For the first month of quarantine, my 15-year-old son Wes spent most of the time in his bedroom, playing Madden football and FIFA soccer on his PlayStation. I could hear him chatting with a dozen or so of his friends, brokering trades and talking trash.
The last time he saw most of them in person was on the baseball field two months ago as they began practicing for their freshman season. Just a few weeks before schools closed and the season was canceled, the kids gathered in the school auditorium, discussing plans for a team trip to Cooperstown, selling local restaurant coupons door-to-door as a fundraiser, and trying on fresh, new uniforms with their names emblazoned across the backs. In a world transformed, it’s hard to even remember baseball: those winter sessions in the batting cage, the excitement building about the coming season. Those uniforms may never be worn.
There’s been plenty of talk about the shutdown of professional sports leagues and the Olympics. Less has been said about suspending everyday high school sports, which affects as many as 3 million participants, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The cancellation of high school sports has affected more than simply jocks or those hoping to be recruited for a college scholarship.
Wes is quiet, and doesn’t share much of his feelings, but I know he has been devastated by the loss of his baseball season. For the first few weeks, we’d see him only at mealtimes or occasionally in front of the TV. He wasn’t interested in board games or puzzles. A few times, he’d meet some friends to play long-distance catch or some socially distanced games of HORSE. But those diversions were temporary. Soon enough, he’d slip back upstairs into the virtual world.
During the isolation, it came as a shock to realize how much our relationship revolved around sports: traveling to and from his practices and games; watching the Sixers or Phillies or a Saturday morning Premier League game; catching “SportsCenter” before school; playing fantasy baseball; or listening to people moan and argue about the Eagles on the car radio. After several weeks, I began to worry we’d lost an essential father-son connection.
I wasn’t the only parent fretting. A mother of one of Wes’ friends sent a text asking how to make a team Zoom happen. “Pep talk from the coaches type thing?” she pondered. “Or is that dumb?” No, it wasn’t dumb at all. But you can’t practice pitching, fielding and hitting via Zoom. No one plays sports because they love inspirational speeches.
So it surprised me one gray afternoon in late April, on a much-needed neighborhood walk, to spot a solitary figure on the muddy soccer field of the elementary school, dribbling a ball through a series of cones. It was Wes, practicing alone in preparation for a fall soccer season that may or may not happen. He didn’t see me, and I watched for a while as he ran through shooting and passing drills by himself.
Later, Wes told me he’d been quietly slipping out of the house each day to train for an hour or two. I’ve been Wes’ soccer coach off and on since he was little, and I’m definitely guilty of being one of those overbearing parents who’s pushed his kid into the world of competitive traveling clubs. Last year, his team played in two leagues and participated in games in four states. Our life revolved around several nights of practice each week, a game on Sunday and maybe even one on Saturday, too.
It made me so happy that he was now playing without the structure of an organized club that when I spotted him at work, I almost offered to play with him, to run some drills if he wanted. But I stopped myself. I could tell that he needed to do this training alone, that somehow to focus on a ball at his feet was helping with anxiety and despair. The idea that the fall soccer season had not yet been canceled gave him hope.
It broke my heart, a few days later, when he trudged home and told me that the police had interrupted his training. As he dribbled alone through the cones, a squad car pulled into the school parking lot. An officer shouted at him, via megaphone, to immediately vacate the field. School premises, parks and community playgrounds are off-limits during the pandemic. He asked me, angrily, “How am I supposed to get ready for the season?” I had no answer.