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Lessons from My Father

  • Phil Callaway Contributing Writer
  • 2005 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Lessons from My Father

The juggler comes closest to our hearts when he misses the ball.
-- Richard J. Needham

Ever since I was knee-high to a referee, I've been crazy about sports. I grew up in Canada where the national religion is ice hockey; where children and adults alike attend weekly (and sometimes daily) services at their local arena and never complain about the length of the sermon. Each winter morning I could be found strapping on ice skates, tripping down the road making sparks fly all the way to the outdoor rink. There, from the time I was three years old, I learned to play hockey with the big boys. I learned to stickhandle with the best of them. To fire the puck with utmost accuracy. I also mastered the art of gliding effortlessly across a frozen sheet of ice, sometimes on my back, often crashing headfirst into the boards and waking up the following Wednesday, wearing a bewildered expression.

Maybe it's the result of getting hit with a puck one too many times, but I miss those days.

Back then Saturday night was bath night. We would file into the tub from the eldest to the youngest to scrub a week's worth of play from our bodies. This was one of those times when it didn't pay off to be the youngest of five. By the time it was my turn the water was rather murky, to say the least, and so I couldn't wait to get to the living room and gather around the Philco radio for hockey night in Canada. Ah, how I loved the roar of the crowd. The tension of overtime. Players' names that brought visions of grandeur: Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovilich, Bobby Orr, Phil Callaway. It's true, I imagined the announcer, his voice rushed with excitement: "It's Callaway, blazing down the ice ... splitting the defense ... he shoots ... he scores! Oh my, I have not seen anything this exciting since the Allies invaded Normandy!"

Certain that this was my calling, I pursued my dream with everything I had.

Before long I was playing with real teams in real arenas with real helmets to protect our really hard heads. Each Saturday morning we took to the ice in an empty building while the rest of the world slept. Occasionally I would look up into the bleachers to discover that today they weren't quite so empty. That Dad was there. Somehow after a long week, he had summoned the energy to haul himself out of bed just to watch me play. Dad seemed to think I displayed more talent than the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers combined, and he would tell the world this, hollering loudly when I scored (twice that year) and clapping his big leather gloves together.

I wanted desperately to hear those gloves smack, and I couldn't wait to play professionally. I would fly Mom and Dad to the games. Buy them front row seats right behind the players. They could help the coach make important decisions.

We won only one game that year (the other team's goalie didn't show up), but Dad always encouraged me.

"Son," he would say as we walked home from the rink, Dad lugging my heavy equipment, me carrying my hockey stick, "you're not the first one to walk into a brick wall." Then he would recount historical failures: Thomas Edison struck out in his first two thousand attempts to invent the light bulb; Henry Ford went broke five times before finally succeeding in creating a car.

"But, Dad," I said, "Our Ford Meteor won't start. That's why we're walking."

"Son," he'd answer, undaunted, "never mind about that. You just be like a postage stamp. You stick to it till you get there."

In tenth grade, we stuck to it, posting our first winning season and earning the adulation of a few hundred teenage girls. It was a milestone year for me. In fact, something occurred that changed my dreams for good.

It happened like this.

Late March. The championship game. An event of such magnitude in our small town that a crowd of millions, or at least a few hundred, packed our small arena to watch the stars come out. Peering in nervous anticipation through a crack in the locker room door, I had the distinct feeling that this would be my night.  The years of stickhandling were about to pay off. Those who had paid the scalpers twenty-five cents would not be disappointed.

But as the game progressed, my dream began to fade. In fact, as the clock ran down to the final minute, the dream had all the makings of a nightmare. We were behind 3-2 as I climbed over the boards. The final buzzer was about to sound. The fat lady was about to sing. We needed a miracle. We needed Phil Callaway.

And so I took a pass from the corner and skillfully rifled the puck past a sprawling goalie. The red goal light came on. The girls went wild. The game was tied. And I was a hero. I had scored the goal of my dreams.

Only one goal could top it. The overtime goal.

