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Happy Father's Day from OTE

In which we thank the guys who raised us and, more often than not, taught us to love football.

I'm lucky to have my dad in my life, as no doubt many of you are.

My father, from a small farm outside Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, played tackle for the Catholic school in his hometown before attending college at Mankato State University and eventually moving up to the Twin Cities to become a high school math teacher. When we go back to Sleepy Eye and pass St. Mary's, he still checks to make sure his team's conference championship is painted on the sign overlooking the field. It always is, but he always stops and reminisces on the team and how good he felt.

After moving to the Cities, my dad quickly found a job at the high school in my hometown. He hasn't left his position, save for a move from seventh-grade algebra up to ninth-grade algebra, where I eventually had him as a teacher and watched him, in his official capacity as Homecoming adviser, ask "the kids" both how to pronounce "Fif-tee-cent" and if they wanted his music played at their homecoming dance. (No, you can't completely melt into a high school desk. I tried on numerous occasions, including when he affected a French accent while explaining basic graphing calculator programming to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius.)

From before I was born in 1990 to until a couple years after my sister was born in 1993, my dad was the varsity football coach for my high school of approximately 1000 students. They were never great--poundings from St. Thomas Academy, Woodbury, Park, and Hastings wore on him until the latter three were booted from the conference for being too big--but he always wore as a badge of pride the .500 seasons and how he (his words) "was the first one to open it up and throw the ball around in the conference" because he had a bad offensive line, no running backs, and a quarterback who pitched for the baseball team. Once my sister was born he quit, both from the stress of the job and to spend time with us. That's always who he's been: family first.

His love for football has never stopped, though. I've told the story on here a number of times, but it always (in my mind) bears repeating. My dad is a lifelong Gophers fan who finally bought season tickets when TCF Bank Stadium was built, and he was always sure to show me the games and dress me in plenty of Maroon and Gold. A weird tradition evolved for us: in 2000 or so, I won a four-pack of tickets at the Dodge Ram display at the Minnesota State Fair, earning us seats in Section 201 to watch Minnesota pound Louisiana-Monroe. Every subsequent year we went back to the same exhibit to win tickets, succeeding a couple times but failing more often. When we failed, he bought us tickets himself. We sat in the same section and watched the Gophers pound the same terrible non-conference cupcakes that Glen Mason loved to schedule.

That's where I learned about football. My dad, the former offensive tackle, was giddy at the Glen Mason zone blocking offense: he would shout to me to watch how they blocked like railroad tracks, clearing hole after hole for Marion Barber III, Laurence Maroney, and even Thomas Tapeh. He would curse the Glen Mason defenses, wondering how they could be so bad as the offense was so good. He stood and clapped along to the fight song with me, always making sure to punctuate "M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A" with a hearty "R-R-R-R-R-RAH" at the end, in the style of the Gophers' PA announcer.

But I played soccer. My dad never got his offensive lineman, tight end, or linebacker. I was a goalie, and that never changed.

When one of my former teachers, a longtime family friend and JV coach of the high school football team, casually mentioned to me in the summer of 2007 that the team was looking for a punter, I thought nothing of my dad's dreams that I'd be a football player. Hell, I don't think I told him I was playing until a week before the season. Still, the former varsity head coach who had spent the last 10 years as "security," ripping tickets every Friday home game as the big stadium lights came on, shaking the hands of former players whose kids were in the youth program, was sure to excuse himself as our drives stalled out, making sure he saw me punt. It was stupid and insignificant (not least because we won our first two conference championships--ever--the two years I played, meaning I would go whole games without punting), but it was cool nonetheless.

The first game of my senior year, under the lights against Richfield, I got off a solid punt that their All-Conference wide receiver caught and, with a deft sidestep of one of my best friends, broke into space up the middle of the field. With only me, the 175-pound punter who had never so much as needed to touch a guy on the field, to beat, he picked up steam. I took a good angle--people in pursuit had kept him coming my way--lowered my shoulder, and prayed I wouldn't make an ass out of myself.

I made the tackle.

It's the only tackle I ever made, but I'll never forget hearing about it. My mom screamed at me after the game: she realized, as the kid barreled toward me, that I had forgotten to put my mouthguard in, and she refused to go back to the dentist explaining that her son had ruined the thousands she poured into braces.

My classmates, though, told me about my dad.

As I made the tackle and jogged off the field to mild cheers, my dad was standing, clapping his heart out, and yelling my name. He was the only one standing, the only one yelling, the only one losing his mind over a routine tackle on blown punt coverage. His son, though, made the tackle, and for him, that was enough.

I never made another tackle, never was really thrown in the line of duty, and never distinguished myself on the football field again. Yet, at the football banquet my senior year, I saw the pride in his eyes when I got my second varsity football letter. Sure, it was there when I got my soccer letters and tennis letters and academic letters of all kinds, but seeing his son succeed at football, in a way, seemed to validate all those showdowns between Tulsa and Minnesota in a half-full Metrodome on a sunny September Saturday. I couldn't be more proud to have validated them.

I realize that it sounds like I'm eulogizing my father. He's still with me, and I couldn't be luckier that he is. Last June, on the first day of Finals Week, my dad had a large stroke which kept him in the hospital for over two weeks. He missed Finals, had to give up the coaching role on the 9th grade team he'd just gotten back into, and gave up alcohol for a year to support his rehab. By all accounts, we could have lost him. He's a stubborn sonofabitch though, and I couldn't be more blessed to say that at my and my sister's graduation from Marquette this May, he had his first beer since the stroke.

We still watch football together, though we wear different colors on Saturdays, and our go-to conversation is still sports, from the local 11 on Friday nights through our Vikings on Sunday afternoons. We still sit on the deck in the evening and have a Mich Golden Light (his beer of choice) as the Twins game plays on the radio in the background. We still rehash games I played, games he played, and games we both never got the chance to play in.

Through all of that, I can still say I don't reflect enough on the amazing man that he is. He's raised me, supported me, coached me, cheered me on even when I played soccer, learned soccer, stood by me through my mistakes, and been the first to congratulate me on my successes. He's the reason that I am the man I am today.

Here's to you, Dad, and here's to all our fathers, wherever they may be, on a day that's theirs. Feel free to share your stories in the comments, but not until you've thought about, called, visited, or cracked a cold one with your dad today. Congratulations and Happy Father's Day to you, yours, and all fathers, from all of us at Off Tackle Empire.