My father is a featured player in one of the worst moments of my life.
It came when I realized my father had recognized his own mortality. He interrupted one of our many sports-related conversations to say something to me that he felt he needed to say.
“I just want to you to know,” he said in his native Urdu, which made me snap to attention since most of our light-hearted conversations were in English. “I just want to you to know that I don't care who you marry. I don't care what religion she is, I don't care what race she is, I don't care about any of that. I just want you to be happy. And I would love to be alive when you have children. You're going to be a great father. And I just want to see that.”
It was and is rare for my father to say anything like that. What should have been a heart-warming conversation straight out of the third hour of a Judd Apatow movie hit me painfully. What did he mean “love to be alive when...?” Of course he's going to be alive for all of that, right?! In that moment, I recognized that he wasn't necessarily pushing me to get married or have a child right now. He would never push me to do something I didn't want to do or wasn't ready for.
That statement meant that he knew he was going to die some day.
My father is my dark-skinned Superman. All five-foot-three of him. All 110 pounds of him. All 77 (and soon to be 78) years of him. Rail-thin and frail-looking but with the heart of a lion. Almost guaranteed to be wearing the same outfit; slacks, dress-shirt, baseball cap to cover his now-bald and once-toupeed head. Under-the-radar hilarious, strong-willed but never in an overbearing way that would make others around him uncomfortable. I knew if I grew up to be a fraction of the man my father is, I'd be Gregory Peck. That's my father: a dark-skinned, short, featherweight, non-acting Gregory Peck. So, completely unlike Gregory Peck. But he is a man in every sense of the word.
Incredibly sharp, educated and self-assured, Mohammed was the vice president of a bank in Karachi, Pakistan. By arrangement, he was married at 30 to Zubeda, a poor, 16-year-old, dark-haired beauty. While the marriage was financially convenient, the two of them (like many couples of arranged marriages) quickly blossomed together. They were married in 1968, had their first child in 1969, their second in 1973, their third in 1977 (those three are my brothers whom I love dearly, although I imagine you have figured that out through context). They lived a comfortable lifestyle in the downtown area of Karachi for a decade until 1978 when my father had the toughest conversation of his life. He told his beautiful wife, the mother of his three children, that the opportunities and freedoms of America were beckoning and that he needed to go and try to pursue a better life for the family. And he needed to go without her or the children. As well-off as they may have been for that particular time in that particular area in that particular country, there wasn't nearly enough money to take the entire family. As my father told me, “I could've brought two of the kids but I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I had separated all three of them.” So he, his brother, and his brother's wife all left for America, leaving a woman of age 27 (one year younger than I currently am now) and three boys of ages nine, five, and one, unsure as to when they would see or hear from him again.
“Our boss would leave for lunch. He was under the impression that we didn't know how to read blueprints in English but we did. So by the time he got back, he'd say 'ALRIGHT! Let's start the next set of windows!' But we had already finished the set. He ended up giving both of us raises when we mentioned that we may leave for another job.”
That's the type of worker my father is. You give him a task, it's done. You tell him how to do something, you'll never have to explain it again. You say finish this job by Friday, it's done on Thursday. My father went from running a bank to molding and shaping windows for high-rise buildings in downtown Chicago and he was an all-star at both jobs. I've never met a harder or smarter worker than my father who, up until three weeks ago, was still working 12-hour shifts four times a week as a security guard at a warehouse. All five-foot-three of him. All 110 pounds of him. All 77 (and soon to be 78) years of him. A security guard. Part of his under-the-radar hilarity comes from the sheer irony of that job. But he did that job from 1993 to 2015, all while managing rental properties that he and his wife own. And while running a fast food restaurant for a couple of years when I was in high school. And while chasing around his seven-year-old grandson and soon-to-be one-year-old granddaughter. And while maintaining the same four-bedroom ranch-style home where I grew up in suburban Chicago. A home that stands as a symbol for an American dream and a life that he desperately grasped at and eventually reached in the face of all of the obstacles that stood in his way. He reached it despite everything that he had left back in his home country 37 years prior.
Including, for seven of those years, his wife and children.
I'm incredibly lucky to have the job I have. I adore being able to travel from city to city and call games on television and radio and get paid to do it. It also affords me opportunities to share some of my experiences with those close to me. So in January, I flew my brother down to Chapel Hill to see his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels play at the Dean Smith Center on a Sunday night against Virginia Tech, a game I was broadcasting. The night prior, we sat at dinner with some members of my TV production crew and the subject of our upbringing was discussed.
“So you were a mistake, huh?”
