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The H.S. football player who is making me a better dad

Moments of inspiration often arrive unexpectedly, their timing perhaps reinforcing their intensity. This happened last week during the otherwise uneventful experience of high school football practice's conclusion.

Chad Neal gathered his team for a state of the union at Killingly High, a few days before the season opener, mostly a review of the day's practice and logistics for the remaining week. Later, he asked whether his players were interested in sharing their "why."

As in: What's most important to them around the context of playing football.

One young man raised his hand. Neal called him to the front of the group.

"My 'why' is my dad," the young man said.

I assumed this would be a warm-and-fuzzy about a father and son.

"My dad left my life when I was little," the young man said. "Every day, I get out of bed to show him the great young man he could have raised."

Even the wind stopped blowing momentarily in deference to this moment's power and poignancy.

After some respectful silence, the kids and coaches applauded the kid's courage and willingness to be vulnerable.

And here it was, some nothing Tuesday afternoon, and a high school kid I never knew existed offered words I'll never forget. Even better: Words that will make me a better dad.

"The great young man he could have raised."

If you are a dad, I hope those words resonate for you as much as they did for me.

Full disclosure: There are times when I'm driving that I'm overcome by something quite uncomfortable: when the song "Cats In The Cradle" by Harry Chapin plays on the radio. It's about a man who is a father, but too busy to be a dad. And learns the lesson painfully later in life.

The song makes me wonder: I know I'm a father. But am I being a dad? Am I doing everything I need to be doing? Am I present not just physically but emotionally, too? Sometimes I'm disappointed, reviewing the mental checklist. And that's a good thing. It's called the power of being refocused.

My little guy isn't so little anymore. He's 11. I can still make him laugh. The latest: I speak to him in the same accent as The Count had on Sesame Street. ("Seven" is pronounced "seh-win" and "Volvo" is pronounced "Wall-woe.") Basically, I sound like Dracula. He thinks it's hilarious. But I know it won't be long until teenage eyerolls replace those innocent laughs. And I'm not sure how I'll up my game after that.

But the young man at Killingly sure made me think of new and creative ways over the past week. Frankly, he inspired me and scared the hell out of me simultaneously. I can't think of anything more heartbreaking for a kid than to have a parent abandon him or her. I never did tell the kid how much his words meant. And I'd sure like to congratulate the remaining people in his life on the wonderful job they've done. The kid has more guts than many adults I know. He'll be a good dad simply by understanding all the things not to do, illustrated by his own absentee father.

Sports beat all sometimes. Because I doubt the same kid would have offered his thoughts in the middle of a chemistry experiment. There's something mystical about football and its familial tentacles. It encouraged the kid to share his deepest thoughts — perhaps making his teammates one day and everyone else reading this to whom it applies now — better dads. And better people.

There is no manual on parenting. And while there are points to be earned for remaining present, there's also understanding the difference between being a father and a dad. A mother and a mom.

And to think this was reinforced all over again in the middle of 40 sweaty, adolescent boys on some Tuesday afternoon.

Unforgettable.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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