The following is adapted from BENCHWARMER: A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood by Josh Wilker. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.
Who could ever come before Aaron, Hank? That's what I used to think. Because of his name, he started all encyclopedias, at least the ones I cared about, and because he'd pummeled major league pitching with metronomic constancy for over two decades, he also reigned over the most revered of sports lists: career home runs. From an early age I looked for order and wonder and calm in such lists, especially that list, so his alphabetic primacy felt majestic, a manifestation of divine right. After Aaron, Hank, the progression of players from A through Z was shapeless, good giving way to bad and bad to obscure and back to good or inane or nondescript or anything or nothing. Yet this otherwise indecipherable sprawl of names began, beautifully, with the All-Time Home Run King, Aaron, Hank, and so the world made sense.
Over the years this evidence of a guiding intelligence in the universe survived the disintegration of childhood, the combination-lock loneliness of high school, the panicking digression of college, the flailing and torpor of unemployment, underemployment, employment, the years behind a cash register, the years as a cubicled temp, the years waiting for buses and untangling the wires of headphone buds and memorizing reruns and on hold with the help desk, the graying, the receding, the unstoppable ear hair. Through it all, no matter what, Aaron, Hank, came first. Then, at some point when I wasn't paying attention, David Aardsma slouched toward a major league mound for the first time.
What can you make of David Aardsma? He's never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. Not long after his name started appearing at the bottom of box scores like equivocating textual marginalia—an inning of relief work here, a third of an inning there—the unambiguous order-centering legend he supplanted at the head of the alphabet also had his home run record surpassed, acrimoniously, ingloriously (see asterisk). I was almost forty. I'd never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. My wife was a little younger. We'd been married for a while, and the years were starting to lurch by like ghostly freight cars. We talked sometimes about having a kid. I wanted to get everything sorted first. But the world just kept getting more unsortable. I no longer even knew where to begin.
The Dallas Cowboys had a chance to pull into a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter of Super Bowl XII. Quarterback Roger Staubach fired a strike into the end zone to a wide open reserve tight end named Jackie Smith. Smith, who would one day be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had been a standout for several years in obscurity with the St. Louis Cardinals. Before the season he had been ready to call it a career, but the Cowboys, the reigning NFL champs, had talked him out of retirement. The prospect of finally winning it all lured him back to the field. He did not catch a single pass all season, but then there he was, where everyone who has ever so much as tossed a football back and forth in the yard dreams of being: in the end zone, in the Super Bowl, all alone. Staubach's pass ricocheted off his chest. The Steelers seized on the mistake and rolled to a touchdown on their next drive. The Cowboys rallied late but couldn't recover, and the loss landed on Jackie Smith. He was the guy you never want to be. He was the goat.
The video from the fateful moment shows Smith jerking his body backward in disgust, a quick motion, as if he's being jolted by electricity, but a photograph taken at that instant strips from the intended receiver all traces of animation. It'll come up at the top of the images page if you ever search for Jackie Smith. He's a rigor mortis plank, upended, cleats in the air, shoulders and silver helmet just touching the turf, arms locked to his sides. He looks not as if he has dropped a pass but as if he himself has been dropped. One theory of life is that we were thrown from heaven. We had wings but no more, and now we're falling.
I was eleven at the time of that Super Bowl, and I was a Cowboys fan. It's probably no accident that around that time I started forging a path of avoidance. I never wanted to be responsible for anything. It seemed a horrible thing to be the goat, to be responsible for a team's loss, a sacrificial receptacle for all disappointment and pain. The deeper I got into sports, into life, the more I tended toward the margins, as if sensing that this was my only way of avoiding the destiny of the goat. I wasn't conscious in my pursuance of the margins, but I ended up there anyway, and if there's a reason for this, beyond my limitations as an athlete, it would be that I was terrified of becoming a goat. I hoped to never become anything good or bad.
I stood on the beach holding my son as little waves rolled toward us. Strings of diamonds kept forming and dissolving on the surface of the water. As Jack's blue eyes looked past me to the sky, his eyelids started to droop. When they closed altogether, when the tops and bottoms of his brittle, shining eyelashes meshed, I felt it like a soft fastening click in the center of my chest. The deeper calm of his sleeping body was a weight in my arms that I'd always been missing. In a few minutes I'd start moving toward home so Jack and I could go pick up Abby from her afternoon away from us. Not that long after that, in the great scheme of things, I'd be here, now, retracing those earliest weeks. Here, now, Jack is no longer a baby. Those days are already gone. But I can still feel the small bundle I once held to my chest, the ghost of a touchdown.
I had wings.