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Flinch: A Lesson in Lacrosse

“Dad, WHAT’S THAT?”

“Uh… ” I stammered. “Um, I think it’s a lacrosse stick.”

“What’s that?”

Liles-FlinchIt was one of those moments when a father is challenged with a question he knows absolutely nothing about. We had just moved to the Rocky Mountains from California. During the first day at his new school, my eldest son, who was in first grade at the time, spotted a new piece of sports equipment. With the curiosity, excitement and infectious energy that only lives within a child, he turned to me for some answers.

I wanted to be the infallible encyclopedia and veritable hero who had all the answers, but, in that moment, I was awash in sheer panic. My sports repertoire included baseball, soccer and cross-country running, but… lacrosse?

I studied up. Lacrosse is the oldest sport played in North America. “Baggataway,’ as it was called by Native Americans, was also known as “The Little Brother of War.” What was I getting into?

My son and I immediately began trying to toss the “soft” ball in the house, completely missing each other’s throws, with lamps and little sisters becoming unintended victims. My wife ordered us out before the damage was permanent. We tossed the ball back and forth, not having much luck, but eventually working up to a 1-in-10 success rate. My son would squirrel around chasing the ball and tossing it to me at every angle; there wasn’t any way he was giving this up. I was charmed: The joy of seeing that light inside a child is one that wraps around any father’s heart, and love will propel him to seek that joy again and again.

Eventually, I met a dad in the neighborhood who said, “You might have more success if you just tossed it to him. Aim right for the pocket of the stick.” He then told me all about the game and his college experience, and shared the necessary techniques of scooping and cradling. Before I knew it, the little tidbits of tribal knowledge from my neighbor were instilled and my son and I were having some success, just playing catch with that soft little ball. We felt pretty good, so it was time to graduate: I got a better stick for my son and we proceeded to the backyard.

I lobbed the ball at him. Success! We began to toss the ball gently back and forth, finding the rhythm that connects two players across a distance, that almost indescribable moment  that gives you untold joy and confidence. We stepped up to playing with two sticks. No more hand tosses; we were committed.

My rookie aim was not true and the ball smacked my son’s right eye.

Shrouded in guilt, I wiped the tears from his eye. He regained his enthusiasm, but there was something new: a flinch. I knew what that was — I had that same reaction after an errant pitch turned me into the leader in walks for our baseball little league (I may still have that record). I didn’t know what do.

I contacted my neighbor in a panic. He offered good medicine: “Get him a helmet so you don’t take him out like that. I did the same thing with my eldest.” He lent me a lacrosse helmet and after the inevitable errant ball bounced off the cage of my son’s face mask, we were back in business.

I reflect back on those first steps in game that we’ve come to learn much more about. A father’s love can drive a zealous, errant ball at son’s skull, creating a divide. Patience and the advice shared by a knowing neighbor can reconnect you. Today, I still share that enthusiasm for the game with everyone we meet. The love of a game is infectious. Rekindling the memory of where that love started continues to be a cherished moment.

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