How football helped me cope with my dad's death

Courtesy of author

Nicholas Graham, Dennis Graham Jr, Melinda Graham and Latria Graham in front of the family home on Christmas Day in 2012.

My father, Dennis Graham Jr., could tolerate other sports, but he was raised up on football, the way Southerners talk about being nourished by cornbread and buttermilk.

He thought the world of the gridiron was a place where men like him, black men, could triumph. Born in the Jim Crow South and raised during segregation, every week he watched football, transfixed by this clash of the modern gladiators, where black bodies were capable of incredible feats. In his mind, certain injustices could take away a lot of things from you -- your home, your dignity, hell even your life.

I inherited his belief that sports our culture's vehicle to discuss the nuances of political, economic and racial strife. He saw being able to talk about sports as an essential social skill, and made sure that my brother and I at least understood the basics of all major sports.

"Girls don't play football," I explained at eight years old, trying to find a rational reason to opt out of my father's football tutorial.

"In the future they might." Cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth, he launched the football into the air, a swirling mass of brown and white, daring me to catch it. "Better learn, just in case," he said.

At some point, football became our lifeline. We had moved back to his home state of South Carolina, where the zeal for football might be the only thing stronger than their affection for sweet tea.

Eventually, I decided to attend college in Hanover, New Hampshire, where cell phone reception was unpredictable. I would hang my torso out of the window, even in winter, and we would talk about our teams over crackle and spark of the airwaves.

"Are your boys playing this week?" Every time we talked, I opened our conversations the same way. I sought solace in the routine.

College teams came first -- we would talk about the University of South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia before moving onto the pros. He kept track of the Washington Redskins, the team he grew up with, and the Carolina Panthers because they were the newcomers up the road in Charlotte.

I hung my hopes on the Tennessee Titans -- the team moved to Nashville when I was nine.

When I was homesick or depressed, I would call my father and tell him I didn't watch the game, just so I could hear his deep voice through the speaker on my Motorola Razr phone. Even if we couldn't agree on which team was better that week, we always stood united against my mother and her love for all things Dallas. Football time signaled the beginning of a truce.

Courtesy of author

Dennis Graham Jr. in the Everglades on February 2013.

I absorbed my dad's sense of adventure. Six months before his death, we were kayaking in the Everglades while I worked on retracing Zora Neale Hurston's travels for my MFA thesis. Local doctors thought my dad should be confined to his bed, cancer conquering his insides, hoping to deteriorate enough that hospice would step in with stronger painkillers. I remember pausing to search for 3G in the swamps, so we could keep track of the score for the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

In September 2013, when hospice finally stepped in, I was crushed. Three days before he left us, he became unresponsive. We called family and friends to say their final goodbyes. I went into my room, closed the door and watched the football game.

Eventually, I came back to his bedroom and sat by his bedside, fussin' with his white cotton blanket, playing with the lint balls that accumulated on its edges.

I had to tell him about the game. Washington was playing Oakland in California. Statistics weren't important and I didn't know them anyway -- he would want to hear about the players, so I talked about the way RGIII reared back, football in hand, searching for the opening that led to a touchdown pass. I tried to explain David Amerson's interception.

I wondered if he could hear me, if he understood. I couldn't tell if his ragged, exasperated breathing was the result of my story about Oakland's fumble, but I kept talking anyway. I told him Washington won 24-14, its first victory of the season.

Several hours later, as midnight leaked into the early hours of the morning, he was gone.

My father never made it to an NFL game or watched the Carolina Panthers during training camp, even if the facility was less than five miles from my house. We tried to get him to go to a game once.

"What do I need to go to a game for? I can see it plenty good enough right here, and it's basically free." He went back to cracking pecans at his desk, eating the halves that didn't emerge from the shell intact. He was a cheapskate, but occasionally he'd splurge on memorabilia. His leather Panthers hat sits on the top shelf of my closet.

On Sundays, my father would engage in what he called the "poor man's pleasure"-- staying home and watching football from the "daddy chair," a tan recliner with cracks in the leather on the armrest, scented with tobacco from a man who preferred to smoke his Marlboros the way other folks ate grapes.

Every time I pass his aging chair, I spend quite a bit of time wondering what else I could've done to prolong my father's life without extending his suffering. For the better part of two years, the riddle gnawed at me. I couldn't eat, and I had trouble moving on, unable to absolve myself of guilt even though I knew I'd done everything I could.

That's how I found myself at the Carolina Panthers' training camp. I'd just turned 29. I didn't have a job, and I was running out of money. The week before, I'd taken my savings and tried to pull myself together for a job interview that didn't work out because I refused to compromise my integrity. I returned to Spartanburg dejected. I sent out pitches and inquiries, but all I received were rejections. Normally in situations like this, when my back was against the wall, I would call my father.

I knew I couldn't talk to him, but I decided to go searching for him anyway -- for a sign that my life wasn't over, that I was still capable of making something of myself.

I drive his pickup truck to the Carolina Panthers' training camp -- radiation hissing, engine knocking, one hubcap missing. The ancient, gold F-150 needs new brakes, tires and a number of repairs that will cost three times the value of the truck. I decide I will love it until it dies.

When I arrive at the field, I have no idea what I'm looking for, so I position myself on the western edge of a grassy hill, waiting.

The entire practice goes by, the fans stream back to their cars, sunburned and cranky, content with their observations and the future of the team.

I'm still not sure what I'm after, but there's one player wearing a No. 24 jersey left on the field, running through drills with the ball boys, eventually calling it quits to sign autographs for a few lingering fans. Apparently this is Josh Norman -- that Josh Norman before the scuffle with Cam Newton, and before that historic interception against the New Orleans Saints.

I walk up to him and ask a question. He answers. I come back the next day, curious about what I can learn of this sport. I pitch a story. The editor says maybe. Sooner, that "maybe" transforms into a "yes." The idea becomes a long-form article for a sports website, about Josh's ascension to top cornerback status while helping his community in Greenwood.

That assignment might've saved my life.

After the feature on Josh Norman, I had the chance to go to my first NFL game -- the Panthers and Seattle Seahawks were in the playoffs in Charlotte. As I ascended the steps of Bank of America and looked out over the field, I had one thought: I wish my dad could see this. I tried to memorize every detail -- the sounds, the lights, every feature, noticing the way the Seahawks fans vibrated in their seats at the announcement that Marshawn Lynch would play.

I left long after the fans, and most of the players, unwilling to let the day end.

When I returned to my car, I pulled out my dad's photograph and tried to tell him about the game. I wonder what he would've made of Cam Newton, of Josh Norman and his hot talk.

I've had moments like that in my car after a number of games. I pull the little photograph of him out of my wristlet and look at it -- really look at it, for the first time since I put it there six months ago.

In the picture, underneath his hat, the corners of his lips are tucked into a smirk. It was the closest he really ever got to a smile. That is enough for me.

Thanks, Dad.

Latria Graham is a writer, editor and cultural critic currently living in South Carolina. Follow her @LGRaconteur

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