Duff ’n Stuff, Oct. 16, 2012
With soccer season in full swing, crowds of kids decked in full gear with their parents in tow gather in the evenings on the sports field near where I take a dance class a few times per week. It’s a reminder that neither of my teenaged children has continued participating in any of the sports I signed them up for when they were younger. A slight pang of longing rises in me when I think of it.
I was a serious child athlete.
Sports was the main focus of my life for many years. I never even considered that my own children would not be interested in athletics. I knew their father wasn’t a sports kid when I married him, but I guess I figured at least one of them would be like me in that way.
I read recently that 17-year-old Erin DiMeglio became the first female quarterback to play varsity high school football in Florida. Last summer DiMeglio played for South Plantation High School’s varsity team in a seven-on-seven tournament at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She threw five touchdown passes and three interceptions in three games.
When I heard that story it moved me deeply, not only because of the Title IX implications of it, but also because I’m just proud that she has shown the world that girls can do that, too. I can imagine the feelings that DiMeglio had after that game; that beautifully satisfying sense of physical accomplishment.
I continued to grow as an athlete throughout my childhood and became a regionally competitive gymnast in the mid-Altantic area for a large portion of my formative years.
I have lasting memories of spending afternoons after school in the gym at the Y.M.C.A in Livingston, N.J., where I grew up. My father would pick me up from practice at around
7 p.m. Every night he would pretend he didn’t see me coming toward him in the pick-up lane and he would continue to move the car slowly forward as I went to open the passenger door. I would say, “Dad!” He’d stop the car and I’d reach for the handle and he would do it again. He did it every time, which both annoyed and amused me. We’d get home and my mother would have my dinner waiting for me under foil in the warm oven.
My father, who coached my three brothers in baseball and football, taught me everything he taught them, and often handed me the ball to run down-field or looked for me in the field for a pass during our regular backyard games.
My athleticism gave me status in my family.
One of the most famous sports stories of my youth is the “Tony Hope story” and has often been told among the seven other Duffs, when gathered for family reunions (aka “Duff ’o Ramas”).
I was about 11 years old and my father signed me up for the 100 yard dash in one of the Livingston Recreation Department track meets in which I regularly competed. Tony Hope was probably a year older than me, a foot taller and had about 10 or 15 pounds on me. Tony was the favorite. She looked powerful, plus she had the gear. She had gorgeous, gleaming new running cleats and those cool kind of track shorts that had a sheen. I had red “Keds” and an unexciting ensemble of cotton shorts and T-shirt.
My father was somewhere on the field, his stopwatch at the ready, being my coach. The rest of the Duffs were in the bleachers; everybody excited and rooting for me.
“I swear that when she saw you were going to beat her, she fell down on purpose, stunned at the finish line!” my mother Elly always says.
I looked over at poor Tony after she hit the track. She really did look bummed out. I remember her legs were black from the gravel where she fell, and she had a kind of dreamy look on her tear-stained face. My mother maintains that Tony faked the fall.
“Poor Tony Hope didn’t know what hit her with little 60-pound Patty in her Keds running right past her,” Elly says.
And then my mother laughs her big, Italian laugh and here is where everybody adds their two-cents of what they remember of that legendary race.
There is a community newspaper photo somewhere of me holding the trophy, Tony standing next to me with her second place medal. I look pretty unassuming; pleased, but matter of fact in the way that meant it was easy for me to run fast. I just did it, well before Nike coined the phrase.
Claudia and Henry have their own gifts and I’ve let go of wanting them to “do the sports thing,” as they call it. I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that they will never become enamored of the thrill of competition as I was. Every now and then I still suggest that they try a sport, but mainly I’ve had to settle for generally healthy activities that Jim and I encourage (force); biking, swimming and hiking.
Meanwhile, I will pump my football with new air and bring it to the next Duff ‘o Rama. My brothers will play with me.
From the heart,
Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist whose most recent kudos include several first, second and third place awards in the categories of Best Arts Story and Best Education Story in the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association 2011 competition.
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