. I am sitting on his shoulders, feet dangling in front of his chest. I placed third in my age group and won a plastic medal. It never occurred to me that I didn’t deserve the prize.
When I was young, it felt like we were two halves of the same person. My hands were his hands, steering us in the right direction. His feet were my feet, carrying us through the crowd. Perched on his shoulders, I towered over nine feet tall, a sycamore in a sea of ferns. I genuinely believed I could stay up there forever.
There are things I can never tell him. I know there are things he has never told me. But sometimes, just having a thing to talk about—a meaningless, brutish, occasionally wonderful thing—is enough. Actually, it’s more than enough. It makes me unspeakably happy.
The truth is, I wish the season would never end.