I dropped Gresham off at football camp yesterday morning.  We were a little early.  The coach told us to wait on the bleachers across the field.  Actually, what he said was, “Groves, go wait on the bleachers ‘till we get goin’.”

We walked together, father and son, talking about the butterflies banging around in his gut.  It’s OK, I told him, to be nervous when you’re trying something new and meeting new people.  We took a seat on the cold metal planks and he asked me if Gavin, Redneck Neighbor’s son, was still coming.  I told him he was.  He asked if I’d stay and watch him.  I promised I would for a little while.

All was quiet for a minute.

Then a stampede of boys came through the registration lines all at once, sprinting toward us as if being chased by a swarm of killer bees or a bunch of girls wearing lipstick and threatening to use it.

As they galloped up to the bleachers one kid shouted, “I won!” Another hollered, “I was the first seven year-old!” And another yelled back, “I was the first five year-old!” And the first boy, reasserting his dominance simply said, “I’m the fastest.” And the others were silenced.

One kid, a kid from the middle of the pack, had made his way to the top of the bleachers by this time and he announced, “I’m the tallest!” A boy nearby, a head taller, darted to the top of the bleachers, stood next to the “tallest” boy and corrected him.  ”I’m the tallest!”

I thought back to grade school basketball and soccer practices.  I remembered how it felt to realize for the first time that I was neither the fastest nor the tallest and that it, for some reason, mattered tremendously.

I thought back to how – though my father wasn’t big into sports – I tried to play football in middle school and run track so I could be the boy I thought a dad (and girls) would want.  I thought about how awful it felt to not be the strongest or toughest and to be constantly reminded of it by the boasts and insults of the toughest and strongest.

I watched Gresham watching the other boys.  I wanted to say something wise that would stick in his heart and protect it from his inner critics and the taunts of other kids for years to come.  But it was early and I’m not quick and just then Gavin showed up and they started talking and the moment passed.

But I thought about it all morning while I enjoyed a day off playing with his sisters.  I thought about how his morning was going – how he must feel throwing the ball farther than some but not the farthest, being quicker than some but not the quickest.  I wondered whether football was such a good idea after all.  Why put him in the world of narcissistic judgmental jocks at age five?  It’ll crush him, I thought.

So I figured out exactly how to comfort him after the morning ordeal we put him through – how to tell him I love him just because he’s him.  How it’s OK if he doesn’t want to go back.  How it doesn’t matter if he’s the “est” at anything or not – especially something as trivial as sports. I planned the whole conversation out.

I picked Gresham up from football camp and he wrapped himself around me halfway up like a boa constrictor, his t-shirt soaked in sweat and his smiling face red from running and passing for hours.  “How’d it go?” I asked.  “I blocked Landon so hard!” he said.  “It was awesome!  Landon said he’s telling his mom,” he grinned.  “I block the hardest!  I’m the hardest hitter!”

I love him for that too I guess – For being the best at knocking your kid into next week.  Booya!  In your face!  My kid hits the hardest!