“But now I understand he was making me…”
Dateline: Father’s Day, BASSfest
I was born on Father’s Day.
June 15th, 1952.
It was my first day on earth, and damn near my last. The same priest who baptized me that day, also gave me last rites.
My name is Donald L. Barone Jr., but it wasn’t supposed to be that. I was supposed to be Sal, as my dad wished, or Reggie, as my mother wished, but as my father once told me, “They said you didn’t have much time and that we had to have a name. Your mother was still out from the birth, and I told the nurse, told the priest, ‘okay, okay, just name him after me."
And so, at 4:58am that Sunday morning, I became a Junior.
Throughout life, I have carried his name, and pretty much, only that.
We never much got along; my first year or so of life was pretty tough on my parents, touch and go, in and out of hospitals; doctors, lots of medical bills for working stiffs.
I think that hurt, brought a lot of stress, as he told me, "a sick kid can do that.”
I grew up mad - grew up mad at him, grew up mad that I brought so much trouble, that I ... survived.
At 17, he kicked me out of the house. It was deserved. Had I not left, one of us wouldn’t have survived.
Probably him. Dad was a kind, gentle, man. I was not. When you grow up mad, violence is just one tear away.
I will be brutally honest here - and it took me half an hour to write this sentence - I never really loved my father.
Until I held my baby girl in my arms.
And then I got it.
Then I understood.
And when I handed my baby girl to him for the first time, he cradled her in his arms, smiled, and leaned over and gave me a kiss.
In a tiny kitchen of a small apartment in Fresno, California, with a tear running down my cheek, I told him I loved him.
And I know, he knew then, it was the first time I really meant it.
My father died 9 years ago, but in the 21 years that we had together from the moment I handed him my baby girl - and later, my baby boy - we became great friends.
Dad told me once, as we sat in the cheap seats of a Buffalo Bills game, that he was afraid of me.Not physically afraid, but “it was just, I was always afraid from the time you were born that you were going to die. That when I held you that day, when they gave you the last rites, I sort of... sort of, stepped away.”
As everyone stood to cheer for a Bills TD, I leaned over, grabbed his arm, and yelled a little above the crowd, “It’s okay, man, I’m going to be okay. Going to be okay.”
The greatest talks I ever had with my dad came in the cheap seats, both of us decked out in Buffalo Bills garb.
The way I cover sports to this day is a homage to dad. And in some way, to all the dads in the cheap seats.
Because now, when I sit in those seats with my son...
Dad is there,
“…become the man…”
It is raining, behind him there is thunder and lightening, yet when I ask him to tell me about his dad, KVD stops and says, “db, it was baseball with me and my dad. I remember to this day, I was 7 years old, we went to a Detroit Tigers double header, my dad bought me a baseball. Still remember it.”
I’ve met Kevin’s dad, Dick. He towers over me, but is a very soft spoken, kind man. From Kevin, “My father gave me a strong work ethic. That anything worthwhile, it doesn’t come easy, you have to work for it. There are no shortcuts in life, you have to be a hard worker.”
I believe, for the most part, your love of the sport, your love of the game, is based on your love of the person who took you to it, who introduced you to it, who did it with you, who sat in the seat next to you.
Your dad, your mom.
Sport, any sport, is a game of memories. For many who I've talked to over the years, their fondest memory is sitting in the bleachers, with dad. Dad's team became their team.
Growing up, my father and I never had much to say to each other, except when it came to his beloved Buffalo Bills, which became my beloved Buffalo Bills. They have become my son's beloved Buffalo Bills.
“My father was crazy about the San Francisco 49’ers, Joe Montana and the rest of the guys, so I grew up a huge 49’ers fan.”
Freddie Roumbanis is sitting on a rock at BASSfest , his two sons, Jackson and Avery, are climbing all over their Daddy. Freddie’s dad was a cable car operator in San Francisco. “One thing I learned from him that I would like to instill in these two guys is, he taught me to respect others. But he also taught me to be independent, to rely on yourself and to count on yourself.”
“…he knew that I could be…”
When I interview people - normal folks, not politicians, PR people or Head Coaches - I expect them to give me straight, honest answers. I expect it because I will give them back a straight, honest story.
