Sunday, May 26, 2013

Setting Up the Net

            My daughter Katie has had trouble picking a sport. From gymnastics to softball to swimming to dance, she’s hopped from one to another without commitment. She has an athletic build, and her body enjoys sports. Her mind, however, struggles with competition and with falling short of perfection. So we keep trying new sports, and we keep trying to help her become patient with herself as she learns each sport.
            I’ve tried just about everything to convince her to play. First, we had gentle conversations about the value of sports and competition. Then I started coaching her team. After that, we moved into bribery. And finally, I tried guilt.
            Katie, you know that Mommy and Daddy don’t make a ton of money. So with your athleticism, it would really help if you could earn a scholarship to college through sports. So do you think you could go ahead and play – for us? For your future?  
            The guilt trip didn’t work either, so we moved on to the much healthier option of giving Katie her own choice in the matter. This spring, she tried a new sport. And this time, the enthusiasm hasn’t waned after a few months. The choice this time: volleyball. Katie has been digging, setting and serving her way through clinics and practices. When she’s tall enough, she’ll try spiking. So far, the kid seems to enjoy the teamwork and the skills involved. She’s no superstar at the sport right now, but she doesn’t seem to mind that at all – which, of course, is the best sign of all.
            My wife and I didn’t play organized volleyball as kids, but we did partake in the occasional game. We did so because there was a volleyball net in my church’s gym/fellowship hall. Amy and I were both members of my church’s youth group – in fact, that’s how we met. In between flirtations, the two of us sent balls over the net in low-stress games of volleyball.
            We’d start off our youth group meetings with a Bible study or a conversation about our lives, and afterward we’d head down to the gym. There were other games we could have played besides volleyball, but one of our fellow teens so enjoyed volleyball that he’d get to the church early to make sure the net was up and waiting for us before we’d even arrived. So, in essence, he made the decision to play volleyball for us.
            His name was Pete Thomassen, and he didn’t encourage these games because he was the most amazing volleyball player in the world. He just knew that this game was the perfect way to bring a lot of kids together. It was quiet leadership of the sort you would hope for from a youth-group teen. For a mature young man like Pete, that was easy to do.
            It’s been more than two months now since Pete died, suddenly, in his sleep with no forewarning whatsoever. For his wife, Sandy, it’s been the most difficult spring you could imagine. Their two young children, Erik and Chloe, are the sweetest children you could ever meet, and they are facing the biggest challenge in their little lives with brave and beautiful smiles. Amy and I brought a dinner to Sandy and the kids the other day, and we were astounded by the power of love within this family. There’s no script for how to handle this, but Sandy and the kids are doing all they can to care for one another. Of course, that’s exactly what Pete did for them.
            So in addition to loving the fact that Katie is playing a sport again, this volleyball thing has a little extra meaning for me this spring. It’s a reminder of my friend, who savored the days in his 43 years, and who knew how to bring people together on either sides of the net. As an adult, Pete and Sandy loved to host barbecues at their New Jersey house every Memorial Day. If you were in the area, they said, stop by and have a burger.
            We will keep stopping by to see Sandy and the kids in the weeks and months ahead. At some point, I’d like to tell them about their dad’s volleyball games. Maybe they’ll want to set up a net as well. Perhaps Katie and I can teach them a few things about the game.
That’s the funny thing about sports. No matter which sport you eventually pick, and no matter how competitive you are, the games find a way of helping you connect with someone – with yourself, your parents, your siblings, your teammates. Even with the spirit of a friend who’s gone far too soon.