My father was a complex character. He was prone to some mean and wild fits of anger at times. He was also capable of incredibly sensitive and meaningful insights. In other words, he tried to raise us the best way he knew how.
On that front, he didn’t let any of us boys go out for football or wrestling. One he considered brutish, the other graceless. But he supported us madly in the sports of basketball, baseball, soccer, track and field, cross country and more.
I can say the man was looking out for our best interests in the long term. Yet sometimes in the short term he fell far short in terms of recognizing our core motivations and approach to life. As the father of four willful boys, he did have his hands full.
It was tough for him growing up in many ways. During the height of the Depression when my father Stewart Kirby Cudworth was just seven years old, his mother was being treated for breast cancer. Back then it had to be an awkwardly shrouded secret, and contracting cancer was often a death sentence. Still, she had a double mastectomy. Then she contracted an infection and died.
This set off a chain of events as my grandfather struggled to manage the farm he owned and take care of four children of his own. My father had three lovely sisters; Marion, Helen and Margaret. For a time after my grandmother died, the kids had to fend for themselves in many ways. Then my father lost his farm to the Depression. This and other events did not help his underlying symptoms of depression, the emotional kind.
Thus his kids were shipped off to a farm in Bainbridge, New York to be cared for and raised while my grandfather received institutional treatment for his depression. This may have involved some difficult treatments given the time period. That’s something I may never know. We met him several times in the 1960s, but he died in the winter of 1971, if I recall. My father went for a long, long walk that day.
In any case, the emotional weight of all those early-life events surely had a profound effect on my father as a boy of seven-to-ten years old. Yet to my father’s credit he adapted to life on that hardscrabble upstate New York farm. His “parents” became two spinster aunts and an Uncle Leon.
That farm sat on the banks of the Susquehanna River. My father learned to hunt and fish and worked hard on the farm. He ran up and down the large hill behind their house tending cows. But when it came time for school and sports, my dad didn’t get much opportunity to participate. There was work to do on the farm.
Tinge of bitterness
This loss of opportunity in his life may have colored his view of our own sports careers. There was always an urgency and a tinge of bitterness behind his desire to see us succeed. That fear of watching your kids fail when you never really had the chance to try many sports on your own is painful. But perhaps it’s much worse when a dad didn’t succeed at a desired level in his career. That deep sense of loss is responsible for the creation of many an angry sports dad in this world.
My dad just wanted to see us all get the chance to play. I recall a baseball team on which I was one of the younger members and wasn’t getting any playing time. My father called the coach anonymously to suggest (rather fervently) that all the kids get a chance to play. I listened to that phone call from the other room, and felt a bit weird that my dad would go to those lengths to see his kid play.
The next day at practice I heard the head coach complaining that some dad had called to demand that his kid get playing time. “He wouldn’t even tell me who his kid was,” the coach complained.
But of course, that proves the coach never got the concept my father was trying to convey. It’s not about that ‘one kid’ or doing some snarky dad a favor by playing his kid because he complained. It’s about finding ways to get past your own Sports Dad desires to accept that not every kid on the field is going to be a star. Then play them. Teach them. If it’s an instructional league, then instruct.
Success at a young age
The next year I successfully tried out for one of the top competitive teams in the city league. That season we won the prestigious Lancaster New Era tournament, the World Series of kids baseball in that Pennsylvania city. I pitched to an 8-6 victory in the second game of the tournament despite some vocalized misgivings from my own teammates who did not have confidence I could get the job done. But I showed them. That much my father had instilled in me. Play ball and let the results speak for themselves.
Even at that age, I understood the value of gift of whatever talent I possessed. I’d never go on to be a pro baseball pitcher, but that was never the point. In fact, it was those games of catch with my father and brothers in the side yard that were worth so much more. We had fun throwing knuckleballs at each other. My father once tossed a pitch that came in ‘head-high’ until about 15 feet out and then wound up dipping down to my brother’s feet. Now, that’s a knuckleball. Hard to believe. And I know this to be true because I watched my dad throw that ball through the dim light of dusk. It was magic.
Somewhere along the way on my path to high school, my father recognized that while I was a tough and scrappy kid, I had no business going out for football despite the fact that I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition. So my dad shunted me into the cross country locker room and said, “You’re going out for cross country. If you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck. ”
For two seconds I was actually disappointed. But honestly, I’d already assessed the culture of the football program and found it thick and dull. The next year the cross country team went 9-1 and the football team went something like 1-9.
Those first few strides in school-issued running shoes felt great. And after five miles of running that afternoon in the August heat, I was hooked. My father was pleased that I’d found my place. In fact I’m pretty sure he knew it all along.
That didn’t heal some of the earlier wounds carved into me by his fatherly angst. That would take decades of consideration and ultimately, a will of forgiveness to achieve. But the start of my running career was indeed a case of Father Knows Best. For that I have to thank my dad.
He passed away a few years ago now. I served as his caregiver for ten+ years after my mom died in 2005. But he lived to see many grandchildren born, both boys and girls. But he definitely doted on the girls who became part of our lives as one after the other granddaughter was born.
It wasn’t always easy taking care of my dad after my mom passed away from cancer. Our roles as father and son were sometimes reversed. He got no less cantankerous as he aged. Perhaps that was a bit of payback from him having to deal with my own feisty spirit as a kid.
So we had to learn how to communicate even though he could no longer talk after the stroke he suffered in 2003. That’s a long time to relate to your dad without being able to converse. But we managed. Lord knows we managed.
Breaking the ice
I remember the moment when the ice first broke a bit between my father and I after the testy teenage years with all those fights over studies and long hair and music. Our college cross country team had placed second in the nation that fall of 1978 . My father and mother were there to witness it. I’d run well enough to serve as fifth man that day. The feeling of accomplishment was rife within us all.
After hugs and photos with teammates and coach, I walked across the flat ground at the Rock Island Arsenal park where the meet was held. There my father was standing with my mom. He had a big grin on his face. I walked straight over to him and threw my arms around him, probably the first time I’d done that since I was ten years old. We held each other for a moment and I backed up with tears in my eyes and told him, “I love you dad.”
And that was enough. Father knows best.