This is mine.
The other day I’m standing in the Dayton, Tenn., Wal-Mart, and I’m standing there looking at fake Oscar statues that say, “World’s Best Dad.” And I say to myself, I’ll never get that award.
I don’t worry about much anymore. Not health stuff, not job stuff, certainly not whether the Buffalo Bills will do well, but I do worry that I have been a bum of a dad.
Worry about it a lot. Personally I think I shortchanged the kids, have had a career that has taken me all over the planet, except sitting down for dinner with the family. Except going to see their school teachers. Except Boy Scouts, except this, except that - lots of things.
I love what I do, but to all you guys out there who think I have the dream job, spend 127 days away from your wife and kids. Miss birthdays, miss their sports while covering other people playing sports, miss all that time. Time you will never get back. Sure, it is great what I do, but it comes with a cost.
If Wal-Mart has a fake Oscar that says, “World’s Best Absent Dad,” that one - that’s the one I deserve.
Ashley, Jimmy….I’m sorry.
“…when somebody says I hope…”
“We played golf together a lot, db.”
My buddy, John Crews. John’s father, Bill Crews, is a great friend of mine and Vice President of Tackle The Storm Foundation. He is the smartest, most caring friend that I have ever had. An attorney, a brilliant guy, and his son John is following in those footsteps of caring and intelligence.
“When I was growing up I would travel with him and we would spend hours golfing and talking. I have a ton of great memories.”
I’m jealous. In my entire life, I played one game of golf with my dad. It was the only time we played any sport together.
“db, you know my dad, if he taught me anything it was that you treat people right. It’s not something you preach, but something you practice. I tell my kids that all the time.”
“Come on man. You know it’s fishing.”
Steve Kennedy is telling me this over the phone, “Steve, aren’t you supposed to be fishing today? Didn’t you make the second chance cut?”
“Steve, where are you?”
“In line, I don’t take off for a couple of minutes.”
Steve Kennedy is one of my favorite people on the tour. An almost born-to-fish kind of guy. “My father, Van Kennedy - we used to fish all the time. Sometimes when I was young I used to crawl in the rod locker on his boat and sleep. I did win my first tournament when I was 3 ½ . It was a kids tournament. I remember catching an ice bag full of bluegills.”
In the background, I hear boat numbers being called and angler names being announced.
Steve’s two children, Barb's and my semi-adopted grandchildren, Sophia and SJ (Steve Jr.) were born into an outdoor adventure. I have asked several times if Steve and his wife, Julia, could adopt me.
“My father instilled in me a love of the outdoors. I guess that would be the answer, what I hope my children get passed down to them.”
Guess? Hey Van, my friend, I think it worked. Know it did, buddy. Nice job.
I’m doing my best to take this photo and not get bit by their dog, Penny. I put the little camera down and picked up the one with the telephoto lens.
“db, my father was very involved in my life. He took me hunting and fishing, spent a bunch of time with me,” as Brent Chapman is talking, every once in awhile he looks over and watches his dog watching me.
Brent is leaning up against his boat.
I am not.
“Wow, what has my dad instilled in me that I will pass down to my kids? Hmmm, loyalty. Loyalty, no doubt. Family comes first - not money, not your job, not your hobby. Family comes first.”
And I know that to be true with Brent. If it was me, I would give this former "Angler of the Year" a "Dad of the Year" in a heartbeat.
“…I get to meet ...”
For most Father’s Days - for most of my father's days - I wasn’t there. I lived with him for 17 out of 62 years, less than a third of my life. For most of the 40 years that Barb and I have been married, I didn’t even live close to where he lived.
Toward the end of his life, my father suffered from Alzheimer’s. Times when I did see him, he would call me by different names. Toward the end, I’m not sure he knew who I was.
Let me answer the questions I have asked of others.
What bonding we did came through his, and my, love of the Buffalo Bills. Dad took me to my first Buffalo Bills game. I took dad to his last Buffalo Bills game. I spread a tiny bit of his ashes in the Bills' parking lot, in view of our cheap seats.