The line was common, as it is to anyone like me who is the youngest of the family by a sizable gap. After all, nine years between me and the next brother would cause anyone (in this case, my director) to gently joke. I'm happy to play along and I had never minded when someone said it. I hope that I'm the best mistake my parents ever made. "Yep, that was me! I was the mistake!"
“Oh, he wasn't a mistake,” my brother quickly rebutted. “You never figured it out? You never put two and two together?” he asked me incredulously with a wide-eyed stare. He went on to tell my colleagues a similar story that you're reading now. And while I knew the details (dad left in '78, family came over in '85, I was born in '86), I honestly never did put two and two together.
“They were making up for...A LOT of lost time.”
The table erupted in laughter. My eyes got wide with horror. My brother had turned every child's worst fear into a reality. Yes, my parents had a lot of sex when they reunited.
But while the punchline was a knee-slapper, it clearly quantified the time that my parents were apart. Imagine seven years away from the person or people you love the most with the only communication coming in letter form. Rare was a phone call because my father didn't want to spend the money he was saving for his family on an expensive international rate. Every cent he saved was one second faster that his family could join him in the United States. I can only imagine what my brothers went through, trying to find a way through their formative years without their father. Especially what the youngest of the three experienced, not having a dad to form a bond with from the age of one to the age of eight. And the uncertainty of when any communication would come had my mother sobbing herself to sleep on a near-nightly basis.
Anyone would have tried to make up for all that lost time, in whatever way they could.
My father is a featured player in one of the best moments of my life.
It came in July of 2011. I had just finished calling a minor league baseball game in Bridgewater, NJ. Sitting in the broadcast booth of TD Bank Ballpark, I received a phone call from my agent telling me that ESPN had hired me at 24 years old. I didn't hear much of what he said to me after that. When I got off the phone, I cried. I wept. I sobbed. My head buried in my hands, I remember my mouth hurting as it shifted from wailing tears to an ear-to-ear smile. When I collected myself, I knew the first phone call I was going to make.
“You'll be able to watch your son on television,” I happily declared.
What? That was his response? My father, who was one of the few who never questioned and fully supported me when I said I wanted to be a sportscaster, could only muster a “so”?
“So? This is what was supposed to happen. I knew it from the day you told me you wanted to do it. Of course ESPN hired you. This was supposed to happen.”
Again, I cried. I wept. I sobbed.
My father is not usually one to cry. He's nowhere near gruff but he rarely lets things get to him at his core. He started to tear up. I could hear it through his next words. “I'm very proud of you. I'm very, very proud of you.”
When I got off the phone, I remember for a split-second realizing why I was so happy. It was because for the first time in my life, I was even able to draw a shaky line from his path to mine. Everything he worked hard for, he achieved. This is the goal that I had worked for and I had reached it. It was the most like my father that I had ever felt. I had always hoped that if I had any of his qualities, it would be his work ethic. I'll never match it, but if I can have a fraction of it, it'll be a good life.
Mohammed was a fabulous secondary school cricket player in Pakistan. So when he came to Chicago in the late 70's, he became a baseball fan. His first team? The 1979 Chicago Cubs of Bill Buckner, Ivan de Jesus, Rick Reuschel, and Bruce Sutter. He passed that fandom on to me which has since proven to be mostly hapless. I'm sure he regretted turning me into a Cub fan when he had to repair the hole in the wall that I punched in my childhood bedroom following Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.
Few things make me happier than knowing my father watched one of my broadcasts on television. Nothing makes me happier than calling a Major League Baseball game on the radio while my father is listening to it at work or on his front porch, sipping the same chai my mother has made for him the last half century. He speaks of Zubeda with deep admiration, regardless of the same problems that every husband and wife have dealt with, many of which I've seen firsthand. “She's the most loyal person I've ever known.”
He has an affirmed yet bubbly energy in his voice that gives me goosebumps. I love calling him from the road, which I do every time I land in a new city. I called a Braves/Angels game on Father's Day last year from Atlanta. When I called my father before the game, I felt the necessity to apologize for not being there in person to give him a hug. He responded as you hope any father would.
"Don't worry about that," he replied with a laugh. "You should always appreciate your successes and never dwell on your failures. You've worked hard. You've earned it. I'm so proud." Fittingly, he said that from his desk while working a 12-hour shift.
When I'm asked how I'm different from my father, my response will always be, “I hope in as few ways as possible”. He once told me, while in the midst of recognizing his own mortality, that I was going to be a great father, too. I'm not sure if my father will be alive to see me become a dad but if I'm even a fraction of the father that he is at five-foot-three and 110 pounds, it'll be a good life for my kids.