A Son, His Father, the Football They Shared

Robert Boland is a sports business professor, an NFLPA contract adviser and a columnist for National Football Post. Boland wrote movingly about his relationship with his father, in which the New York Jets played a prominent role, on June 6. We thank Robert and *National Football Post for the opportunity to present his story to you here on newyorkjetscom:*    

I lost my dad, Tom Boland, on May 8. He succumbed to cancer at age 79 after making me think that he surely had nine lives, beating two other serious illnesses in the last decade.

I am not unlike a lot of men in my generation, either caring for or dealing with the loss of a parent or older loved one. Rather, because my situation is so common, I am writing this for others like me who are struggling with their thoughts and feelings on the same subject.

Like a lot of fathers and sons, my dad and I did not always have the most communicative relationship. We were close, no doubt, but we often needed a translator. That was my mom for the first 31 years of our relationship.

Then football filled that role.

Football wasn't exactly the foundation of my relationship with my father; to say that would minimize his inherent goodness. Rather, his love and devotion to our family, his quiet dignity (something I wish I had inherited more of), and his quirky, outsized generosity were the building blocks of that relationship.

But football was the mortar, the glue, the connective tissue that held those foundational elements in place for us. Football was the place we came back to, where we could say what was on our minds, spend time together or just check in with one another.

The Game That Connected Us

It was his 70-plus year affection for Notre Dame (we are Irish-Catholic) and his nearly 50-year love affair with the New York Jets (my dad didn't make short-term commitments) that brought us together so many great times. But really, it was just the game, no matter who was playing, that connected us.

First, he was my teacher, as fathers are, passing on a love of and respect for the game. There were all those Sundays, journeying to Section 14 in the Upper Reserved Section of Shea Stadium to watch the Jets, too often playing without or waiting to be delivered by Joe Namath.

Initially, they were his Jets. Ultimately, they became my Jets, too. Like a lot of kids, I cruelly resisted adopting my dad's team and briefly flirted with one served to me by the media: the Dallas Cowboys. In my defense, I was 7 years old at the time. The Jets became our team on a day in November 1971 when Namath returned from nearly 20 games away to throw 3 TD passes and nearly bring the Jets back against San Francisco. Joe Willie taught me the meaning of hope and persistence that day — two concepts that symbolized my dad's life, too.

It was our Sunday ritual, from the warmth of September to the frigid chill of December. Shea Stadium was our home and our pilgrimage. Jake and Paul, who for 20-plus years sat in the other two seats in the row next to our four seats, became a part of our extended family. They could not have seemed more different than us: brothers-in-law who worked blue-collar jobs; African Americans from the Deep South who lived in New York City. Yet we became family united by our love for the Jets and the inherent recognition and respect that hard- working, decent men have for one another. I owe my dad and football for that lesson.

When the Jets moved I was playing football myself; first in high school and then in college, so my football seemed to take priority. But no family ever looked as forward to a first preseason game as mine, whether — as Jets fans — we just understood the power of hope so present in the young players in a preseason game or it was the chance for us to gather one last time as a family, with a sub sandwich and Coke on ice in the parking lot before the game.

Shifting Roles

My dad had played the game, too. But he always resisted judging me as a player or trying to be another coach. He demanded only that I show respect for the game, my opponents and the officials who did that most thankless of jobs. He was always my father, steadfastly there for me, win or lose. And in that respect he was far wiser again than I gave him credit for at the time. I would later come to see that the game could also be a wedge separating fathers and sons.

In more recent years, I served as his guide to the game. In the 15 years we shared after my mom passed away, you could find my dad with me on the road, beginning with that glorious 1995 season when my Columbia Lions discovered winning. You could also find me on the road with him, to watch the Jets or the Irish. You could even find us inside an NFL stadium watching one of my clients. Easily the best thing to come out of my 10 years as an agent was the traveling around the league we did together.

From Cleveland to Canton to Arizona, and back to Canton again, we made many trips together as I did my job. His birthday fell right around the Combine and we went there, too. We learned together that you must order your beer and have it at the table before digging into the impossibly hot sauce on the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis. Doing it the other way around was too dangerous.

As age made him less inclined to travel, I usually came to him when it coincided with the biggest events on the football calendar. We were together last April when the Commissioner announced that the Cleveland Browns had traded the fifth pick in the 2009 draft to the New York Jets. We both knew that pick would be Mark Sanchez, a franchise QB. Hope rising anew.

That moment of hopefulness, before he took ill, will stand in contrast to what followed. We were together a great deal in the last year, but too often it involved doctor visits or discussions of treatments. It was only when we talked about the Jets or their improbable run did we find a sense of normalcy with a dire diagnosis also hanging in the room. The Jets playoff run buoyed both of our spirits, and even though I knew the odds might be against it, I believed in the hope of another season. I think he did, too, because I discovered the Jets calendar in his apartment was already turned to May when I went back there the night he passed, even though he had been struggling the preceding days.

Football and Remembrance

There are a lot of activities to fill the communication void for fathers and sons — hunting, fishing and golf all come quickly to mind. Famed former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his son just wrote a book about how clearing brush on their farm does that for them.

For my dad and me, it was football. My wife would often ask, "What do you and Father talk about?" And my answer nearly always was "football." For us, football filled the gaps in our foundation and hardened into the bonding material. It was the basis for our common understanding. I will never separate my memories of my dad from those I have of the sport of football. Maybe that is why I will love the game as much as I do. I suspect I will hold it just a bit more dearly in the years to come, as it will be my way of remembering him.

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