As I sat in the dressing room waiting for the ice to be cleared I eased open the locker room door for a peek at the crowd. Prepare yourselves, you lucky people. Tonight destiny is on my side. Tonight will be my night. You will remember me for years to come. Last week when I missed the open net, you chanted my name reassuringly:

That's all right, that's okay.
We still love you Callaway.

But not tonight. No need for sympathy, thank you. Only applause. Wild, exuberant, adoring applause.

And, sure enough, about five minutes into overtime I scored the winning goal. It is a moment that is forever available to me on instant replay and sometimes in slow motion. As the puck slid toward the open net, I dove, trying desperately to forge its direction. As the crowd rose to its feet, I swatted the puck across the goal line.

The red light lit.

The girls screamed.

But they were not cheering for me.

I had just scored into my own net.

I don't remember much that happened after that. In fact, the next number of years are a bit of a blur. I do remember making a beeline for the locker room where I sat down and threw a white towel over my head. And I recall the comments of my fellow teammates: "Don't worry about it Callaway. Anyone coulda done that...if he was totally uncoordinated."

I pulled the towel around my ears to muffle the laughter. Then I unlaced my skates. And hung them up. For good.

I couldn't have known that NBA legend Michael Jordan would be cut from his high school basketball team, that Louis L'Amour's first western was rejected 350 times by publishers, or that Albert Einstein had trouble with simple math equations (his wife helped him fill out his tax returns).

It might have helped me to know that a dozen years earlier the manager of the Grand Ole Opry fired an up-and-coming singer after only one performance, advising him to go back to driving a truck. Elvis Presley pursued a singing career anyway. But I wasn't thinking of Elvis on this night.

Instead, I left the building. All shook up.

Upon arriving home, I headed straight for my room. A bad case of the flu had kept Dad from the game.

"How did it go?" he asked, standing in my doorway, studying my pale face and knowing part of the answer.

"Aw, Dad," I said, hanging my head. "I can't tell you. You're sick enough."

Flopping onto my bed, I put my hands behind my head and stared at the stucco ceiling. Dad entered my room and sat beside me, saying nothing.

"Did you ever do something so stupid you wished for all the world you could go back twenty-four hours and start the day again?" I asked.

"Well," said Dad, "there was the time I shot out Old Man Henderson's headlights with my .22...and then there was--"

I interrupted him for the first time in years. Then sat up. Buried my head in my fists. And told him everything: The shock of the crowd. The shame of the dressing room. My play that would live in infamy. I didn't dare look at his face. The face of a proud dad. A dad who had some big dreams of his own for his youngest son.

There was silence for a minute. Then Dad put his hand on my knee and did the most unexpected thing in the world.

He began to laugh.

And I couldn't believe I was doing it...but I joined him.

It was the last thing either of us expected. It was the very best thing.

More than twenty years have passed since the night Dad and I sat on the edge of my bed laughing together. I remember it as the night I determined to skate again. In fact, I'm still skating. I've even managed to score a few goals over the years. Into the right net. But no goal will ever be as memorable as that overtime goal. A lifelong reminder that life's biggest victories can be found in the ruins of defeat.

For several years after that I'd wake up in a cold sweat reliving that overtime goal, but when I'd remember Dad's hand on my knee...I'd smile from ear to ear. You see, that was the night I discovered something that has made the heaviest burdens seem a whole lot lighter.

It is the simple fact that no matter what I've done, no matter where I've been, no matter how bad my world seems, my Father loves me. Isaiah said it best when he wrote:

"'For the mountains may depart and the hills disappear, but even then I will remain loyal to you...' says the Lord, who has mercy on you" (Isaiah 54:10).

Dad may not have known it, but that night he gave me a priceless glimpse into the face of my heavenly Father.

A face full of compassion, forgiveness, and grace.

A smiling face.

The face of the One who laughs.

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Excerpted from The Heart of a Father: True Stories of Inspiration and Encouragement compiled by Wayne Holmes. Copyright © 2002 ISBN 076422543X Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

* This story originally published in Who Put the Skunk In the Trunk? (1999, Multnomah Publishers).