On Football And My Father

Lead image of 2012 Notre Dame game: Wikimedia Commons

My relationship to college football is complicated.

I grew up in the shadow of the Golden Dome, just 15 miles or so from Notre Dame University. And unless a parent went to a Division I school that played against Notre Dame, you were a Fighting Irish fan. Local activities in the fall revolved primarily around football games.

Over the past 10 years, being a sexual assault survivor has changed August from a month of anticipatory chatter and Saturday (game day) planning, to a month of uneasy compartmentalization, to a month of downright dread. For all the reasons that have been in the news — and that are covered in Jessica Luther’s outstanding upcoming book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape — my internal conflict has had an obvious source. What I didn’t consider was that my inability to even watch bowl games or playoffs might have another source, as well.

Until this year.

Growing up, college football was how my father and I communicated.

Almost every Saturday as a kid — once I was old enough to sit still for three hours — we went to Charlie’s Butcher Block and got sliced turkey and ham, cheese, and fresh-out-of-the-oven bread. “Bread makes the sandwich, Kate,” he’d tell me. Then, we’d settle in front of the TV to watch Coach Lou work magic from the sidelines, cheering on our players and yelling at bad calls by the refs. (Every call against Notre Dame was a bad call.)

When I got older, I grew confident enough to contribute to the tradition of predicting the next play on the field — even when Dad’s older brothers were watching with us. I vividly remember the moment I called a draw play and my Uncle Jim (the middle brother) looked at me with proud surprise and patted Dad on the back. “Nice job” was a BIG compliment in that room.

Football wasn’t the only thing Dad and I had — there were also horror movies, starting from the time I was young. A Nightmare on Elm Street, in particular. But we had to plan those things, and they always had to be done around Mom’s schedule. Saturday afternoons, however, were set by a higher authority: the NCAA. They were set for life, in a way that meant never needing to communicate or commit or ask permission to go off, just us, and have father-daughter time.

I tried to slip important things into commercial breaks, muting the TV and delivering life updates in 45–60 second windows. “Dad, the car needs work.” “Oh hey, I didn’t get that scholarship.” “I aced that presentation last week!” Pretty much anything could be bullet-pointed and stripped bare of background and follow-up facts. It’s no wonder I found Twitter and its character count to be intuitive.

I also used football as a mood-moderating tool to set the tone for really big news and disappointing information. Things like, “Oh hey, I accidentally broke the exhaust fan switch in my bathroom — no idea how I did that, it just made a funny click noise and now it doesn’t come on” were no big deal during seasons where Notre Dame was doing well. I began to feel more anticipation the week the standings were announced — super important in a sport with no playoff system. You typically had to be seen as talented toward the beginning of the season to have a hope of a big bowl game and possibly enough votes to end up as champs.

If Notre Dame started the season in the Top 10, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Until kickoff. I needed Notre Dame to do well to guarantee a chill fall and winter in our house, so every week was a rollercoaster that eventually felt routine. A couple of early interceptions thrown by our quarterback during a game in September and the season was declared over. A couple of early season losses and Saturdays could become a minefield instead of an enjoyable diversion or information delivery device.

I think my mom found it handy that I paid attention because I could give her the heads up about impending mood situations without her having to devote energy to learning and watching football. Sort of like getting a reliable weather report: It wasn’t always accurate, but it was good to come prepared with umbrellas and boots, just in case.

Even when we didn’t relate on other levels — during my awkward phases, during the years he was stressed about work and caring for an aging parent — my dad and I could always talk about football. Or we could sit and watch and not talk, just being in the same space to maintain some connection. When I went away to college, I started calling during halftime. It became our sanctioned father-daughter time. I could call and immediately ask to talk to him without having to make small talk with Mom, trying to avoid any topic that could cause an unprovoked fight. We talked for 10 or 15 minutes almost every Saturday for years.

Eventually, I had to work three or four jobs and I wasn’t able to watch the games anymore. So we traded emails and kept up. Until, that is, December of 2011, when Mom decided that a tweet seen by my 10 followers meant I was gay and didn’t care about my family, so I didn’t need to come home for Christmas as planned. She signed both their names, and he didn’t intervene. Those 100 or so characters–where I was stressed about having to do another Christmas with my born-again mother (her self-description) at her church, pretending everything in my life was fine in order to make her happy–were enough to essentially have me disowned. It took me almost four years to realize it was the reference to Jamie Kilstein’s “Church of the Smiling Vagina!” bit in the tweet that indicated I might be gay. I suspect my dad would actually dig most of the album that track is from, but I can’t know for sure since he maintained his silence on the unhealthy (at best) dynamic between she and I.

In the five years since then, contact with my father has been sporadic at best. The entirety of my contact with him since August 2014 includes a couple six-word emails on my birthdays and a text message conversation after Notre Dame’s January 2015 bowl game, where it was painfully clear he wasn’t sure who he was talking to — even though I’ve had the same phone number for 15 years.

It was that moment when football failed me — failed us — that I realized how much it had stood in for a real father-daughter relationship. Perhaps it hadn’t been the glue keeping us together at all, as I had thought it to be for nearly 30 years. Maybe his taking my calls for granted and my not expecting more, because it was too easy not to, had gotten in the way of us building a foundation — the kind of foundation we could be falling back on right now.

Now, It’s almost football season, and we’re ranked in the top 10. I wish I were excited about Sunday, September 4 — when there will be a nationally broadcast game with Texas. I wish I could call my dad at halftime to break down the highlights (or lowlights) and do a few minutes of catching up. And I wish I could tell him so much more: that I met someone and that he’s great. That I created a career out of nothing, and that I started a company this year.

Instead, I expect that there will be no communication, no play-calling, no triumphant cheers or frustrated yells.

I now see my reliance on Saturday afternoons and Fighting Irish cheering to bond me with me my father as more problematic than charming. But somehow, still, I’d give anything to have just one of those halftime conversations this year.

Maybe this year they’ll win it all. There’s always a chance, right, Pops?