Rodney Peete learns from autistic son

Last month I took my 13-year-old to the mall to buy jeans. Then he ate a burger, took a nap and now I need to buy new, larger jeans.

Thanks puberty. At this rate, I'm going to need a bailout.

I gripe but the truth is I don't mind. I want my son to be taller than me. And stronger and faster.

Generally speaking that's just how dads are when it comes to our sons. From the day we first hold them in our arms, we want them to be better than us in every way, especially in sports. For most of us, "better" could simply mean starting on a varsity team senior year. I know it does for me, anyway. For professional athletes, well, let's just say the bar is a lot higher. Consequently the disappointing drop if that isn't possible is so much greater.

When I received a copy of former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete's book, "Not My Boy!: A Father, a Son, and One Family's Journey with Autism," I expected to be touched but not moved to tears. After all, I had known Rodney and his family for years. I already knew all of the work he and his wife, Holly, had done to raise awareness as well as offer resources and support for other families dealing with autism through their foundation, HollyRod. I really didn't think there was anything new about the subject Rodney had to share, at least nothing new to me.

And then I opened the book and was struck by something unexpected: a mirror.

Yes, the book is about Rodney's journey from denial to acceptance with regard to his son's autism. But when I peeled back the layers, I realized there is a much more universal lesson he is sharing. You see, a male can make babies and a man helps raise them, but a father is a man who allows his babies to raise him. That's not just me being clever with semantics but, rather, owning up to my shortcomings.

"That was the hardest thing for me to see," Rodney told me just before throwing out the ceremonial pitch at the Dodgers' first-annual Autism Day earlier this week. "As an athlete and as a man, you look at everything competitively. If there's a problem, you want to take control and just fix it. But there are some things you can't fix no matter how hard you try. I couldn't just fix autism. When I finally accepted that, that's when I became a better father."

Rodney and I talked about the grieving process he went through when he learned that his oldest son, R.J., wouldn't follow in his athletic footsteps. I told him when my son quit hockey a couple of years ago, I was sad but was able to shake it off in a week or so. Rodney told me that when he learned R.J.'s diagnosis in 2000, while he was playing for the Raiders, it almost cost him everything.

"I was so withdrawn and depressed," he said. "I didn't want to be home. Whenever I got a day off I would just hang out all day with my boys instead of helping Holly. It was real rough there for a while. I wanted a son who would play in the league like me. I wasn't able to see and enjoy what I had."

Holly said reliving those trying times was the most difficult part in reading the book.

"I was so focused on R.J. and making sure he had everything he needed that I had no idea how Rodney felt," said Holly, who, along with R.J.'s twin sister, Ryan, recently wrote a children's book about autism. "Not that his feelings should've been the most important, but I didn't even know his feelings, so that was hard to read."

Former Dodger Jim Gott can relate to that disconnect. Gott has two autistic children, C.J. and Danny, and spearheaded the Dodgers' Autism Day. He said his first marriage ended in divorce in large part because of the withdrawn manner in which he handled the news about his firstborn.

"It's hard to explain, but I spent most of the time in denial," he said. "I kept waiting to find the magic bullet, or the right pill, or something that would cure him. As a man, you want to solve everything. And as a professional athlete you're just used to being able to work a little harder than the next guy to get what you want. But when something like autism happens and you can't just work out harder to make everything OK … that's a hard thing to accept. I didn't accept it at first, and I paid a price for it."

Gott, along with his second wife, Cathy, created Danny's Farm, a petting zoo and facility for special needs children. It's named after his younger autistic son because he has always enjoyed being around animals. Gott, like Rodney, has learned to pour his competitive energy into helping others.

"I wished someone like Rodney was out there when I was dealing with difficulties of fatherhood, because that's what it is, fatherhood," Gott said. "Once I realized it wasn't about me, I became a better father."

Amen, brother.

That's the link that connects all of us fathers really, learning how to put our egos aside so, as Rodney suggests in his book, we are not so focused on our children being better than us but rather on helping them be the best they can be. This isn't the approach to take just with a special needs child. This is the approach to take with every child, seeing them for who they are, not who we want them to be.

Many men reading this may recognize themselves in my actions. If you're holding this book in your hands, you've probably reached this same moment, a time when you feel like you don't know how to be the dad your family needs. Maybe you spend time with rare scotch and a cigar, or you're off in the garage with a cigarette and a beer, or you stay later and later at work because it just seems easier than facing the family. You know how to make money to support the family, and you know you love your kids, but suddenly that's not enough. -- Rodney Peete

How we handle our children when "that's not enough" is where true fatherhood begins.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.