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COACHES SHOW GAME’S IMPORTANCE

by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Although I have forgotten many stories from my youth, there is one I will always remember. It concerned my father. There was a snowstorm. A bad one. The car stalled in the middle of nowhere. I was a newborn infant, in need of food, and so my father left my mother and me in the car, and ran through the snow until he found a small tavern. He pleaded with the unreasonable owner, asking for milk. The owner kept saying no. His wife overheard the conversation, came from the back with a carton of milk, and said, “Take it. For your son.”

My father thanked her, found us, and fed me.

Now. Over the years, I’m sure that tale has been embellished, to the point that the snow was 10 feet high and I would have died without a feeding. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the feeling I got as a kid, and still get, now, at the idea of it. I often told that tale to my friends, to boast about my brave father, but also to remind myself how important I was to him. It made me feel loved.

One day, a child named Scot Williams will tell his own story like that.

After all, it was in all the newspapers.

Scot’s father, David Williams, is a starting offensive linemen for the Houston Oilers. On Saturday, he left the team to be with his wife, Debi, who had gone into labor. She had already endured a miscarriage. This would be their first child. David wanted to be there.

Debi gave birth at 6:25 p.m. Houston time. Sunday’s game — in New England — was 17 1/2 hours away. The flights would have been long and difficult, connections. David needed to leave immediately. He looked at his newborn son, and at his wife, and he made a decision: He was skipping the game. It’s no game, it’s the Big One

He didn’t make excuses. He told his coaches — who actually phoned him

in the delivery room — that he couldn’t leave. Sorry. He’d be back to work on Monday. Many companies would have said fine, congratulations, don’t worry about it.

But football is not any company; it takes itself quite seriously. And even though the Oilers were playing the Patriots, maybe the worst team in the league, nonetheless, the coaches went ballistic.

“He doesn’t make all that money to stay home and watch television,” Oiler line coach Bob Young said. “That’s like if World War II was going on and you said, ‘I can’t go fly. My wife’s having a baby. . . .

“They ought to suspend him a week, maybe two.”

As it turned out, the Oilers simply docked Williams a game’s pay.

Which, in his case, was $110,000.

Williams was stunned, but he held by his decision. “I wouldn’t miss my first child being born for anything in the world,” he said.

He accepted the penalty.

But he shouldn’t have to. But rehab’s on the house

I understand about earning your wages — and getting docked if you don’t. But I also understand the words “extenuating circumstances.” And I understand NFL football, a sport that pays its players if they get screwed up on drugs and take off for rehab, or if they get thrown out of a game for a fighting penalty, or if they nurse an injury an extra week and stay on the sidelines.

How is this so different? It’s not some dangerous precedent — suddenly, players will tell their wives to give birth on Saturday nights, so they can take off the next day.

The Oilers coaches don’t see it that way.

“He let down his teammates, and hundreds of thousands of fans,” said Young. “Shoot, 90 percent of the guys have babies when they’re playing. My wife told me she was having a baby, and I said, ‘Honey, I’ve got to go play a football game.’ ”

Great. I’m sure his kid will love that story.

I’ve met countless men like Young, who think of football as some sort of holy war, and have the audacity to compare it to World War II. (By the way, if the Oilers were defending us in World War II, we’d all be prisoners now.) They act as if there is some special nobility in this violent and ultimately meaningless three-hour performance. It makes me sick. And this is a sportswriter talking.

The Oilers had a chance to take a high road here, to gain public support, and practice something usually alien to pro football: compassion. It wouldn’t have hurt to waive the punishment, or lighten it. (After public pressure, they chose to give the money to charity, but that was a save-face maneuver.)

Meanwhile, only Williams came out looking good. He may miss the money, but he has the memory. And more than that: He has the story, which, one day, he will be able to tell his son.

The Oilers won the game, by the way, so Williams’ absence really didn’t make a difference. But I’m betting, one day, it’ll make a difference to his son.

I’ll bet you $110,000, matter of fact.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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