#88

#88.

(That’s the number sign, not a hashtag.)

That was my Daddy’s jersey number when he played football. He played on his high school team. He was a Green Wave. (Not sure the story behind that mascot name, but I’m sure there are those who do know. I hope to find them and get to hear that story.) I have his letterman jacket hanging up in my closet. I was tickled to wear it every year for 50’s day–some years with a “poodle skirt,” others with rolled up jeans and a button down shirt. It was one of my favorite days of the year. Because I felt close to my Daddy.

Over the years, Mama found shirts and sweatshirts with those numbers and wore them proudly. She’d never seen him play, but 88 was his number and he was her love, so she loved wearing it.

When the pandemic started last year, I spent much time in worry, despite my Daddy’s words running through my mind, “Let’s not go borrowing trouble.” Finally, the words of a friend came to mind, “What does this make possible?”

There has been a lot of loss during the pandemic. I do not make light of that at all. My heart breaks for so many and for those still grieving during this season. It’s been hard, y’all. And it still is. It’s not over yet.

But there have been things, little things, that have brought me joy. Long walks with my little fella. Long phone call visits with far away friends. Finding light in the darkness. Listening to my brother’s sermons recorded from his church several states away. Watching my nephew play the sports.

There is a streaming service that I’ve learned of that allows you to subscribe and watch high school sports from all over the country. My nephew’s high school is one of these. In January of this year, they started their truncated basketball season. The county mandated specific things to keep everyone safe. Limited viewers, distanced seating, masks for everyone. Those boys played the game in masks. Impressive. They wanted to play, and they followed the rules. It was amazing. And most exciting of all, I got to cheer my nephew Z-man on, from all the way down here in Georgia. It made my January!

Their football season, put off from last fall, started not long after the last basketball game. It was a shortened season as well. Because of pandemic concerns, Z’s team played other schools in the county that were of higher divisions than his rather than their regular district teams. It was a hard season from a W-L column standpoint, but it was a great one as far as experience and teamwork and sportsmanship.

My nephew is a receiver. Not far off from his Cap’s number, he’s #81. At 6’3″ he wasn’t hard for me to pick out on the field, even when I couldn’t see his number. He’s known for how he runs, and it delighted my soul to see him running across that field and then when he caught pass after pass, I came up off my couch, cheering as though I was in the stands and he could hear me.

Not that every game yielded catch after catch. Not for lack of trying, but the catches and plays weren’t always made. Snaps from the center weren’t always caught, and their regular quarterback was out the last two games due to an injury. Still, they persevered. So impressive.

During the last game this past Friday night, the freshman quarterback who had to step in when the former one was sidelined got in a groove with Z. They had some completions, and even if the scoreboard didn’t reflect it, the mood of the home team was good. Even the announcers, one of whom was tangibly tickled by the actual appearance of “Friday night lights,” were in good spirits, singing praises of all those out there giving it their all.

Towards the end of the game in which Z had caught and run in the only touchdown, a pass was made, aimed at him. He jumped up with two opposing players right on him. He caught it in the air, held on to it (a skill not to be taken lightly, I’m learning), and fell flat on his back. Completion for first down. The crowd was yelling. I was yelling. Miss Sophie was barking. The feline family members were nonplussed, but still. It was amazing. And then…..

He got up. Tossed the ball to a ref. And went back into formation.

I watched in awe. First of all, getting up after falling flat on my back is not in my skillset. (That’s a story for another night.) Secondly, that he could and then moved along to do what came next blew me away.

As it did the announcers. But for a different reason.

“Wow. Amazing catch! Look at that. Class act, *Zman*. Great catch, no showboating, and then getting right back into it. That’s a class act.”

Oh my heart, guys. Agreed.

At the end of the game, where our team suffered a considerable loss, spirits were higher than could be explained. At least mine were. As were the announcer’s. They talked about how this team would really shine in the fall, because of having this season to learn and grow. They talked about the players who are graduating soon and the players who are not. And they praised my nephew.

Hearing them refer to him by my last name, the same last name that was on the back of Daddy’s jersey, just touched my heart. The words they said over him and his career–may they come to be. That they can see a light and energy, drive and passion, in this young man whom I love and am so proud of for many reasons just about made me weep.

On Saturday (I gave him a day to recuperate) I called him. I told him how proud I am of him.

Not for the catches. (Though those were pretty cool.)

Not for following the rules. (Though I know how hard that is, especially when it’s going against the grain of so many others.)

Not for taking my call. (Though at almost 16, it makes me happy that he will still talk to his Aunt T.)

But for those two words I heard the announcer use.

Class. Act.

He was showing good sportsmanship. He didn’t get a big head over making a phenomenal catch. He didn’t do an “in your face” dance when he got around the two opposing players to still make the catch. Every single time he left the field or went on it, he was making an encouraging gesture to his teammates. Even when he was disappointed over how the game was going, he was still a light.

That right there.

Tomorrow is #88’s birthday. It’s been 78 years since he entered this world. And over nine since he left it. But I know this–he is proud of #81. That legacy of humility, good sportsmanship, being a good teammate–those are the things he left with us, and I know he and Maemae were watching that game on Friday night–I felt it. And I know that they are proud that those words used to describe their grandson are accurate.

I am thankful for the lessons Daddy taught us. That life is hard. That doing the right thing very often goes against what (it seems to be) everyone else is doing. But you still do it. He expected it. Insisted upon it. Because in the end, your name and what you become known for are all you have.

My Daddy was a good man. One of the best. And #81 is on his way to be one too. It has nothing to do with how the play goes. It’s what he does after the play that makes him so.

Happy birthday, Daddy. Thanks for everything. Love you.

And love to all.