Football with the Old Man

As some of you know, I lost my dad back in November. With fall camp starting this week, I've thought a lot about him. Much of that is because he died at the tail end of the 2010 football season. In fact, his health woes started the Saturday Utah played Notre Dame and he eventually passed the Sunday after the Utes beat San Diego State. 

Another reason for thinking about him, though, is because he was a big Ute fan. He loved the Utes, even though he wasn't big into college football when I was a kid. That came later. I might've been the reason, as he generally stuck to watching the Green Bay Packers growing up, but whatever that reason, my father became a consistent and avid fan of the Utah football program.

Back when Rice-Eccles Stadium opened, I remember wanting to attend the stadium open house at the end of summer that year. I was pretty young still, going through elementary, and couldn't do it alone. So I asked my dad, not knowing if he would even be interested in doing it. He was and we went. It was a great experience. I was in awe of the stadium and I remember that day so vividly, even though it happened 13 or so years ago. 

We walked through the press box, checked out the facilities and listened to how it was the most state of the art stadium in the western United States. I don't know if that was actually true, but to someone as young as me, I certainly bought it. 

It's those moments I miss. Like I said, my dad wasn't a big Ute fan originally. His support was pretty passive until around that time. I guess watching my eyes light up at the sight of Utah's new home changed him. A few months later, along with my grandfather, we were watching the Holy War together and, sadly, turned away in disgust as Ryan Kaneshiro missed a 32-yard field goal that would've won the game for the Utes. My dad had, seconds before, called the miss. Not that it took any psychic prowess to make such a statement, since special teams were always Utah's kryptonite under Ron McBride.

But that's where it really began. 1998. We watched a lot of football games and discussed the great wins and difficult losses. 

Dad and I never actually attended a football game together. When he really started getting into the football program, his health was quickly declining. It just wasn't possible for him to attend games, not with his bad hip and rapid weight loss due to Agent Orange. 

Agent Orange, if you didn't know, was a chemical used by the United States government to defoliate forested and rural land throughout the jungles of Vietnam. My dad was a Vietnam Veteran, served with the 101st Airborne and saw considerable action in the areas where this herbicide was sprayed. 

By the time he turned 50, about eight years ago, he started seeing major side effects from that warfare. It left him unable to do much of what he had done his entire life - like take me to monster truck shows, fishing and wrestling matches at the Delta Center. 

He wanted to go to the games. But it never worked out. In fact, the last game he mentioned wanting to go to was the TCU one. We talked about it the night before and he was pumped about how important the game was. When they lost, he was the first person I spoke with. I remember he looked right at me and said, "boy, wasn't that ugly?" and we laughed about it. 

Dad was easy going. He didn't take the losses hard. I did. I never take losses good. I broke my desk after Utah lost to TCU in 2005 - a defeat that ended their 18-game win streak - and it's commonly known throughout my family that I suffer from the Irish temper. 

He was my even keel. Both he and my mom, really, since they would get into it, but not go over the edge. They could talk me down. 

The day my dad's health really took a turn for the worse was the morning of the Notre Dame game. I was told by my mom that they were taking my dad to the VA Hospital because he was experiencing chest pains, but that he was adamant I did not go up to the hospital because he knew I had been waiting all week for the game and he wasn't going to be the reason I missed it! 

Well I talked to my mom and we both felt it wasn't serious, definitely not a heart attack, so she would keep me updated and I could enjoy the game.

If you were in the game thread that day, you'd know I had to abruptly leave because, after a few hours of not hearing anything from my mom, I called the hospital, found out my dad was in the intensive care unit and as I called up to it, someone had just coded. I panicked. I thought it was my dad. So I left and made it up to the hospital within ten minutes. 

I was a wreck. I didn't know what to think. I really thought my dad was dying and here I was watching Utah get their butt handed to them. Where were my priorities? 

I went to emergency first because I had no clue where the intensive care unit was. The lady at the desk phoned up to them and said he was up there and told me where to go. 

Once I got up to ICU and into his room, the first thing I saw was him watching the Notre Dame game. 

All that worry for nothing. There he was, lying in bed, in the hospital for chest pains, watching a very stressful and awful football game. 

But like I said, Dad was always calm watching his games. He didn't get upset. He would make a wise crack, but that was it.

So he took it all in stride. Even made a joke that if anyone was dying, it was Utah's offense. He seemed fine. 

Not even a week later, though, my mom had to call 911 again and he was rushed to the hospital. This time, Dad didn't come home. He died on November 21st. 

It was all too surreal. That whole month of November is a blur. It started so great with GameDay coming to Salt Lake City and the huge showdown with TCU and it all went south so fast. 

By the time the BYU game rolled around, I was numb and emotionally exhausted. 

It was the hardest month of my life. The most tiring month of my life. And I think it was perfect that, with how football played such an important role in our relationship, it was the BYU game and win that offered me a break from reality. 

I remember standing in the North End Zone as Mitch Payne lined up for the potential game-winning field goal. Maybe it was tacky or even inappropriate, but as Payne readied for that kick, I said quietly to myself that we could really use my dad's help here.

Brandon Burton deserves all the credit in the world and I know for a fact Dad didn't do a damn thing on that kick. But for a split second, when chaos ensued after Burton's block, it felt like my dad was right there standing next to me with a big ol' grin on his face. 

I really needed that victory. I know a lot of people dismiss sports and say we invest too much into it. But that win was the brightest moment in the darkest month of my life. 

Dad would've been 58 today. I'm sure he and I would be discussing Utah's chances in the Pac-12 and still talking about Burton's great block. 

Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. Instead, as a fan, I enter this new era of Utah football on my own. 

But I know Dad is still watching. And who knows, maybe he'll have some great seats. 

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