Starkey: Sports, love and dad
BUFFALO, N.Y. — I'm here. He's here. That's enough. I'm sitting in my father's hospital room getting ready to watch the Final Four.
My dad almost died last weekend. It's a miracle he didn't. A Chevy Suburban T-boned his Subaru. He had to be cut from the car.
The call came around 5 p.m. Sunday. Time stopped.
“Dad's been in an accident,” my mother's voicemail said. “He had a fender bender … maybe more than that.”
Mom tends to undersell because she doesn't want anyone to worry. I knew it was bad. Major internal damage. The hazy details were that he'd suffered broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a punctured lung.
I tossed my things in the car and made a silent, haunting drive to Buffalo, dreading what I might see in the Erie County Medical Center intensive-care unit. Fearing the worst. Regretting time not spent.
A woman with a kind face escorted me to my father's room. He was strapped in a bed with what seemed like a dozen tubes coming out of him and an oxygen mask over his face. I never imagined I would see him like that. Even at 81, he is a strong, self-sufficient man. The kind who makes those around him feel secure.
He looked lifeless. I didn't know if he could hear or respond. I whispered into his ear, “Hi, Dad. It's Joe.”
Faintly, he answered, “Hi my man.”
I'll never forget those three words. They meant hope. By the next day, there was more. And do you know what my mind kept drifting to as I watched my father sleep over those few days?
Not the Steelers' latest signing or the Pirates' home opener but my relationship with my dad and how that story cannot be told without sports.
I thought of the time we were on the highway outside of Shea Stadium and rolled up behind a pink Cadillac with a license plate that read, “Say Hey.”
“That's Willie Mays,” my dad said.
I didn't believe him. But sure enough, we pulled up, and it was the Say Hey Kid himself. He waved.
One of the first questions my dad asked upon waking was, “Who won the basketball games?” He was disappointed that John Beilein, who'd cut his coaching teeth in Buffalo, failed to make the Final Four.
My earliest memories of life with John B. Starkey are intricately tied to the baseball and football “catches” that meant so much (the kind you'd wait for all day) and the games he'd take me to. Nothing could match our two pilgrimages to Pittsburgh — one in 1978, one in 1979 — to watch my favorite team of all, the Willie Stargell-led Pirates.
I also remember sitting high atop a near-empty Shea Stadium for Astros-Mets and hearing every J.R. Richard pitch snap the catcher's mitt like a gun shot.
I asked my dad Saturday if he remembered that game. He's still in major pain but not nearly as much as post-game traffic caused him.
“Great spot,” he recalled. “You could look out and see all the bridges. Helluva place to get out of, though.”
So, yes, on one hand sports are silly and meaningless. There aren't many deep conversations to be had there. On the other, they can provide the backbone to a relationship. They offer a canvas on which to express love, particularly for those who don't easily express themselves.
At times like these, nobody knows what to do. I figure the best move is to mimic my father's silent presence from all my childhood sporting events. Just be there.
He never lectured. He never yelled. He simply showed up.
As of Saturday afternoon, he was feeling better but still not out of the woods. He has a bunch of broken ribs. He got to keep his spleen. His lung is healing. My goal, when I left Buffalo on Wednesday morning, was to get back here Saturday to watch the Final Four with my dad.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.