Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Father's Day Memory: The Donny Anderson Football

As Father’s Day arrives, I am reminded of an episode from my childhood. While helping clean out my mother’s garage not long ago, I came across a once-familiar object. It had stiff, dark-brown, cracked, musty smelling leather (or artificial leather), with tattered gray threads that had previously been laces. An old NFL emblem was barely visible on one side. The once white stripes on either end were almost worn off. It had formerly held air but was now shriveled. I looked closely and there, on one side, just next to where the thumb goes to throw a perfect spiral, was a smooth, worn area that previously held an autograph--no longer discernible to anyone except me; a name long-forgotten by most people. A name, an autograph, a football I would never forget: the Donny Anderson football.

            In 1969, in my eight year old mind, Donny Anderson was the coolest pro football player not named Joe Namath. He was my second-favorite player on the Green Bay Packers—a big-bonus running back, the acknowledged future star of the team. He had scored a touchdown in Super Bowl II. He was regularly seen on commercials combing Vitalis (not the “greasy kid stuff”) into his flowing blond hair with one arm while holding a gorgeous blond with the other.

One day, while loafing in the sports section of a department store, waiting for my parents to finish shopping, I came face-to-face with my hero’s smiling image. It was on the side of a box and the box was wrapped around a football. Not just any football, this was an official NFL size and weight football—it said so right on the ball, just beneath the official NFL emblem. There was a picture of Donny Anderson on the box, confidently looking at me, cradling this very ball in his arm (holding it just the way Vince Lombardi had surely taught him to prevent fumbles), wearing his glorious number 44 Green Bay Packer uniform. And, most importantly, the ball was imprinted with Donny Anderson’s own autograph—it was actually embedded into the ball! In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined a treasure of such immense proportions.

            Normally in our cash-poor family, gifts were exclusively reserved for birthdays and Christmas. We knew better than to even ask for exceptions. But this was different—it was a Donny Anderson football. I just had to have it. Playing with a ball like this, running like Donny Anderson, how could I possibly not grow up to follow in his footsteps and play running back for the Green Bay Packers?

But sometimes Moms don't seem to understand. They tend to worry more about tangible things; like having enough money to pay the rent and buy groceries. I pleaded my case in vain. But I couldn't just give up easily. I desperately searched my brain to come up with just the right words, just the right phrase that could somehow illustrate the importance of this object. I had to make her understand the gravity of the situation; to force her to realize that a prize like this comes along once in a person’s life—and sometimes never.

All I could manage was: “But Mom, it’s a Donny Anderson football.”

            After we got home, following one of the longest car rides of my life, my Dad, with a combination of great benevolence and sheepishness, pulled the football out of a bag. From the look on my mother’s face, I immediately knew that one of us was in big trouble. But my Dad quickly deflected all the blame to himself and I was spared maternal wrath.

That night, as I lay in my bed, the football held tightly in the crook of my arm under the covers, I could hear my parents talking in the living room and I knew my Dad was still catching heck, and might continue to catch heck for quite some time. I strained to hear the conversation but the only words I could make out with certainty were:

“But Honey, it’s a Donny Anderson football.”

            Over the years, the imprinted autograph on the ball was gradually rubbed out as I bobbed and weaved through the backyard, dodging imaginary would-be tacklers and scoring spectacular touchdowns. Similarly, Donny Anderson’s own NFL career was rubbed out too quickly due to injuries (and possibly too many blonds). I never did get to play running back for the Green Bay Packers and the ball was eventually abandoned in the back of a cluttered garage. Time has a way of changing our values and once-treasured objects become forgotten.

I have come to realize that objects themselves are not nearly as important as the memories associated with them. Looking back, I sometimes think it would have been nice to have mentioned this episode as my Dad lay dying of cancer thirty five years later; to share the memory once again of the Donny Anderson football, of when he bent the rules, just one time, because he understood. But I didn’t. Sometimes, you just don’t think of these things until it’s too late.