Footballs and Fences
August 1998

“Footballs and Fences,” Ensign, Aug. 1998, 23–24

A Father’s Influence

Footballs and Fences

When I was a young child I struggled with a speech impediment that required many hours of specialized training. In addition, I struggled both socially and academically. To make matters worse, I sprouted up quickly to become a tall, awkward fifth grader.

My parents tried to give me experiences that would increase my self-confidence but with little luck. I attempted piano lessons but soon quit, soccer was quickly abandoned, and basketball was completely embarrassing. My father even resorted to asking a family friend, a former professional baseball player, to provide extra instruction to help me succeed in Little League. One night after some tips from my “personal trainer,” I overheard him tell my dad that there was no hope. “Your son is too uncoordinated,” he said. I was crushed.

My parents continued to show great love for me over the years; however, I felt I was a tremendous disappointment to them and to myself. Partly as a result, I withdrew from the family and became an irritable teenager and started ninth grade with a cantankerous attitude. Succumbing to peer pressure, I tried out for the football team. While I had no hope of succeeding, I did not want to seem different from my friends. By then I had learned a great deal about hard work—my speech impediment was barely noticeable, and my grades were improving. I committed to work hard to make the team, even if all I got to do was sit on the bench. My parents were happy but apprehensive.

I quickly discovered I had some talent and was able to make first string as a defensive linebacker on the junior varsity team. Every year I improved—my perseverance was paying off. My dad was so proud of my accomplishments that he attended every game. He would come home early from business trips and reschedule meetings so he could be there when I played. The cheerleaders knew him better than they knew me. He showed up frequently at my practices, and other players began teasing me about “Coach Daddy.” Deep inside I was thrilled to see my father’s love and approval, and I felt wonderful when I heard him cheering in the stands.

In my junior year I made first string on the varsity team, and my dad’s excitement bubbled over. One day at practice, my dad showed up and asked the coach if there was anything I could work on at home. After practice, my coach harassed me in front of the team about my father. I was angry, and I went home to speak my mind. I stormed into the kitchen where my family was eating and told my dad that he was an embarrassment to me and that if he ever showed up to my practices again I would quit the team. As I walked away, I could see the hurt in his eyes.

Weeks went by, and my dad was nowhere to be seen. I felt bad for having pushed him away. One day after a small injury during practice, I was sitting on the field. I noticed a man standing about 75 yards away from the field, behind a fence, standing in the bushes. Looking closer, I realized it was my dad, who watched unaware of my discovery. My heart broke, and I wondered how many times he had hidden to watch me practice. I knew then that my dad loved and cared about me more than anything else.

From that moment on, something special began to grow between my dad and me. I let him into my life, and he helped steer me toward a mission. I was never able to really express my love and appreciation for my “Coach Daddy” because he passed away a few months after I returned home from my mission. He never knew about that day on the field when the door of my isolation was finally opened for good and my life changed.

I’ve often thought about my father standing just out of sight, silently cheering me on, and it has helped me realize that in much the same way, Heavenly Father is also quietly watching, cheering me on through my life’s challenges.

  • Robert Ferrell serves as executive secretary in the Lincoln First Ward, Lincoln Nebraska Stake.