Yesterday’s tales: Of coaches and fathers

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Dusk in America. I am watching our son’s team practice American football on a fall evening. There are about two dozen 8 – 11 year olds prancing around the coaches. The coaches stand around, hands in their pockets watching these lion cubs gamboling around trying to make plays for tomorrow’s playoff game. They are called the Bears but they look more like lion cubs fearlessly prowling and prancing in the shadows of their coaches, aging lions. In their helmets, the boys look like little masquerades, preening, beating their chests, talking trash to imaginary opponents. Our son Fearless Fang loves football. He probably prefers the game to going to school or doing something like the dishes. Only the threat of being banned from football practice keeps his dark side still. He does his homework because he needs to play the game.

The head coach sports a Bear Bryant hat; dark, and brooding, he is a cross between Bear Bryant and Obi Okonkwo of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Our son lives in awe of his coaches. We have never been late to a football practice; we don’t know the consequences because our son refuses to find out. My favorite image is of the head coach taking my son aside and giving him a stern lecture about a technique he hadn’t mastered. The look of respect on my son’s face was priceless. One game that they were supposed to win, at half time they trailed the visiting team 0-12. He took all the boys to the woods. The boys came back fuming angry; they tore into their opponents something ugly and won with a 20-point spread. Later, I asked my son what happened in the woods. He simply said: “Coach wasn’t happy, coach wasn’t happy, daddy!”

 Sunday morning in America, the day after Halloween night, spent scavenging for candy. I am alone with many children, several not our own. It is a United Nations of Children. America is browning. The world is browning. Voices are merging into new languages sautéed from the accents of remote ancestral lands. Tomorrow is Monday, there is no school, smart move, these children are going to be eating candy all day and you don’t want to be their teacher tomorrow; you’d be too busy peeling hyper kids off the walls. I am alone with these children, my spouse having gleefully fled for work; I could see her skid marks on our carpet as she enjoined me to have a great day with children suffering from sugar intoxication.

Fearless Fang, our ten-year old comes into the bedroom, and nudges me awake. He wants scrambled eggs, with onions and tomatoes for him, his siblings and his friends. He wants to make the eggs himself. At the age of ten! He would need to be supervised. I half joke to him that at his age in Africa I was already a general in the Nigerian Civil War. But this is America, why would a 10-year old be subjected to the trauma of actually making a hot meal? I shudder at the thought of our little bear setting our house on fire, inviting the drama of fire engines, ambulances, incredulous neighbors and the news media gawking at the ruins of our home – and my atrocious judgment. Who needs the stress? I get up and assure him that daddy is going to make eggs for everybody and of course Fearless Fang is welcome to supervise daddy. Fearless Fang deserves a good breakfast this morning. Yesterday, his football team had the visiting team for breakfast, Yum Yum.

I am making breakfast to order for Fearless Fang, his friends and siblings. Just like the warrior my son wants it. Just like my dad used to make it for us. My dad’s spirit fills the room. I am channeling my dad. He is making scrambled eggs his way. He is humming Jim Reeves’ Welcome to My World. First, he cuts up fresh tomatoes from his garden (my dad always had a garden, no matter his accommodations; he could grow vegetables in his bedroom if he had to), Then he cuts up onions. He breaks the eggs, adds salt and pepper, whips them into a nice emulsion, adds condensed milk (to give them a fluffy shiny look, he claims). He sautés the tomatoes and onions in groundnut oil and after a while pours in the eggs. The result is always scrumptious.

America. Necessity teaches us several lessons. I can cook now. I can care for as many children as the day throws in my face. It is called survival. My father taught me how to fight back and thrive. My father taught me how to deal with defeat – with song, dance, poetry and the stoicism of our ancestors. My father was my coach. Sometimes when I didn’t have the physical fight in me he taught me to charm my way through hell. I see my father in my son’s football coaches. They demand all that my son can give and more. And they do it lovingly albeit sternly. I shall never forget the look of respect and fear in my son’s eyes as a coach confronted him for forgetting a piece of his uniform at home. He has not forgotten anything ever since. We need men in our lives. I salute my father. I salute my son’s coaches.