In high school I was in the 13I’s for rugby. For those not familiar with the latin alphabet, ‘I’ is quite a ways in. The 13I’s was an extremely depressing place to find yourself, so it was probably no accident that our team was coached by the school counsellor - a tall, perpetually smiling man named Mr Lowndes whose boundless encouragement was matched only by his lack of basic knowledge about the game of rugby union.
Our half-time pep talks were unconventional, as Mr Lowndes had clearly decided that, even in the midst of a game, he was our coach second and our primary pastoral care giver first. To this end, there was very little pointed criticism. In place of a dressing down demanding that we get out there and give it our all, stop dragging our feet and bring the game home, was an equally aggressive speech imploring us to go have the most fun we could and play for the love of the game - which puzzled all of us because, regardless of encouragement, it is very difficult to enjoy - let alone love - a game at which you are objectively and statistically appalling.
Mr Lowndes, for reasons best known to him, gave tries a nickname. This was possibly to avoid confusion between the phrase ‘nice try’ meaning you did your best and failed, which was said a lot, and ‘nice try’ meaning ‘well done scoring points just now’ which was said basically never. In fact, looking back as I write this, his need to separate these two meanings was completely unnecessary, as they were mutually exclusive.
Nevertheless, he called tries ‘meat pies’ and so before every game we were all asked the same question by Mr Lowndes - ‘who’s hungry for some meat pies?’. Given that the members of the 13I’s could be broken into two categories - the anaemically thin and the morbidly obese (or backs and forwards), this question always struck the whole team as needlessly cruel but for different reasons.
But my dad came to every game. Every single game he’d stand by the sidelines while I ran in the back-line and panicked as the ball made its way toward me on outside centre. He’d cheer when I took it in my hands, cheer when I immediately threw it in the direction of the wing, cheer when, while doing this, I let out the sound of a terrier being sat on. He’d cheer when in defence I’d chase after someone with the ball, gaining on them right up until the point I realised I was probably going to catch up and cheer as I slowly dropped back so I didn’t have to tackle them, feigning a stitch, looking theatrically disappointed while a bemused tubby kid took the ball the rest of the way to the tryline at a pace just above a saunter.
The only time dad showed any sort of outward disappointment in his son was once, after it had been raining and the whole team decided to slide in the mud after a game, all laughing at how filthy they were getting, I took my jersey off and rubbed it around on the edges of the mud pile at arms length, saying to my teammates - look! You can get the clothes dirty and stay clean! Even this just earned a “c’mon, pal”, from Dad.
I knew I was bad at rugby. All of us in the 13Is knew we were bad at rugby. Despite what Mr Lowndes told us during training, the best measure of a rugby team was not “how nice they were to each other”. But I was the only kid in the 13Is with a dad who was mad about sports. Most other kids had parents that turned up to the odd game for a disinterested clap. Some of them brought a book. But I was the only one who sat with his dad on the car ride home and talked about all the moments where he could see that I did “an incredible dodge” or was “thinking really tactically” or was “quick on my feet” or any other way that dad could dress up “running away”.
And for years I thought dad was just in denial about having a dud kid and I sort of felt sorry for him - having to turn up, week after week and have his son let him down. But last week I found myself cheering - literally cheering - my eight month old boy as he finally, after days of trying, managed to put his whole foot in his mouth. And now I know that when it comes to family, it’s all relative.
Once, though, something happened in my brain - a clerical error in the Offices of Fight, Flight & Freeze where some paperwork got lost and the wrong lever was pulled and I actually went after a kid with the ball. This was 20 years ago but I still see the moment as a perfectly detailed replay. He’s just passed the ten meter line and I’m right behind him. I can hear his boots hitting the dirt. I can hear my heart in my ears. I can hear Mr Lowndes shouting to everyone to have fun. I can hear dad shouting go, go go! And then something changes in his voice as I don’t drop back. It turns to a question and then to joy, “Go? Go?! GO!” and I launch myself at this kid’s legs. I’m low and completely horizontal - use me as a spirit level to build your deck - I’m in flight, I’m wrapping my arms around his legs and my shoulder hits his thigh and he falls and he lands on my head and my jersey is muddy and the jersey is ON me and it hurts. And I look to dad and he’s laughing and clapping and grabbing Mr Lowndes and asking if he saw that. And we lose 30-nil.