My father was a kind, decent, humble human being, even when those around him were not. And somehow his kindness, his decency, his benevolence to others has passed from him to my children. My baby girl is studying to be a nurse, and my son is a high school teacher. Both make me immensely proud. Both were better children than I was.
“db, it’s very cool. As we got older, suddenly my dad’s beloved Atlanta Braves went from being his Braves, to OUR Braves.”
And with that sentence this whole story came to life in my head. I couldn’t get the “OUR” part out of my brain. It is the “OUR” part of sports that's behind the love of sports.
In 20-some years of trying to figure it out, I finally got it while having Mexican for dinner with my boss, Jim Sexton, after the first weigh-in at BASSfest.
“For the past three years now, my dad and I get together and we go to a Braves game. He loves baseball, and I like baseball. He’s 80 years old now so I just cherish the “our” time we get to spend together. There’s something about sitting together in the ballpark, watching the game. We both wear Braves hats, and we just talk. It sort of relaxes us. Just two guys enjoying “our” team."
Jim’s dad is a pretty famous guy in Knoxville. He was the head basketball coach at Farragut High School for 30 years, is in the school's hall of fame, and after 544 career wins has the school gym named in his honor.
But above all that, he is a sports freak, and even better dad.
Here’s Jim on his pop: "What I learned from my dad that I've passed on to my kids...two things, really. One, if you work hard at something you'll usually end up doing well at it. Two, having a sense of humor and being silly at times is one of the best things in life. My dad is always happy to be silly and bring humor to a situation. I do the same thing with my kids, and I can see them developing the same trait."
“…I just smile and say…”
The day after I had dinner with my boss, I’m standing next to a generator back stage talking to one of my editors at bassmaster.com, Chris Mitchell. Chris is a young man, born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., sort of new to B.A.S.S. He's married to Whitney, and seems to me to be an intelligent, kind, loving husband.
“db,” he says, looking all around, “I haven’t told many people yet, but I wanted to tell you…”
And as he says it, I’m thinking, "Oh no, he’s leaving, he's found another job and I have just trained him the way I want him to edit," when…
“…I’m going to be a dad.”
And in my head I’m thinking, "Okay, already, Universe - I’ll do the Father’s Day story, enough with the signs!"
“Chris, how cool man, I’m so happy for you! Next Father’s Day will be your day.”
And he just looks at me, the "welcome to it" sinking in.
Then I ask him this: Tell me about what sport helped you bond with your dad, and now - for the first time in your life - what that will mean for your child, your little baby on the way.
And this is the answer I got:
"I think the thing that my dad and I will always have together is Auburn football. Some of my earliest and best memories are Saturday afternoons in the fall, grilling out and hollering at the television together. Sometimes we'd go to games, but honestly the best times were when the game wasn't on TV, and we'd huddle around a radio. When I hear the word, "home" that's what comes to mind. That is my default.
Passing on what my father taught me is no longer a theoretical concern of mine - I recently discovered I am going to be a father in the coming months. I'd say that my father is an honorable man. A man who keeps his word, and treats people fairly. I still hope to be what he is, and I can only hope to pass some of him down the line."
And now, a confession, Chris - this story was for you. Print it out and put it in your new baby book. A gift from me, a gift from all those who answered these questions.
Your first Father’s Day present.
Learn from what went right, with dads and kids. Learn from what went wrong with my dad and me.
Looking back, young Chris, it wasn’t worth it, what my father and I went through. I don’t ever remember telling him I loved him, don’t remember him ever telling me he loved me, either - although I’m sure he did.
But let me tell you this, the first word I ever whispered in the ear of my children as I held them in the birthing room was simply this, “I love you.”
Chris, I know you know love now, but soon you will feel a love that runs from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, and you will know completeness. You will know why God put human beings on this rock in space.
A miracle is coming to your life.
Happy Father’s Day, man, because if you’re thinking about the baby, and already love the baby, my friend, you are a DAD.
Welcome to fatherhood, buddy.
And to my dad,
I miss you, and I'm sorry we missed each other in life.
I love you,
I know you love me, too.
And I know that where you are,
up there looking out for me,
that you’re holding a spot for me
next to you,
in the cheap seats.
“…you already have.”
Song For Dad