My nephew-in-law, Justin, is in his first year as offensive coach for the J.H. Rose high school football team. A few of us drove to Greenville, NC, last evening to watch his team take on their local rivals in the quarterfinals of the NC State 4A Football Tournament. Conley–top seed–had beaten Rose earlier in the season, and the game was a real nail-biter as the teams traded scores all night.
Rose came out deserved winners when their defense made a gritty 4th down stop with fifteen seconds remaining on the clock and the score at 49-47.
There was real quality on both sides of the ball. But what impressed me most was how Rose, despite having two punt-return touchdowns taken away because of minor infractions in the backfield, never let their heads drop. The team’s self-belief and desire proved strong enough to overcome not only the eleven opponents on the field, but also four flag-happy officials. There’s no quit in these kids!
The win means they will play in the semi-final match next Friday night away at New Hanover. It also ensures that the sarcastic banner Rose’s cheerleaders held up for the Conley players to see before the match: “Tell your girlfriends you’ll be free next Friday night!” was tellin’ it like it is.
Although I never use it, this letter opener sits in a pencil case on my writing desk. Don’t be fooled by the color. It’s made of plastic not ivory. The inscription on the handle reads: “With the compliments of Mecca LTD.” It’s a cheap giveaway. Probably picked up at a business conference by my stepfather. It used to sit on his desk also, which makes it at least sixty years old.
It’s the only possession of his that I own.
We didn’t really get on, my stepfather and I. Although ours wasn’t an ugly, combative relationship, we practiced studied indifference. Whenever he introduced me it was always: “This is my stepson, Peter.” I was twenty before I asked him why. “I just thought you’d prefer it that way,” he said. But for me each stepson stung like a paper-cut. The title diminished me. I called him Dad. What else? He was the only father I ever knew.
He was happy when I left home, and I felt no pull to return even when life took a difficult turn—home for me was not a refuge. When Austin died I was in my early twenties—still too young to appreciate the sacrifice he had made when he took in a four-year-old boy (me) and my nine-year-old sister.
Now I’m a stepfather, I think I understand some of his reticence. It can be a delicate balancing act navigating a path through a combined family. But I will never forget how full my heart felt on the day that my step-daughter started calling me Dad. Perhaps Austin taught me something by omission.
Maybe that’s why I keep the stupid letter opener.