Sports And Life

Brennan Robison playing on the pro beach volleyball circuit circa 1995. Photo by Sandy Robison

When my boys Aryl and Brennan were small, they were wrestlers. Both of them won New York state trophies for their age and weight groups. Our friend Tom Nolan’s boys were involved in wrestling too, and Tom often picked the boys up and took them along to meets. From wrestling the boys learned to be resilient, patient, confident, strong. They learned to hold on tight, to never give up. They learned to think and move. These are good things.

A few years later, both sons played football in South Carolina with youth leagues and again, both did well as quarterbacks. My son Aryl continued to play football throughout high school, incurring some pretty serious injuries. One night at an away game in bleak Immokalee, Florida, he broke his shoulder in the first quarter. I rushed him in my car through the dark highways of central Florida to an ER in Fort Myers 50 minutes west. One would think he would quit, but as soon as he was able, he played more football.

Brennan changed his focus from football to basketball in ninth grade, and I must say I breathed a sigh of relief when he did. He went on to earn several basketball scholarships and then to an 11-year career in professional beach volleyball. For more than a decade, he got to live the life of a beach boy on California beaches and on great beaches nationwide. He was tan and fit while the rest of us were pale and wan in contrast. He learned all kinds of good things from his time as professional athlete. His good eating habits and regular physical exercise have kept him fit too. He’s 48 now, lifts weights and works out several times a week, and eats a pure Paleo diet that has him trim as a teenager.

From organized sports, my boys learned a self-discipline that has served them both well throughout their adult lives. Aryl has spoken about how much football taught him, how he loved the fraternity of it, how he loved the physical action of it. But it was not kind to him. It’s scarred him with long term physical problems from a ruined knee to more serious lifelong issues. Aryl lives in the Keys now where he swims and snorkels regularly, fishes and takes his boat far out into the blue Gulf of Mexico. He’s quiet and friendly, warm and engaging to others, a bit shy, and in pretty good shape at 49. He would say, I’m sure, that sports were a great part of his youth. He has no regrets.

Both of these experiences taught my sons good things for the most part — how to be healthy, how to eat well, how to be tough but never mean, how to be a good sport, how to be fair, how to respect authority. When Aryl speaks of football even now, it’s with a glint in his eye. “I learned so much from football,” he will say. “So much about dignity and respect, about others, about working well with people.” Brennan will say his decade of pro sports left him with a lifelong respect for sports.

The Winter Olympics in South Korea called up our national and our personal respect for sports. What does it say about a culture? Why do we love sports so much? Are sports the opiate of the people, or are sports a healthy respect for physical well-being and competition? I watched the 17-year-old Red Gerard fly through the air performing snowboard maneuvers that defied gravity and fear as he won the first gold medal for America at those games last winter. My son Brennan remarked, you could get killed doing that! We laughed. Then we realized, it’s true. You could get killed doing that. And many other sports too. Yet we do them, we watch them, we applaud them.

I am a good swimmer, and in my youth, I showed horses too, competing throughout Ohio on sleek horses in the prime of life. They galloped towards four and five foot jumps, and I guided them over. Sometimes the horses veered off at the last second; sometimes I got tossed off onto my head, knocking me senseless for a few minutes. We all know what I did next: what every good horseman does — I got back on, right there and right then, and I headed right back over that jump until it was successfully behind me. I learned that I, a slight girl of 100 pounds, could control and guide a 1,200-pound animal over a jump as tall as I was. I learned to swallow my fear and put my heart over the fence. These are things I would not learn elsewhere. These are things that are still with me, 50 years later.

I learned to accept judge’s placements. Sometimes we got fifth or third place instead of first or second. Sometimes we did not win a ribbon at all. We shook it off. We nodded our heads. We kept trying. We did better next time if it was within our ken to do so. These are things I never learned elsewhere. These are good things.

I approve of organized sports for children. From sports, children learn great things. They have fun, for the most part. Sometimes I wonder though if we are a manic people, always moving instead of appreciating just being. I am thinking though maybe we could do with a little less of the physical and more of the intellectual. I am thinking, had I my boys to raise again, I would do it differently. I would spare my boy Aryl the hits he took to the head in football, the displaced shoulder, the ruined knee. If I had it to do over, I would teach my boys to play the piano instead, the guitar, the violin, the cello. I would give them music to lift their souls, music to carry through their lives and keep their hearts pumping. I would read them great novels and make sure they read them, too. I would take them to history museums instead of ball games. I would give them Peary at the Pole rather than Steve Sax at bat. I would encourage non-contact sports like swimming. We would go sailing. Often.

Yes, my boys loved sports and were gifted athletes each in their own way. I’m glad they loved wrestling and baseball, football and basketball. But I wish I had encouraged tennis and golf, other things to take up their time and not leave their bodies wracked with injuries. They would say, oh for God’s sake, mom, that’s silly. But you know, in my heart I know I’m right. We’re smarter now. Maybe it’s time for other sports, ones not so violent or damaging, ones that teach good things like sportsmanship and courage, trust and confidence, too, but that do not leave young men with injuries for a lifetime, some that can’t be seen until years later, decades later. We could use more quiet time in this America. Time for reflection, contemplation, just looking at the sky and stars.

My son Brennan, senior year.

And maybe too, children could be left to their own wiles and thoughts a little more, without so many expectations, without all the applause and daily shuffling from event to event to event. Must weekends be a series of shuffling from scheduled event to scheduled event? Maybe children might more time thinking, just being, without regulated events and a time schedule. I’m a grandmother now, and as I look back, I think I would tell my younger self, the young parent self, my own children then, my grandchildren now: slow down, do less, think more. Figure it out yourself. Listen. Just be still a while. Breathe. Be kind. Go fishing. Read a book.

A Post-Journal photo of New York State wrestling champs. My sons Aryl (top row left) and Brennan (middle row left).